Wiki's 11 years of wicked skills rewarded with place in history

The Kiwi prop talks to Dave Hadfield about the amazing career that will make him rugby league's most-capped player at Loftus Road tomorrow
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The Independent Online

The Kiwi captain is currently bracketed with his fellow-countryman, Gary Freeman, and two Britons. Mick Sullivan and Garry Schofield, on 46 international appearances, having already left Australia's Mal Meninga - his original centre partner at Canberra at the start of his long career - behind on 45.

Wiki will be in New Zealand's front-row for his 47th in the opening match of the European section of the Tri-Nations and it will all seem a very long way from his debut in 1994 against Papua New Guinea in Goroka.

"I was playing centre then. I was very young and very skinny," he says, admitting that neither description would fit now. "I remember enjoying the occasion and that first experience of putting the Kiwi jersey on.

"I didn't have any suspicion that it would go on for as long as this, but things work in a mysterious way."

Wiki has made a remarkable transition from destructive centre, through the pack to his final resting place at prop.

"I've nowhere else to go," he says, although even tomorrow's milestone has not brought any thoughts of international retirement. "I'm still really enjoying it and if they keep picking me I'll keep turning up."

One reason for that continuing appetite for the Test arena is the particular atmosphere that surrounds the Kiwi squad - something strongly encouraged by the new national coach, Brian McClennan.

"Every time we go into camp, it's like being back with your family. Brian has helped with that. He's a very passionate man, from a great rugby league family. His dad, Mike, is a great rugby league character and he has passed that on to his son. He just loves the game."

Kiwi bonding extends to post-match sessions with a few shells of kava, the Polynesian spirit with the worrying side-effect of making the lips numb.

Wiki does not drink during the season, but makes an exception for this Kiwi ritual. "It's a sort of healing process and it's a case of whatever works for us," he says.

The coaching of McClennan and the captaincy of Wiki has proved a potent combination so far, with one win over Australia and one highly creditable near-miss in the two opening matches of the Tri-Nations. There were times in both matches when the mighty Australians looked more rattled than in living memory as the black and white hordes ripped into them.

The down side of the explosive, emotional way the current crop of Kiwis play is that it can be desperately difficult to sustain for a full 80 minutes. In both matches in the southern hemisphere, there has been a flat period during which New Zealand have been heavily punished.

"We're looking for ways of improving what we do when we've got a half-time lead. If you switch off, then tries can come in floods," Wiki says. "We can't do that against Great Britain. Apart from having some great players, they will have the support behind them in London and they will punish us. We play with a lot of passion and we need to maintain that, but we've got to make sure we switch on."

Wiki, who is now back playing his rugby in his homeland with the New Zealand Warriors after 12 years as an exile in Canberra, is well aware of his historic role in the weekend's proceedings, much as he may try to play it down.

"I'm looking forward to playing my 47th international, but I feel that way every time I put the black and white jersey on.

"It's always special for me, but people keep reminding me of this milestone. When I think of players like Gary Freeman, Garry Schofield and Mal Meninga, it is a great honour."

It was not what he had in mind in the highlands of Papua New Guinea 11 years ago, but it is something from which he will draw strength at Loftus Road.

"It will feel special walking out there, but everything else is the same. I want to do well for my family and I want to do my country proud."