How Panthers forward Kikau chose NRL over French rugby
Penrith Panthers colossus Viliame Kikau hails from a 22-acre island in Fiji, only to since make his home at the foot of the mountains after knocking back big dollars on offer in French rugby.
Kikau caught the eye of casual league fans with his one-man demolition of local rivals Parramatta Eels in round one, just his 11th NRL game after a couple of years being developed in North Queensland's under 20s system.
He will once again be one of Penrith's biggest threats haunting his left-edge corridor against winless western Sydney rivals Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs on Friday.
But as a 17-year-old inside centre playing for the Fijian schoolboys rugby union side, Kikau turned heads in both codes as he took on an Australian opposition that featured Parramatta prodigy Tepai Moeroa, Wallabies lock Ned Hanigan and his NSW Waratahs teammate Andrew Kellaway.
Kikau's formative years in the 15-man game attracted the attention of cashed up French rugby scouts from the Top 14, who were in attendance at a rare schoolboy league competition in Suva back in 2013.
Also on deck were a Cowboys contingent of then-recruitment manager Adrian Thomson, under 20s coach Aaron Payne and his brother Dean, watching what Kikau revealed was "my very first rugby league competition".
Thomson returned to North Queensland determined to sign the kid who has since grown into a 195 centimetre, 120 kilo frame, yet feared the money on offer from European rugby would prove too good to refuse.
"Vili stood out on an edge like nothing else, he was so impressive with the ball. Like most of the Fijian kids we came across in a couple of visits, rugby union was all they knew," Thomson, now head of football operations at the Townsville Blackhawks, told NRL.com.
"Right before we left French rugby did chase him, a couple of their bigger clubs had scouts there as well and money wasn't an object for them.
"But I had the two Paynes, Dean and Aaron with us, and they knew Aaron's Cowboys career which helped too…
"Rather than the culture shock of a big city, or the big culture shock of going to France, a transition to Townsville was a bit easier which I think his parents saw and the Cowboys deserve a lot of credit for his development.
"Obviously he deserves the most credit though because he's worked hard and is a very humble, very cluey kid."
Kikau points to a rapidly developing love for league that saw him buck the trend in rugby-mad Fiji, and move from his tiny island of Bau, about half an hour's drive and boat trip from the capital Suva.
He landed first in 2014 at a Townsville home stay organised by the Cowboys, then with a massive splash on the NRL radar as he rattled up an astonishing 32 tries in 42 under 20s games, mostly in the front row.
"Being back home it's all rugby union, as a little kid growing up it's everything and it's the number one sport," Kikau told NRL.com.
"I grew up supporting the All Blacks and I still follow them.
"Making that transition was obviously a big move but I'm very comfortable with it now… I went from playing second five-eighth in union to playing prop in league, that took a bit of getting used to.
"In my last year of high school I played league and I was scouted in my very first game that I played.
"…And I was very blessed, it was right place, at the right time and I was scouted. Looking back I think I've taken the right step to move across from rugby, definitely."
The shift from Townsville to Penrith proved just as seismic. Not least because the Cowboys had high hopes for this towering Fijian who represented his country before playing first grade.
But where the move to North Queensland was made with a smooth transition in mind, cracking it in the NRL's big smoke was all about getting the 22-year-old out of his comfort zone.
"It was a big decision to come down to the big city, for me Townsville felt a lot like home," Kikau said.
"The weather's similar, hot, humid, it's pretty laid back.
"So that was a good transition to go from home in Fiji to Townsville first, and then the big decision to come down to Penrith.
"I met with Ivan (ex-Panthers coach Ivan Cleary) when he was here, we had a chat and it was a tough call, but I think it's ended up being the right one.
"I'm very grateful for this career in rugby league. Mum and Dad, they're still back in Fiji and they keep telling me everyone is all watching and supporting back home.
"I want to help grow league in Fiji because it's already giving me so much."