'I owe it to them': how Wes repaid Knights

Happy where he is ... Wes Naiqama (centre) with Knights teammates at a training session this week. Naiqama has signed to stay on at the Knights for a further three years.
Happy where he is ... Wes Naiqama (centre) with Knights teammates at a training session this week. Naiqama has signed to stay on at the Knights for a further three years.

IT WAS never about the money for Wes Naiqama.

Nor was it about picking one team over another because it might increase his chances of winning an NRL premiership before he retires. When it came down to choosing between where he is now or returning to where he began, Naiqama chose the Knights over the Dragons because Newcastle has become home.

The 28-year-old utility back wanted to stay loyal, and repay the faith the Knights showed him four years ago when he was unwanted, bordering on untouchable.

Midway through 2007, when he was recovering from a knee reconstruction, and serving four months of twice-a-week periodic detention for a fourth conviction of driving while disqualified, Naiqama was damaged goods and the Dragons were happy to let him go.

Brian Smith, Newcastle's coach at the time, threw him a lifeline and Naiqama arrived at the Knights in November of that year to rebuild his career. And his life.

His perseverance and patience paid off on Wednesday when he signed a new three-year contract to stay at the Knights, knocking back a similar offer from the Dragons, where he kicked off in 2005 after climbing through the ranks at Arncliffe Scots and St George's junior rep teams.

The chance to play under incoming coach Wayne Bennett while still learning from current Knights mentor Rick Stone, who will remain as Bennett's assistant, was another drawcard.

In the best form of his 104-game NRL career, the Fijian Test captain gets the chance to show the Dragons what they have missed out on when he leads the surging Knights against them at WIN Stadium tomorrow.

''I owe it to the club,'' Naiqama told the Herald yesterday. ''Four years ago they picked me up at a time when I was coming off a knee reco and no other club was interested. Stoney had a talk to me about that … and I owe something back to the club for the faith they showed in me.

''At the end of the day, that was the thing that kept me here. They showed a bit of faith in me four years ago and I'm showing some faith back to them for what they did for me, so it's all sorted out now and I'm happy to concentrate on the rest of the season.''

Though he had not spoken directly to Bennett, Naiqama was heartened to hear the seven-time premiership-winning Dragons and former Broncos coach wanted him on the Newcastle roster.

He was also pleased his younger brother, Kevin, had signed a one-year contract extension.

''Wayne's record speaks for itself, and the opportunity to stay here and play under him - I've seen what he's done with other players from other clubs - so I'm really excited that he wanted me at the club. That was a big thing for me,'' he said.

''At the start of the year I didn't know where I was going with Wayne coming in, so it was a slow process, but it was great that Wayne showed confidence in me and wanted me.

''But all that's next year and all my focus is on the rest of this year and what we can do.''

Like most observers, Naiqama believes the arrival of Bennett and Churchill Medal-winning fullback Darius Boyd, and possibly a few other Dragons, will increase Newcastle's chances of winning a premiership in the next three years. But he disagrees with any suggestion the Dragons, who have dominated the NRL for the past three seasons, will no longer be a title threat.

''If I was going to go to the Dragons … they've been the top team for the last couple of years so they're still going to be a chance of winning grand finals too,'' he said.

''It just came down to this is where I'm comfortable, this is where I've lived the last four years and this is where I'm happy. I never really wanted to leave. This is where I've settled with my brother and all the boys, and I'm playing my best football … I didn't want to go away from that.

''I've got a lot of faith in the players and the coaches for the next couple of years. It's great to be a part of that.''