From barefoot teen to NRL’s Next Big Thing
VILIAME Kikau went to school without shoes.
Not every day, but enough of them.
Just as this kid from the tiny Fijian island of Bau - at nine hectares, roughly the size of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay - also learned of the world via radio, climbed among mangroves for fun and never played too hard at recess because who wants to get their one school shirt dirty?
"But I always had footy boots," he says softly.
"Even when my parents struggled to find money for fees, uniforms, even shoes ... every season I had a new pair of boots."
Seated now at a wooden table outside Penrith HQ, Kikau, 22, is talking League Central through an incredible rise that, in a time frame best described as overnight, has resulted in this anonymous islander going from barefoot teen to Next Big Thing in the NRL.
Four years ago, Kikau had never played rugby league. Instead, a young union centre who idolised the All Blacks and trained so hard to mimic them, his prized boots would finish each season busted and bound together by electrical tape.
And so his family would scrape together the cash for another pair.
Just as Kikau's sisters, when little brother was first offered a placement at Marist Brothers High in Suva, immediately set off to lift boxes at a mainland pharmacy to ensure his boarding fees could be paid.
"My dad was in the army but got sick," Kikau says.
"And mum, she was at home raising seven kids.
"So my older sisters started working in their teens. Not for good pay, but they would lift boxes at pharmacies, stuff like that.
"It was the money which helped put me through school."
It was what got him seen, too. Specifically in 2013, when North Queensland recruiter Adrian Thomson took a small Cowboys scouting party to Suva for a schoolboy match.
Before this day, Kikau had never played league. Not once.
And still, 24 hours out from the game, the rising rah-rah found himself sat among a group of Marist schoolboys who listened as Thomson talked up the opportunity to trial for North Queensland.
Then afterwards, Kikau worked through some training drills with Cowboys staffers, including retired hooker Aaron Payne.
"I didn't have much idea," Kikau recalls.
"But next day, yeah, I went OK."
Instead of offering the youngster a second trial in Townsville, as was the usual procedure, Thomson forged a deal right there on that Suva sideline.
"Then they threw me a Cowboys shirt," Kikau says.
"And we took a photo."
Which isn't to say there weren't issues. Like the fact this Fijian newbie weighed just 85kg. And could bench press only 60kg, thanks to a weights program that consisted entirely of
piggybacking teammates up hills.
"Our school, we couldn't afford gym fees," the now 120kg Panther says. "So to strengthen our legs, we ran hills with other players on our backs".
And still, he starred.
Arriving in Townsville for the 2014 NYC season, Kikau was unstoppable over those first two years, scoring 32 tries in 42 games. And at prop.
Which is why, just as quickly, the contract offers rolled in.
Within 18 months of arriving on Australian soil, NRL rivals and French rugby powerhouses were challenged for his signature.
Quizzed on the number of euros tossed at him from France, Kikau shrugs: "I'm not too sure how big the offers were.
"Financially, I leave everything to my manager. He just says 'good money', but doesn't say the amount.
"But I said 'no' straight away. Rugby league is where I want to be.
"Plus, I don't need to be thinking about what else I should be doing. It disturbs my training. That's why I just go with the yes or no straight away."
Importantly for Penrith GM Phil Gould, it has now been "yes" twice.
Gus not only coaxed Kikau from Townsville midway through 2015, he then locked him into a second two-year deal last April.
"Wonderful kid," Gould says of his edge forward.
"He's worked really hard on himself and his game over the last two years, and you're seeing those results now.
"And he'll only get better.
"Having our own NSW Cup team in-house here at Panthers, led by our own NRL coaching team, helped (sign him). It was perfect for his development at the time and a big attraction for him developing into an NRL player."
As for the secret to his doubling down until the end of 2019?
"Love," Gould says.
And don't laugh, for love, undoubtedly, is the heartbeat to this hulking Panthers No. 11.
"Growing up, I never had much," Kikau says.
"No iPads, no phones - no nothing.
"I see young kids walking around Penrith now ... my life was so different. On weekends, we'd go into the bush and climb mangrove trees for fun.
"Or just sit around and chat.
"It's why buying a pair of footy boots, that was a massive thing for my family. We'd be struggling to pay for fees, uniforms. I even went to school without shoes.
"But my parents, they never once made an excuse for not buying me new boots every year."
And to repay that love, Kikau plays.
Like the Bermuda Triangle, equal parts mystery and mayhem.
Ask teammate Reagan Campbell-Gillard, for example, about the Fijian tearaway whose locker is next to his and the prop shrugs: "Doesn't say much.
"I think he's into basketball. He wears a lot of basketball jerseys around. But other than that? Real quiet. At least until you give him a football."
Lock Trent Merrin agrees, adding: "Absolute beast who can create something from nothing.
"We've all known for a while that 'Vili' belongs here. Now he's starting to realise it, too.
"Still, he doesn't say much about himself."
So how does this silent assassin spend his free time?
"Chill," Kikau grins. "I see the other Penrith boys, they go off golfing, go to the beach ... nah.
"My day off, I wake at midway. Have breakfast at one o'clock in the afternoon. Perfect."
Elsewhere, Kikau has a wonderful partner, Brittany, attends church regularly and enjoys challenging teammates online in games like Fortnite and Madden NFL.
Before matches, he prays. Afterwards, he drinks kava.
And every Wednesday, he ensures the same cash payment goes home to Fiji.
"For my parents," Kikau explains. "Every week, I make sure there's money to go out for groceries, bills, some savings, things like that. And Wednesday, that's my day. Never fail.
"Because I know I'll never repay mum and dad, my entire family, for what they've given me ... but I can try."