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Centre nervous in new system: Niukore overcomes jitters to shine

Eels forward Marata Niukore will stay in the centres as long as coach Brad Arthur needs him there after his outstanding display in Thursday's impressive 16-12 win over the Storm.

Arthur said he expects Waqa Blake to miss four to six weeks with a calf strain, while Michael Oldfield is still three to four weeks away from returning from his knee complaint.

Young gun Will Penisini was recently promoted to the top 30 but it may be a bit early for the 18-year-old to be thrown into first grade.

Niukore said he knew at the start of the week he would be playing centre, but the extra preparation didn't help calm the nerves.

"I found out on Monday. We got off training and Waqa pulled up with a calf injury and I didn't think too much of it, I thought Will Smith would've covered up then BA gave me the heads up he might be naming me there," Niukore said.

"Pretty much this whole week I was prepared but I was a bit nervous, I knew who I was coming up against. It was a good challenge out there."

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Niukore has migrated from an edge forward role to more of a middle role since debuting for the Eels in 2018 but he played most of his under 20s stint as a centre before being recruited by the Eels from the Warriors, and has filled in at NRL level during games in the past two years.

"I actually played [centre] in 2019 down in Canberra. Fergo [Blake Ferguson] broke his nose then so I had to fill in that position," Niukore said.

"I pretty much played all my 20s in the centres. It wasn't until I came over to Parra in 2016 Brad thought I was more of a second-rower.

"That Raiders game wasn't that comfortable but it was familiar territory for me so when I got the heads up on Monday that I was playing there I knew all I had to do was do my job."

Niukore didn't just play centre and get through the game, he came up with some monstrous hits in defence, including some terrific reads to shut down attacking Storm plays, while racking up 130 metres and six busts with his own vigorous running game.

He credited Ferguson to his outside and Dylan Brown to his inside for helping make the transition seamless.

"I think there's a lot of trust between me and Dylan at the moment and that made my job out there a lot easier," he said.

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"I think having Fergo and Dylan who's a good defender helped me a lot. I think we're lucky we had our main sessions to form those combinations in defence so defence wasn't a problem it was just more what [Justin] Olam was going to bring to the table.

"I knew if I could cut his time off then Fergo trusted in my defence to make those one-on-one tackles."

His preparation for Olam included some video on the Storm's early shifts and a focus on shutting down the hard-running Kumuls representative's time and space.

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"Pretty much all yesterday and today that's all I was thinking about. I knew what he was like as a player and I knew if we went out there and attacked them and gave them no space then it would stop a lot of his opportunities," he said.

"A lot of the video we did through the week we knew they like to shift a lot on the first couple of tackles so all I needed to do was get up and Fergo had the trust in me to make those one-on-ones."

The 24-year-old is prepared to stay at centre until Blake returns. "All I've got to do is what I did tonight for the next couple of weeks."

His starring role out wide was no surprise to his coach.

"He was great. He was unreal," Arthur said. "I knew he would be, I had the confidence in him. I love coaching him. I'm so happy for him personally. Maybe the conditions helped him a bit personally but he was good."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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