AS the New Zealand national anthem started, Briton Nikora wasn’t sure where to look.
Barely three months after his NRL debut, he was wearing the Kiwis No.12 jersey, which had been presented to him in an emotional ceremony the day before by his idol Benji Marshall.
The last time the Kiwis played Tonga, Nikora was yet to crack reserve grade – now he was part of the much anticipated rematch.
With half the NRL season to go, the Sharks back-rower looks likely to be named Rookie of the Year. He’s averaging almost 100 running metres and 28 tackles per game. He’s also crossed for three tries, continuing a strong back-row tradition at Cronulla.
Born and raised in Mt Manganui – two hours south of Auckland – Nikora’s family moved to the Gold Coast when he was nine. It was there he got his first taste of the 13-man code, ending up at famed league nursery Keebra Park High School.
But unlike Marshall he wasn’t a standout, and things “weren’t going anywhere” before Nikora was told about an open trial at the Sharks in 2015. He took the plunge and shelled out for a ticket to Sydney.
Match Highlights: NZ Kiwis v Mate Ma'a Tonga
“I wasn’t getting a crack up there,” says Nikora.
“I was hungry when I came down. I really wanted to get a contract and make something of myself. ”
His 60-minute stint that day earned him a two year development deal, but things soon went south. Nikora was homesick, alone in Australia’s biggest city, struggling with the isolation and frustrated with the standard of footy.
“It was the first time I had been away from my family and I didn’t know many people in Sydney,” he recalls.
“That was the toughest part, along with not playing good footy every week, just local A-grade. I was thinking I could move back home and play better footy.”
He was working two jobs and making a long journey across the city to training. After a few months he’d had enough.
“I’d often go back home for a weekend and try and stay there," he said.
"My mum and my dad helped me out big time. When I was trying to stay home they said, ‘you’ll regret it in the long run if you move back’. They chucked me back on the plane quite a few times. That was the make or break for me.”
Still buzzing from his Test experience, Nikora is aiming for consistency in the crucial second half of the NRL season.
Tackle of the week: Round 15
“I need to work on heaps of things ... shape, line-speed, tackle, wrestle, all the little things you need in the NRL,” he says.
“There’s a long way to go, but Shaun (Johnson) and all the other boys help me a lot. All I need to do is stick to my job and do it the best I can.”
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- Michael Burgess