Eels giant hand-picked to destroy
HE'S the intimidating Kiwi junior hand-picked by Parramatta coach Brad Arthur as the future of his engine room.
But Marata Niukore said his move to Sydney's west to pursue his dream of an NRL career was one of the toughest things he has had to do in his young life.
With his partner, New Zealand swimmer Nikki Johns, by his side, Niukore packed up his life in Auckland and headed to Parramatta.
"Within weeks [of signing] I was on a plane with my entire life packed away in two suitcases … and I had to withdraw all my cash to try and survive here," he said.
"I had no family at all. Just me and my partner. At the start that was tough … I remember at the airport balling my eyes out knowing I was leaving them.
"It was a bit weird coming over, trying to survive with so little.
"The club put me in a hotel for a few days until they moved me into the clubhouse."
His move across the ditch was a shock to the system, and he soon realised the biggest challenge wasn't impressing Arthur but learning how to survive from day to day.
"Buying my own furniture ... things for the kitchen like plates and all that stuff was just a bit different for me because I was used to my parents doing all that for me,'' Niukore said.
"It was a big learning curve for me, and it helped me grow up.
"I had all this cash and then after all the cash was gone I was like 'man, I just spent my whole life's savings on a couch'."
Arthur was so excited by Niukore's potential that he signed him up in an Auckland hotel at the end of 2016 when the Eels were in town for their clash against the Warriors in round 26.
"My manager called me and said Parramatta are in Auckland and they are pretty keen on signing you," he said.
"If you want to go to the hotel and meet the coaching staff, the offer is there for you.
"I went to the hotel and met Brad and Murph (assistant coach Steve Murphy). They told me their thoughts on me and I couldn't turn down their offer.
"I had the meeting in the morning and by the afternoon I was playing against the team I signed with. It was pretty weird."
Niukore, 21, wasn't always a versatile forward.
He started his rugby league career with the New Zealand under-20s as a centre. But as he grew, so did his frame and his ability to cause maximum damage with his hard ball-running.
Slowly he found himself lining up closer to the middle of the field.
The Mangere East Hawks junior spent last year honing his game in reserve grade, where he averaged 120m a match for Wentworthville Magpies.
But as fate would have it, Arthur named Niukore to make his NRL debut against the Warriors in round 11 last weekend.
An injury crisis in the forwards has handed Niukore an opportunity to prove he belongs at the elite level.
"I knew I was going to get a shot," he said. "Brad has had full faith in me. My focus every week is just to get better.
"When you're a kid you dream of playing in the NRL. I've played one game and I'm hoping that leads to as many games as possible. Hopefully there is more to come."
Arthur has rewarded the aggressive and agile forward with a spot on the bench against Brisbane tonight.
Niukore said Parramatta had to match the enthusiasm that the Broncos' boom forward pack had been playing with in recent weeks.
"Their young kids are playing with heaps of energy,'' he said. "I think they want to cement their spots, especially on the bench.
"Our pack can match them through the middle and when we do that our edges can then worry about scoring the tries."