Less than a year ago, Kevin Naiqama looked destined for anything but a fairytale ending to his St Helens career. With his wife about to give birth to their first child, the Fijian centre was told that due to Covid restrictions he would not be allowed into the hospital to be by her side.
His best alternative was to watch on via FaceTime from the hospital car park, providing what support and encouragement he could to partner Lily from a distance as she delivered their daughter Maia. It was a heart-wrenching experience that the Australian-born star says he is still processing.
But the Naiqama family’s three-year spell in the UK has reached the happiest of endings after Kevin’s two-try heroics in Saturday’s Betfred Super League Grand Final win over Catalans Dragons. He is now set to return Down Under to retire and spend time with his family, but Saints coach Kristian Woolf is just so pleased that the Man of the Match was still around to make rugby league’s biggest occasion.
“I couldn’t be prouder of Kev,” Woolf told reporters after Saturday’s 12-10 victory. “You talk about tough years, and tough circumstances and things like that, but with what him and his wife have been through at the start of the year I really thought at different times that he was going to come and knock on my door and say he was going home straight away.
“It’s a real example of the man he is, and a great example of Lily, his wife, in terms of how supportive she is as well that they’re still here. Obviously, it’s worked out well for him.”
Naiqama himself has praised the club for their immense response when he was left facing the reality of not being there for one of the biggest moments of anybody’s life.
“It’s been tough, and I’d like to thank Woolfie. Not only is he a good coach, but he cares about the welfare and the well-being of the players,” he explained. “There’s stuff that happened that we didn’t talk about so the media and the fans didn’t know but he really checked in with me and made sure that I was ok.
“We also had help from the club with our club chaplain and a counsellor that the club provided. Without going into too much detail, they sort of walked with us through that season. Experiencing your daughter’s birth from the car park, getting turned away and told you can’t experience it, is still something that’s really hard for me to process. It’s something that I was really looking forward to, being the first face that she sees in this world, and at the end of that I’ve had a great support network that the club has provided.
“That’s why I love this club and what they’ve done for me. They’ve really stood in that gap for us. It’s been a really tough two years, not just for us but for everyone involved in this country and this team. Me and my wife are really excited to go home and be with family because we haven’t seen them for two years. I’m very family-oriented and not seeing my parents or my brothers and sisters has really been tough.”
While Naiqama says that any offer from a club closer to home might pique his interest enough to at least have a conversation with his wife, it looks like the end of a fantastic career which has seen the Fiji captain make over 100 NRL appearances and win three consecutive Super League titles in his three years with St Helens.
“I think it’s retirement. If I was going to play I would have loved to have extended my time here, but just with Covid and other factors that have happened outside of football with my wife and my family, it’s led to this decision to go back home,” he added. “It’s something that we were sitting on for a couple of months and a decision that wasn’t made lightly, but for me the next step is going back home and focusing on the next chapter in life for me and my family.
“It wasn’t an easy decision because I’ve enjoyed my time here at St Helens. This group of players and the coaching staff have been amazing, not only on the field but off the field as well, they’ve been a great support network for me and my wife and it’s something that we’re grateful for. That decision wasn’t made lightly but I’m definitely going to miss this team, the coaching staff, the players, the fans, just the whole three years we’ve really enjoyed our stay here and I can’t speak more highly of the club and what they’ve done for us.
“I think they’ve done more for me than I’ve done for them. They’ve given me so much joy and really instilled the love for the game again. I really enjoyed my football again and the culture they have here as well, I think that’s a big plus for me. I just think it’s definitely the right time for me and my wife and baby to go home.”
When he set off for the UK three years ago, Naiqama was in tears. Having never lived away from his family, the move to St Helens was a monumental step. But he returns home as a three-time Super League champion, a Harry Sunderland Award winner and father to the most precious of baby daughters.
As the man himself said, “you couldn’t write a better fairytale ending.”