Marata Niukore admits it was difficult telling Eels coach Brad Arthur that he was leaving at the end of the season but his return to New Zealand for June’s Test against Tonga confirmed the Auckland-born utility had made the right decision.
Niukore describes Arthur as a father figure after he offered the then unwanted 20-year-old a second NRL chance in 2016 and helped him develop into a player of such standing that the Kiwis and Cook Islands both wanted him in their World Cup squads.
However, the ability to see his parents in Auckland on a regular basis if he re-joined the Warriors was too great a lure for Niukore and his partner Nikki Johns, who also left her family in New Zealand when the couple moved to Parramatta.
With two young sons of their own now, Niukore and Johns felt the need to be closer to whānau in Auckland – particularly after COVID travel restrictions had kept them apart for three years.
“We have kept in contact through social media but there is nothing like seeing your family in person,” Niukore said.
“My youngest was about six months the last time we took them back. They are three and four years old now, so they have grown up so much. They were only crawling back then, so my parents were shocked to see how big the kids were.
“It had been a long time since my family, and also my partner’s family, had got to see the kids. A lot has changed since then, but with all the border stuff we obviously couldn’t travel over there and vice-versa so it was just good to go back.”
After helping the Cook Islands to qualify for the World Cup with wins over South Africa and the USA in 2019, Niukore was forced to choose between representing the Pacific nation, for whom he qualifies through his parents, or New Zealand.
His decision to play for the Kiwis not only fulfilled a childhood dream for the Mangere East Hawks junior but also gave him and Nikki a taste of what life will be like when they move home ahead of the 2023 season.
The reaction of Niukore's mother to seeing her son and grand children after so long in a social media post shows the support they can expect.
“Playing back in my home-town and in front of my family, it was pretty emotional,” Niukore said. “That was the first time I had been back since 2019 and it was also the first game back in New Zealand.
“It is crazy what this whole COVID thing has done. It had been three long years and I didn’t really know how much of an impact it would have until that week.
Eels v Rabbitohs
“Me and my partner went to the shops for, like, five minutes and left the kids with my parents.
"It is just something that seems so small, but it is so big for my partner and I to have that family support because we don’t have the luxury to be able to do that in Sydney.
“My parents loved it too, although I don’t think they liked the five minutes - I think they wanted longer - so that it something to look forward to when we move.”
At the Eels, Niukore revealed that Arthur often helps with the babysitting – an example of how much a coach with a reputation for being a “hard-arse” cares for his players.
“That was my thoughts of him when I first met him, I was a bit scared of him at the start but over the last six years we have built a pretty good relationship,” Niukore said.
“Brad has been a father figure for me ever since I got here because me and my partner don’t really have any family here. He has looked after my kids whenever I have needed help and he has always been the first to put his hand up in situations like that.
“Having to leave was obviously difficult, and that was a tough conversation to have with him, but we are now just hoping to finish the season as strong as possible.”
Asked if he aims to repay Arthur by helping the Eels to win the premiership this season, Niukore said: “That’s the goal and that would be a fairytale ending but we haven’t looked too far ahead in terms of finals footy”.
Given the circumstances that led Niukore to Parramatta in 2017, it would be a remarkable story if he was to leave with a premiership ring to return to the Warriors next season.
Told that the Warriors didn’t believe he was ready to make the step from under 20s to the NRL ranks, Niukore attracted little interest from Australian clubs until the final round of the season against the Eels.
“My agent called me at 7am on the day of the game and said Parramatta want to meet you,” he recalled. “We were playing them a couple of hours later so it was a bit weird, but I saw it as an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone.
“If the worst came to the worst, I could just go back home to New Zealand, but I guess things have panned out pretty well for me and I am glad that I took the opportunity when it was there.”