It was standing room only at the Sir John Guise Indoor Stadium in Port Moresby as thousands of family members, teammates, PNG government ministers, members of the country's rugby league community and fans gathered to farewell Kato Ottio.
Up to 70,000 more viewers from dozens of countries watched a live stream of the service, which began with the heartbreaking sight of the casket being carried into the venue by Ottio’s Kumuls and Hunters teammates.
Kato’s brother, Ahulo Ottio jnr, was moved to tears as he revealed that the 23-year-old had turned down a contract from St George Illawarra Dragons on the eve of the World Cup because it came with the condition he withdraw from the Kumuls squad to undergo surgery before the 2018 NRL season.
Despite protestations from his family to take the contract and fulfil his NRL dream, Ottio said he could not miss the opportunity to play in front of his people for the Kumuls, as he may never again get a chance to play in a World Cup on home soil.
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“I’m not sure a lot of people know this but he had the option to join St George, but the contract came with a condition for him to forgo the World Cup and clean out his ACL surgery,” Ahulo Ottio said.
“He told me about it and I lost count of the times I begged him to take up the offer and forget the World Cup. I even lobbied mum to talk him out of it but it was all in vain.
“He said ‘yes bro, that’s true, but I want to play in front of my people. We don’t know when the World Cup will come back to Papua New Guinea and this is my only chance’.
“Seeing him out there in a band of brothers was something no-one can put a dollar to, and I’m proud he did what he did and played for his country.”
Ottio subsequently signed for Super League club Widnes Vikings and had been due to depart for England this week with Kumuls teammate Wellington Albert but he collapsed during a road run last Sunday and passed away on Tuesday.
PNG Hunters captain Ase Boas read out a tribute on behalf of Ottio’s teammates, and a message from Kumuls captain David Mead.
“Kato was one of the most humble gentlemen and kind-hearted people I’ve ever met,” the tribute from Mead said.
“Everyday at training he would have the big smile on his face and was always joking with the boys. I will miss you Kato. May you rest in peace."
Tributes from the Canberra Raiders, Widnes Vikings and Rugby League International Federation were also shared at the service.
Kumuls coach Michael Marum and team manager John Wilshere presented Ottio’s family with a jersey bearing his Kumul number, 269.
PNGRFL Sandis Tsaka announced details of a bank account that will be open until Thursday 18 January accepting donations to help fulfil Ottio’s dream of building a house for his mother.
A post-mortem took place on Thursday evening, but the corner is yet to release a report.
By Joanna Lester/PNG Rugby League