Viliame Kikau’s ascent from shy teenager to NRL superstar could not have happened without the love and support of one Townsville family.
Panthers forward Viliame Kikau has credited the “beautiful family” he stayed with in Townsville for two years for setting him on his path to stardom after arriving in Australia from Fiji as a shy teenager with a sketchy grasp of the English language.
Ahead of Sunday’s grand final against the Rabbitohs, the 26-year-old looked back at his time with Cheree Egan, her daughters Tenille and Courtney, and son Leigh as a transformative time in his life.
“To this day, I am very grateful to the Cowboys for putting me with Cheree and her beautiful family,” Kikau said.
“If they were here with me now, I would give them a massive hug. We message each other nearly every day and they always care for me and ask after me.
“They are all a part of my journey now and set me on the path to where I am today. I wouldn’t be here without them.
“I came over in November of 2013 from Fiji and I’d never been overseas away from my family before and it was hard for me to even speak English, but they took me in and cared for me.”
Cheree Egan said she was “so proud” of the change in Kikau over the last eight years.
“When all the photos started flowing through from the Dally M Awards of how beautiful Viliame and (partner) Brittany looked, and that he was in the team of the year, my heart just burst,” Cheree said.
“I thought, ‘Wow, you have come so far and really are an amazing person.’ It hasn’t come easy for him.”
Cheree knows better than anyone just how tough Kikau’s initial time was in Townsville.
“He had come straight into a family with totally different traditions and culture, and didn’t know where he fitted,” Cheree recalled.
“There were tears from me nearly every day for a month because I thought I was failing him.
“I spoke to the welfare officer at the Cowboys, Kev Marty, and asked how I could make him feel comfortable, because he wasn’t joining us for meals and was reluctant to come out of his room.
“Kev said to tackle it straight on, so I said to Viliame that we are his family now and joining us at the meal table was part of that.”
Cheree’s words of wisdom transformed the situation and Kikau started to open up.
“It wasn’t long before we learned this big, reserved bloke was quite a character,” she said.
“Viliame has that nature about him where people embrace him.”
After two years with the Cowboys’ under 20s, Kikau joined the Panthers in 2016 and has gone from strength to strength.
Through it all, he has never forgotten the Egans.
Cheree gets regular texts now from Kikau to the family that say “love youse” and “miss youse”.
“They are part of my family now,” Kikau said.
“I get in touch with them every time I go back to Townsville. When we played there in the finals I got them all tickets and it was really special to see them again.”
Cheree said that gesture just summed up her adopted son.
“When he came to Townsville to play (against Souths) he got us the most amazing seats and I got to stand at the tunnel and was able to talk to him briefly,” she said.
“He wants us to stay with him in Penrith as soon as we can at his new house.
“I am absolutely proud of who he has become and how he has the confidence to embrace everything before him.”
For Cheree’s son, Leigh, who Kikau is very close to, it was a special occasion in more ways than one.
“I was like a school kid watching Viliame, and even better, he got to see my son Jagger for the first time. He is another brother to me and like a son to mum,” Leigh said.
“She absolutely adores him because he is just a very special individual.
“He gives me goose bumps. From the shy kid we first knew, to get where he is now is just unbelievable. I pinch myself some days when I see how well he is going.”
Kikau has to pinch himself, too.
“When I first went to the Cowboys, I was just muddling my way through and learning the game after playing rugby in Fiji,” Kikau recalled.
“(Cowboys game development officer) Gavin Lloyd would take us in a room with a whiteboard and show me the plays, but I was really confused.
“It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I am just so glad that I hung in there.
“Here I am in my second grand final with the Panthers, and I can’t wait. I just want to bring impact. When the boys are gassed, I want to be the one to rally the team.”
The Egans will be rallying around Kikau in style.
“We have got the day sorted,” Leigh said.
“We are having ribs and then putting on our Panthers gear to watch the footy at my house. We’ll all be cheering Viliame on.”.