A 12 month wait for a promised phone call after Todd Payten left the Warriors to take charge of the Cowboys was the catalyst for Peta Hiku becoming one of the most influential signings of the season.
Hiku had spent two seasons with Payten at the Warriors and wasn’t sure of his long-term future, so he approached the North Queensland-bound mentor about a move to Townsville.
Having noted how David Fusitu’a and Ken Maumalo were prolific tryscorers when Hiku played inside them, Payten was a fan and told the Kiwis centre he would contact him when he came off contract last year.
It was a phone call that proved more than worthwhile as Hiku leads the NRL for carries with the ball and has played a key role in lifting the Cowboys from 15th place to a grand final if they beat Parramatta on Friday night at QCB Stadium.
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Yet there were concerns for both of them, with Hiku spending much of last season on the sidelines after undergoing a shoulder reconstruction and the Cowboys finishing second last in Payten’s first year in charge.
“When Toddy left the Warriors I spoke to him and he said he would get back to me in 12 months so we sort of left it,” Hiku said. “I carried on doing what I was doing and just put my focus on the Warriors.
“When I got injured, I was a bit worried about where I was going to end up but Toddy got in contact with me and let me know his thoughts.
“Obviously signing an injured player isn’t the best thing for a club and he just asked me some honest questions.
“I told him that it wasn’t an ongoing injury and that I could come back stronger. For him to put his belief in me with that made me want to repay him.”
The 29-year-old has had 435 carries of the ball this season, which is third behind Penrith’s Dylan Edwards (492) and Sydney Roosters captain James Tedesco (473) but, as fullbacks, their runs include kick returns.
Hiku ran 314 metres in 28 carries during North Queensland’s epic 32-30 qualifying final defeat of Cronulla two weeks ago and made a crucial captain’s challenge in extra time that may have saved the game.
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“I wouldn’t say this season is the best I have played but there isn’t much between my best to my worst and I think that is what surprised me a lot,” Hiku said.
“The younger me wasn’t the best preparation-type of bloke. In the past, I could be good one week or train the house down one day, but the next day I’d just fall off. I think that has helped the way I have performed this year.”
Payten was aware of Hiku’s training foibles but believed that at his best he could be an asset to the Cowboys.
“I got to know Pet, his wife and two boys pretty well being in the bubble on the Central Coast and I knew they would enjoy the lifestyle in Townsville so I just said I would be interested in having a chat when the time was right,” he said.
“Pet is one of those guys who is able to make the players around him better. He is a real competitor.
“In 2018, the year before I joined the Warriors, Pet played right centre and David Fusitu’a [22 tries] was the NRL’s leading tryscorer.
“The following year he moved from right to left and Ken Maumalo [17 tries] became the leading tryscorer [for the Warriors]. He has been in some good systems and he understands the game.”
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After making his NRL debut at Manly in 2013, Hiku has played 178 matches for the Sea Eagles, Panthers, Warriors and Cowboys, as well as a stint with Warrington in 2017 and 12 Tests for New Zealand.
With the Cowboys boasting a young but talented squad, Payten believed Hiku’s experience would benefit the likes of Tom Dearden and Jeremiah Nanai, who have enjoyed break-out seasons playing alongside him.
“Toddy knows I understand the game a fair bit and that is just what he wanted me to help our younger boys with,” Hiku said.
“When you are young you think of highlights, you don’t think of the little things in the game, and I think that is where we just had to put a focus on how much a carry in our 10 metres means to our team, how good it is.
“That responsibility has helped with the way I have played because I feel like I have a bigger role. I am not just here to do my part, I am here to help other people as well. When the people around me play good, I play good.”