Haka behind bars: The rise of Raiders' diamond in the rough

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad will never forget the look on his mum's face.

He can't describe it. But he'll never forget it.

Nicoll-Klokstad hung on to it for the next two years as Christmases, birthdays, trials and triumphs passed by with him in Melbourne. And Mum in prison.

"I remember we did a haka for her," Nicoll-Klokstad remembers of that painful afternoon in early December, 2010.

"Mum started off in the orange overalls and all that, that was the first few visits when we saw her.

"You can imagine how tough that was as kids right? Walking into a serious prison thinking 'what the heck is this place?'

"I was 14 maybe during those visits, it was crazy.

"But she did her time there and then she moved into a self-contained, look-after-yourself set-up. You're still in a bloody jail but it was minimum security where you were only locked up at certain times.

"So it was more an open area with a shade cloth, a BBQ table and we just did a haka for her, me and my brothers, just to let her know she was with us the entire time.

"It was so tough for her man. That last day we went to go see her, it was just ... her face ... that was heartbreaking.

"We did the haka. And I didn't see her for two years after that."

'You just hope a kid like that makes it'

Nicoll-Klokstad's rise in his first year as a Raider has been meteoric.

The decade-long journey preceding it, anything but.

Monica Klokstad was sentenced to eight years jail time in October 2009 for her role in a New Zealand drug ring.

"My uncle was in a bad crowd and when he passed away, someone got in contact and she just sort of took over whatever he was involved in," Charnze says, having never delved too deep into the subject with his parents.

Within a year of Monica going to prison, Klokstad's older brother Tyson succumbed to muscular dystrophy – a debilitating condition that had been attacking his body for most of his 19 years.

The brother who had watched Charnze's junior footy games and Warriors outings from his wheelchair passed away in his sleep.

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad makes his NRL debut for the Warriors.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad makes his NRL debut for the Warriors. ©Shane Wenzlick/NRL Photos

His old man Perry needed help as he raised a crop of growing Klokstads, and they all needed a fresh start.

So older brother Deon booked the family one-way tickets to Melbourne.

Soon enough, Charnze was in the famous purple of Australian sport's most professional sporting club.

"To be brutally honest, he was a solid contributor, but by no means a standout and didn't really feature in our retention conversations," Storm football manager Frank Ponissi recalls.

"But you wanted to see him go further just because of the type of kid he was. He would always say hello, have a smile on his face.

"It was the character of Charnze that kept us interested as much as anything, you just hope a kid like that makes it."

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad does the haka for the Cook Islands in 2015.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad does the haka for the Cook Islands in 2015. ©NRL Photos

Still just 17, Nicoll-Klokstad stayed on in Melbourne to keep training while his family went home for Christmases and birthdays.

"Oh man, I've lost count of those days where you want to just call it and say 'nah, that'll do'," he grins.

"Those were just some of the sacrifices I had to make back then, I was really committed to what I was doing in Melbourne.

"I first saw Mum after two years when we had a family funeral and she was allowed out for that."

Well aware of the irony, Ponissi recalls a 2015 under-20s game when Nicoll-Klokstad suddenly forced the Storm's hand.

"It was against the Raiders in Canberra, and he was playing at five-eighth," Ponissi says.

"We stopped and the conversation was 'this bloke's better than we think he is'.

"I called (Storm recruitment scout) Paul Bunn that night and said to Bunny, 'we need to keep this kid and find a way, find a position to keep him'."

Warrior on the Monday, Raider by Tuesday

Nicoll-Klokstad reckons he "managed to go all right" in his final game with Melbourne's under-20s.

He scored five tries against Brisbane to land the Warriors deal that took him back across the ditch, reuniting with Monica – released after four years in prison in 2013 – and the rest of his family.

A cherished NRL debut came in 2017, only for the jersey to be stolen and later returned, along with seven more games of first grade that year.

But not long after signing a new two-year Warriors deal, the club told him that with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, David Fusitu'a and Ken Maumalo blocking his path to first grade pathway, he was free to go elsewhere.

2018 passed by with no NRL for Nicoll-Klokstad, and no tangible rival interest either.

"I went into [2019] pre-season and I was still trying to find a club," Nicoll-Klokstad says.

"But it got to the stage where, how crazy is this, on the Monday I said to my partner - 'let's stay here, don't worry about looking for any more clubs. I'll train and play as hard as I can and see what I can get'.

"Next day, very next day, (Raiders assistant coach) Andrew McFadden gives me a call.

I first saw Mum after two years when we had a family funeral and she was allowed out for that.

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad

"Tuesday I was going down into camp with the Warriors in Rotorua.

"There was in and out conversations with Cappy and my manager.

"The next Monday the release was sorted, I said my goodbyes to the boys and knew I was going to Canberra by Tuesday.

"I signed on the Thursday, flew out Friday morning and by Saturday morning I was into training."

A Family Affair

Canberra CEO Don Furner still remembers the first impression Nicoll-Klokstad made at Raiders HQ.

Tuivasa-Sheck had sought him out and told him to expect nothing less at this year's NRL season launch at Bondi Icebergs.

"Roger came and talked him up to me that night, even though we’d never met," Furner says.

"He couldn't give him a big enough rap as a person and a clubman before a ball was kicked.

"Then as soon as he got to the club Charnze was walking through the marketing area, shaking everyone's hand and saying hello, looking everybody in the eye and he continues to do that.

"It wasn't put on and that's that good club person that Roger talked about."

Nicoll-Klokstad's rise at the Raiders has gone beyond what anyone could have expected when he first strolled into the place.

Ricky Stuart's overwhelming urge is to keep his feet on the ground accordingly.

"And he will stay grounded," Stuart says.

"Because that's the personality he is."

Nicoll-Klokstad's partner Sarah and young sons Rio and Kyrie have made sure of that from the moment Canberra's season kicked off.

"We played round one up at the Gold Coast, he was straight into first grade," Furner says.

"Then when we flew back, his wife and two little ones had flown from NZ to the Gold Coast and they joined the team on the flight back to Canberra. That was them moving to Australia."

"He's very much a family man," Stuart adds.

"I just know that he sees himself as the driver and the leader of the family. He's the role model and he's doing everything he can to look after them and care for them.

"It's really important that Charnze just keeps his head down and keeps his feet on the ground.

"It's important that he does because you see so many young blokes have a cracking first grade debut season and you never see them again.

"But his family, that's what driving him through all of it."

Make or break to breaking bread

Counting down to Friday's historic grand final qualifier against South Sydney, Nicoll-Klokstad still struggles to comprehend exactly how quickly things have fallen his way.

It could've all fallen apart a thousand times over.

Instead Monica and Perry will both be in the record 27,000-plus crowd at GIO Stadium, their first visit to their son's new home.

"Mum's doing well now, she's ticking off a few courses and those sort of things, while looking after my brother's kids, she's pretty special," Nicoll-Klokstad says.

"But you ask how do all these things affect us?

"It's still a little bit hard. Those sort of experiences, they can make or break families.

"For us, we're still trying to get on to the other side where we can look back, we're still on that journey.

"Knowing that those things played a big part in getting us where we are today."

Nicoll-Klokstad's recent three-year extension gives him security he could until now only dream of, and a significant upgrade on his original $130,000 Raiders deal.

Furner points out that the 24-year-old is one of only three players Canberra have signed through until the end of 2023.

"Unfortunately our game loses some guys around that age," he says.

"If you've been at a couple of clubs and haven't cemented a spot, it can be hard.

"All of a sudden you've got kids, you're 23 and the bills are adding up but you're not earning enough from footy, a lot of good talent goes by the wayside that way."

And so, Nicoll-Klokstad brings it back in tight.

Back to that haka behind bars. Brother Tyson and others passed on.

The years spent apart and sacrifices made, with an eye to where they've taken him and his kin.

"That older generation I think, probably my dad more than anything, they don't want to get too emotional about anything," Nicoll-Klokstad says.

"But I think at the end of the season maybe, it'd be good though to sit down, have a dinner and really celebrate life in itself.

"Not to look at the journey we've been on as a negative, but the positives we've made out of it."