St Helens’ Fijian centre Kevin Naiqama has enjoyed three astonishing seasons with St Helens since joining the club in 2019, but today he will play his last match in the Red Vee before heading home permanently to Australia to be reunited with his family.
Naiqama has been part of the Saints team that won the Grand Final in 2019 and 2020, as well as the Challenge Cup this season. And if they win today it will be the first time in the club’s history that it will have won the Championship in three successive seasons, with many pundits expecting St Helens’ previous success to be vital in determining the outcome of today’s game.
“Everyone is really excited to be making our third successive Grand Final, but everything is normal in training,” says Naiqama.
“But that prior experience does give you an advantage and a calmness in preparing for the game.”
Naiqama admits, however, that he is still conscious of what happened last time St Helens met the Catalans, at the Magic Weekend, when the Dragons turned a 30-12 deficit with five minutes remaining into a 31-30 golden-point victory.
“We are still pinching ourselves that we let that game go,” he admits.
“We took a big lesson from it. Even though we dominated for most of that game, they still beat us and they have beaten us twice this season.
“But we have a special group of players and coaching staff. I can’t speak more highly of them and I am really proud to be part of this team.”
Last year St Helens won the Grand Final by beating Wigan in an empty stadium in Hull. Naiqama admits to a sense of relief that the fans will be back today as he reflects on his three seasons at the club.
“Crowds are a big part of doing what we do as Rugby League players. You look forward to the chanting and you get energy from the crowds.
“Being at Saints has exceeded my expectations. I knew what their history is about. But if you’d told me what I would have experienced here I would have found it hard to believe. But after being on that journey with the team, the depth of what we’ve achieved won’t really resonate with me until I’m past this point.
“When I reflect on my time here it’s been nothing short of amazing. I can’t speak more highly of my time here at St Helens, how everything is done within the club, the backroom staff as well, how organised everything is.
“Obviously they get the best out of us, our strength and conditioning coach Matty Daniels, our physio team and our coaching staff. It’s first class all year round.
“For me it’s the best team I’ve been part of in my playing career when I look back on it.
“The foundation was probably laid when Justin Holbrook was here, and Kristian Woolf came in and added value. This group of players has performed amazingly and consistently every week.”
Despite all that, Naiqama is clear about his priorities.
“I’ve decided to put my wife and daughter first. My family always comes before my football,” he says.
“If I had been able to see my family (in Australia) during the Covid lockdown I would probably have extended my time at Saints. I’m looking forward to playing one last game for St Helens and then my family comes first.
“The club counsellor, Dave Kirk, the coaching staff and playing staff have all been so supportive as well as the church we attend.
“Leaving St Helens will be emotional, but, having said that, we still have a job to do.
“The club is in a good place, not just with the recruits who will be arriving next year, but with the current players and coaching staff.
“They are only going to get better next year with the new guys coming in.
“We still have to get the hard work done and get a win, but three in a row would be very special.
“I detach myself from the external stuff that comes with the build-up to the game. My preparation is very narrowly focused, getting myself ready for the game.
“If it wasn’t for Covid last year I would have happily stayed on. It has led to me going home early, but we have a special group of boys here and I’ll cherish the memory forever.”