Rugby-mad Papua New Guinea has a new hero, Melbourne Storm player Justin Olam, who earned a spot in the history books by becoming just the fourth Papua New Guinean to be part of a winning NRL grand final team.
He is the kid from a remote village, growing up playing with a soft drink bottle filled with sand. The 26-year-old has been a true role model, providing inspiration not only in sports but with a degree in applied physics.
The game had been described as the “Penrith Panthers versus PNG” because of the support Olam had received from his family and fans back home.
Crammed together around television screens to watch Olam make his grand final debut, his fans in Port Moresby let out loud cheers with every breakaway and tackle. They couldn’t have been more proud of how far Olam had come.
“As the second Papua New Guinean to make it on the big stage [for the Melbourne Storm], it was a truly big blessing for every Papua New Guinean,” fan Martin Harry said.
“Watching him, knowing that a Papua New Guinean played in the NRL, and now won a premiership, I’m so happy, I’m so proud. This is an achievement for every Papua New Guinean,” another fan, Trisha Bai, said.
In his family’s home, Gon village, in PNG’s remote highlands, his parents Mark and Evelyn Olam said they were extremely proud of their son and grateful for the opportunities he had been given.
The village held a feast to celebrate the Melbourne Storm making it into the grand final.
Olam, who comes from a family of strong religious beliefs, prayed with his parents over the phone on grand final day.
They have not seen each other since they visited Australia a year ago.
“Young girls and boys around the area were wearing Storm jerseys, T-shirts, caps. The whole country, the province, were backing the Storm. People were painting their faces,” Mark Olam said.
Olam knew from a young age he was going to be a rugby player, his mum said.
She used to find him filling 500ml coke bottles with sand and passing it around with his two brothers like it was a rugby ball.
‘Solid and inspirational’
Olam is the second Papua New Guinean player to play in the NRL without having played in the Australian junior rugby league, after Marcus Bai did so in the 1990s, also with the Melbourne Storm.
NRL Pacific coordinator Mark Mom said Olam’s performance was “solid and inspirational”.
“He’s grown into an exceptional footballer and we’re just really pleased in his performance and happy for him that he can celebrate a milestone both personally and for the team,” he said.
It was Olam’s hard tackles and dedication to the game that first caught the eye of coach Michael Marum, who selected Olam for the PNG Hunters side in 2016, which was playing in the Queensland Cup.
“We brought him into camp straight away, with his attitude to training, his willingness to work really hard at training, he was aggressive, he wasn’t scared of the big boys at the time,” he said.
“He wasn’t scared at all of anyone and he always put his body on the line every time we had training,” Marum said.
Marum said it was not just what Olam had achieved on the rugby field that made him a role model to his legion of PNG fans.
“Justin is a role model because he balances everything right and he’s got the respect … when he puts on the jersey, he’s proud of where he comes from, and that’s one thing that gets everyone behind him,” he said.
Year after year, rugby league pundits are prepared to put a line through Melbourne and, year after year, they are made to look foolish by the ever regenerating Storm side.
Players the class of Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, and Cooper Cronk leave and the Victorian club somehow finds blokes to plug the holes and then become stars in their own right.
Take a look at those three positions right now – left centre, fullback, and halfback.
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Justin Olam, Ryan Papenhuyzen, and Jahrome Hughes are three of the competition’s most improved players this year and will also feature in the grand final clash with Penrith on Sunday.
So how does Melbourne keep taking fairly run-of-the-mill players and turning them into genuine NRL elite?
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Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy and football director Frank Ponissi famously don’t go into the market planning to spend big money bringing an established star to Victoria.
The club looks for good people, rather than good footballers. And then they push them to reach their absolute potential.
It’s why the pair conduct a “coffee test” with every potential recruit before putting any sort of offer on the table.
Bellamy and Ponissi insist on sitting across the cafe table and looking them in the eye to gauge what type of person they are.
“If you had to pin it down to two things, it would be someone who is prepared to work really hard in everything they do, both physically in the gym and outside, and who buys into what we are about,” Ponissi told NRL.com of the recruitment philosophy in 2017.
“All the other deficiencies – well we can improve those.
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“Whether they are physical deficiencies, football deficiencies… if they are prepared to work hard and buy in with what we are all about in this organisation, they’re a chance of becoming a better player.”
Josh Addo-Carr is a living example of the small change of attitude a player will typically experience with the move to Melbourne.
In 2016 the Foxx was scoring tries for Wests Tigers and after each one, he would perform an elaborate celebration.
Most of the time his celebration was a tribute to family members in jail and no one at Concord begrudged him for doing it, and fans lapped it up.
But when he got to the Storm the following year, one of the coaches quickly pulled him aside and told him that’s not what they do at this club… the team celebrates a try as one, rather than the scorer running to the crowd or the nearest camera.
It’s a small rule but a nod to the elite culture ingrained within the four walls.
“I think (Bellamy) saw it as a selfish thing and I think the Storm are all about the team,” Addo-Carr said in a 2017 interview.
“I really took it on board and it’s made me a better person and a better player.”
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THE CURRENT CROP
The wrecking ball centre from Papua New Guinea had plenty of rough edges when he arrived in the southern capital.
But the Melbourne system turned him into a diamond, and he’s about to play in an NRL grand final.
Now 26 years old, Olam didn’t truly break into first-grade until midway through last year, but now he’s a lock on the left flank.
Bellamy was recently asked about the breakout star after watching him tear apart Parramatta in the qualifying final.
“Justin, I think he’s been with us three years. The first 12 or 18 months I don’t think anyone saw NRL in Justin,” Bellamy said.
“But all of a sudden what he learned, and the hard work he put in to bring those things into his game… he flourished really quickly.
“It looked like it was going to take ages, or wasn’t going to happen to be quite honest. Then all of a sudden it all clicked, because he just kept his head down and worked really hard.
“From what I’ve seen, and I haven’t seen all the games, but he’s probably going as good as most centres in the game at the moment.
“He’s unique with his abilities. He’s got that stocky frame and he’s strong, nothing scares him. He would run into a brick wall or jump off a cliff if he had to, but that’s what we really like about having him in our team.”
He was a talented junior but was almost certainly destined to be another player who slipped through the cracks of the NRL system.
Hughes made his NRL debut for Gold Coast when he was only 18 years old in 2013, but it would be three years before he played his next game in the top league.
After his one and only Cowboys appearance in 2016 Hughes was snapped up by the Storm and brought down south, despite needing back surgery.
He played only 15 games in his first two seasons with the Storm but in 2019 was handed the fullback role left vacant by Billy Slater.
When Brodie Croft was sent packing at the end of last year, the club needed a new halfback and Bellamy entrusted Hughes with the famous jumper left behind by Cooper Cronk.
Hughes is undoubtedly one of the most improved players in the competition in 2020. He was man of the match last week when Melbourne rolled Canberra in the preliminary final.
Hughes this week admitted his work ethic and attitude wasn’t up to scratch until he arrived at Melbourne and saw the way players like Cronk prepared.
“I didn’t want to work hard when I was younger and just thought that clubs were going to re-sign me,” Hughes said in an interview with NRL.com.
“When Cooper was down there if he didn’t have something right, he kept doing it until he got it right at practice. He was a perfectionist.
“I’m not saying I am like that yet, but I want to be like that. That is the reason he ended up with such a great career, just with the way he went about the little things.”
He was identified as a talent from a young age, thanks in large to his blistering speed.
So it’s not fair to label him a discard as such, but there’s no doubting Melbourne landed this now-star fullback for a bargain.
Papaenhuyzen was stuck behind James Tedesco in the fullback ranks at Wests Tigers and, true to Tigers form, they ended up losing both.
The Storm took advantage of the No.1 logjam at Concord and brought Papenhuyzen down to Victoria with a view to adopting the jumper left behind by Billy Slater.
But it got to a point two years ago where it looked like Papenhuyzen would again be left out in the cold thanks to a logjam of fullbacks.
“There was talk of us letting him go (in 2018),” Storm recruitment chief Paul Bunn told the Courier Mail this week.
“We ideally never wanted him sold, but we had a number of fullbacks at the time and we were weighing things up. His agent didn’t want him let go because he had full belief Paps would be the long-term fullback.
“At the time, we had four options. Billy Slater was our fullback, then there was Cameron Munster, who wanted to play one, Jahrome Hughes and we even had Scott Drinkwater.
“Paps was a bit behind all of them, so buggered if we knew what we were going to do.”
It took a couple of years but Papenhuyzen was finally entrusted with the famous No.1 jumper thanks to Hughes and Munster moving into the halves, and Drinkwater leaving the club to join North Queensland.
He’s now considered one of the best young custodians in the game and is probably second in line behind Tedesco to the NSW fullback position.
PROOF AND EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE
Melbourne’s claim they never splash big cash on an established player is true, and you only have to look at this week’s Grand Final team to see it.
Of the 17 players named to line up against Penrith on Sunday, only three have played NRL football at another club.
Dale Finucane played 66 games at Canterbury over three seasons before joining the Storm in 2015, and he’s the one genuine exception to the rule.
Brenko Lee played 15 games at Canberra, 18 at Canterbury and 20 at Gold Coast before moving to Melbourne in the middle of this year.
Josh Addo-Carr played nine games at Wests Tigers but was brought down south at a young age and established himself as a star in purple.
The other 14 teammates have played all their NRL football at the Storm, and only the Storm.
The system is solid, and it’s taken the club to yet another season decider.