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-A teary Viliame Kikau has revealed he feared he had blown his chance at winning an NRL premiership after being suspended during the finals as Penrith prepare to unleash their most lethal attacking weapon on Melbourne.
Kikau, who sat nervously in the ANZ Stadium grandstand as Penrith squeezed past South Sydney to reach their first grand final in 17 years, missed the match after being banned for a dangerous throw on Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.
Penrith's Apisai Koroisau has been rated the buy of the year and a worthy opponent at No.9 for Melbourne's Cam Smith in the NRL grand final.
But the Fijian enforcer will play his first game in three weeks in the grand final with Ivan Cleary to parachute the 25-year-old straight back into Penrith's starting side.
Kikau said his emotions boiled over as he drove home from the judiciary knowing the fate of his season was resting with his teammates.
"I walked out that night [from the judiciary] and driving home I was that sad I was going to cry in the car," Kikau said. "It was tough knowing every game we were going to play was going to be do or die.
"It came to the next day and the boys surprised me. They picked me up and were full of energy, saying 'we're going to get you this win and you'll be back the next week'. That changed my mindset a bit.
"I had a chat with the coaches as well and they said, 'this is the most important time we need you to help the team out with preparation'. That's all I wanted to do from there. For them to get that win was big."
Kikau is poised for a mouth-watering match-up against Melbourne's Felise Kaufusi, who has been a mainstay of the Queensland State of Origin squad for the past two years. Wayne Bennett is expected to include him for this year's series as well.
Kikau will have no representative rugby league to concern him at the end of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was relieved he has another chance to play again in 2020.
"I was all over the place throughout the game," Kikau said. "I was up, down ... it was crazy.
"When [Adam] Reynolds did the kick and the game was over all the boys next to me were shouting and I was just standing still looking at the referee waiting for him to blow the whistle. I didn't know if the game had finished or not.
"When he blew the whistle it was the most relieved I've ever been. It was an unbelievable feeling."
Kikau could be one of 14 Panthers making their first grand final appearance with captain James Tamou, hooker Api Koroisau and bench forward Zane Tetevano having played in deciders with other clubs.
Storm captain Cameron Smith, conversely, will feature in his eighth grand final.
"Something that has stuck with me is our assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo came to me and said, 'this is a great opportunity'," Penrith centre Stephen Crichton said.
"A grand final in my first year ... I'm so grateful to be a part of this team and do all the hard training with the boys. It's good to see it paying off. I don't want to waste this opportunity as it won't be the same next year with a few boys leaving. Our assistant coach Trent Barrett is leaving.
"I really want to take this opportunity with both hands.".
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