Finals, Melbourne Storm, Justin Olam, Papua New Guinea, Dally M, Center of the Year
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“I just want people to live good lives. I want the corruption to stop, ”Melbourne Storm center Justin Olam said.
This is not a regular topic of conversation in an interview with a rugby union player.
Then again, Olam is not your conventional rugby union player.
On the contrary, Justin Olam shouldn’t even be a rugby union player.
Little, if any, on Olam’s journey up to this point has been conventional.
There was no SG Ball highlight reel, he had no agent when he arrived in Australia, and his only scheduled match in his homeland of Papua New Guinea before the age of 18 involved one village sending a letter to another asking for a match. two weeks in advance.
He only had a chance to play in a regular organized rugby league when he moved from Gon village in Simbu to Lae town to study because his mother, who stressed that school was his priority, was a four hour drive away and couldn’t help but play.
Now, however, as he prepares to face Penrith in a big rematch this week, the 27-year-old is billed as the best center in the NRL, just 62 games in his career.
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Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler both believe it, while Cameron Munster, Willie Mason and his closest title challenger, Joey Manu, all of them took to social media to express their condemnation that he would have been snubbed for the Dally M team of the year.
“I think I’m still growing, but it’s good to hear great players say great things about me,” Olam said.
“There are a lot of good crosses in the game and when they say that about me it’s a blessing. I still feel like I have a lot to improve.
“My progression is doing my job for the team day in and day out and I always think I need to eliminate the mistakes in my game.”
In 24 games this season, Olam has recorded 12 tries, 85 tackles and averaged 112 yards with the ball in hand.
Not bad for a guy who some clubs claimed was too short at 178cm.
Even his own trainer, Craig Bellamy, said last year, “The first 12 or 18 months I don’t think anyone saw the NRL in Justin.
“He is unique with his abilities. He’s got that stocky body 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 love having him on our squad.
Olam, however, has made a habit of refuting the skeptics.
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When he took his first steps in the Papua New Guinea national competition, he was spotted performing in a college carnival. In the first game of this tournament, he was given the most unwanted role in the sport: the water boy.
He finally got the chance to play, scoring five tries in the last two games to pique the interest of the Lae Snax Tigers, a team in Papua New Guinea’s national competition, the Digicel Cup.
Olam arrived at preseason training four days earlier and called all of his coaches “sir”.
He repaid their faith with a victory over heavyweight Goroka Lahanis and knocked out the other title contenders Rabaul for the first time in years at a stadium they call ‘The Graveyard’.
“People who criticize or underestimate me, I use that as fuel,” Olam says.
“I like when people challenge me or say I can’t do a thing.
“I love this chance to prove them wrong and to prove to myself that I can be who I want to be.
“Every time I go out on the pitch or go into my locker room and see my jersey, my name on the jersey and see the NRL logo and the Storm logo… I get goosebumps.
“I appreciate it every time I play the game. I will always be grateful for it.
From there he was selected by the PNG Hunters in the Queensland Cup, scoring 14 tries in his debut season and winning the People’s Choice award before joining Storm’s supply club, the Sunshine Coast Falcons, in 2017.
He made his Melbourne debut in 2018 before ousting Queensland and Australian center Will Chambers in late 2019 to secure a place at left center.
He is now two games away from the Grand Final in a row and his progress has led to new fame in his homeland.
Images of rural villages crammed around a TV screen now part of Olam’s story, with Storm fans launch a GoFundMe page to have one set up in his hometown.
Back home, Olam’s face is splashed across billboards with companies including health insurers PHA, coffee company Kopiko, supermarket chain SVS, pension providers NASFUND, Puma and the makers of Dried Flame products.
There are Facebook pages celebrating Olam with a combined audience of 150,000 people.
His influence is such that in collaboration with NASFUND and the World Health Organization, he was chosen to disseminate messages on social networks around the risks of Covid-19.
“I think the way we live in PNG, it’s easy for Covid to spread,” he says.
“There are a lot of plots around but for me personally I’m going to get the jab after the final.
“The message I wanted to promote was not to be selfish. Families live with children and grandparents and young people can bring it home and old people will suffer. “
Stanley Tepend, Olam’s coach with Lae Snax’s Tigers, says the center is the most recognized face in the country alongside the PM and compares his impact to that of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Even so, on Papua New Guinea Independence Day last year, it was Olam’s face on the front page of the newspaper. The National Courier.
“When he plays, he stops the nation,” Tepend says.
“In the very remote areas – where people don’t have TVs or haven’t (seen) cars before and don’t have cell phones – there’s a soccer ball and they all know who Justin is. .
“The Storm took over the Brisbane Broncos as a Papua New Guinea team, if they had merchandise stores like they do in the Premier League they would sell like the Ronaldo jerseys for Manchester United. wanted (to get into politics), he would win easily if he challenged it.
So what does Olam want to do and how does he manage his celebrity status in his homeland?
“I really want to coach the next generation to come,” he says of life after rugby league.
“I learned a lot in Melbourne. It’s not part of who I am, but I want people to live good lives and stop corruption. This (politics) is something to think about in 10 or 20 years.
“It makes me feel good to see the billboards. Now I have the platform to be a role model for young Papua New Guinea to follow their dreams.
“When they see me on the notice boards at home it’s good, it lets the kids see that there is a way for our best young talent to come out.
“One of my main goals when I started playing was to only play one game.
“I haven’t seen it, the billboards, in person because I haven’t been back for a while… I hope to go back later this year, so I hope I can see myself again.”
For Olam and the 8 million people of Papua New Guinea, he hopes he will do so with another prime minister’s ring in his possession.