NRL coaches frequently use scrimmage sessions to put some grit into their team, calling on under-20s to practise their intimidating plays without escalating to a full-fledged game. Shane Flanagan, wanting his Cronulla Sharks team to up the ante on physicality while they dominated as one of the most formidable sides known, brought in the younger cohort to challenge his team.
James Maloney found himself up against a promising New Zealand youngster who caught the eye of many insiders. On one occasion, the young player charged past Maloney, taking both him and senior player Wade Graham by surprise. Graham recalled the event with a laugh, recognising that Briton Nikora, even then, showcased his exceptional line-running skills.
Being a soft-spoken individual, Nikora would never bring up the incident himself. Despite his quieter demeanor, the New Zealand international has become a regular in the NRL and is recognised as one of the competition’s most lethal running threats.
In the NRL, the most outstanding halves often have back-rowers with a unique instinct for finding gaps and exploiting them at critical moments. For instance, if Andrew Johns was Gotham’s protector, Ben Kennedy would be his sidekick Robin. Similarly, Cliff Lyons had Steve Menzies and Jonathan Thurston was closely tied with Gavin Cooper. So begs the question, would Nicho Hynes, current holder of the Dally M Medal, fare without Nikora on his side?
Nikora, at 25, is heralded as the competition’s best line runner by Cooper Cronk. This praise holds weight in a game that revolves around strategic formations, featuring hefty forwards who manoeuvre themselves much like a live game of Tetris.
It’s widely believed that as halfback, Hynes commands the Sharks‘ right edge, giving players Nikora, Jesse Ramien, and Sione Katoa instructions regarding their runs. The NRL teams, unified yet segmented, are trained in small groups based on their field positions.
However, Ramien divulged that Nikora asserts himself, requesting the ball on his terms instead of waiting for Hynes to pass it. Ramien affirmed, “It goes both ways… but Brit gives me comfort and belief.” He expressed unwavering trust in Nikora, even stating there was no other back-rower he’d prefer to partner with on the field.
Nikora, performing exceptionally this year, holds the record for the most tries scored by a forward (eight). Enacting a critical role in the Sharks‘ offence, his performance could be pivotal in their upcoming match against the strong title contenders, the Penrith Panthers.
As is common with players who exceed 100 games, Nikora is cruising through a prime period in his career: playing every game this year and spending an impressively minuscule 24 minutes off-field. Coach Craig Fitzgibbon has benefitted from Nikora’s consistent game-time, as well as his improved mental tenacity.
Nikora’s prowess was exemplified in a record-setting victory against the Dragons last month. The opposition, so worried about Nikora, fell for a play that resulted in Matt Moylan setting Hynes up for an unchallenged score. Drawing attention towards himself before passing the ball to allow others to score is an aspect Nikora claims to enjoy greatly.
Despite his demure nature, the statistics speak for Nikora’s prowess. He has been the leader in running decoy moves for the Sharks this year. With increasing attention on him, the team has found advantages in using him as a diversion.
Fitzgibbon commended Nikora’s contributions to the team, applauding his efforts to support his team members through his aggressive line breaks and commendable work ethic.
This attitude of prioritising the team sees him in good stead, even as Nikora notes, half-jokingly, that his strategic play may one day leave him vulnerable. The club recognises Nikora’s crucial role in revitalising the team. His performance could potentially outstrip his childhood role models; Luke Lewis, Kevin Proctor, and Ben Te’o.
Ramien noted that Nikora’s exceptional line runs would cause teams to shore up against him, but in doing so, will inadvertently create gaps for his fellow Sharks‘ players to exploit.