'Forever in our hearts': Kumuls playing in memory of Kato Ottio

Mention to Justin Olam that he is the first player recruited directly from Papua New Guinea to play at NRL level since Marcus Bai and the Kumuls centre quickly reminds you about Kato Ottio.

“He was the second one to be scouted by an NRL club and I am the third one,” Olam says

Ottio never played an NRL match but many believe the late Canberra winger would have if he had not collapsed and died during a training session in Papua New Guinea last year.

Kumuls players honour Ottio by writing his name on their wrists before games and a giant banner with photos of him in the Papua New Guinea jersey hangs in their team room and is transported to games whenever possible.

“He was a good player and we miss him in the camp, we miss him a lot. He was always the life and the spirit of the team,” Olam said ahead of the World Cup 9s.

“We always talk about him, we have a big banner in the team room. He may be gone but we still remember him, and he is forever in our hearts.”

Olam, who enjoyed a breakout season for Melbourne this year, said he dedicated his entire 2018 season to the memory of Ottio – the NSW Cup’s leading tryscorer in 2016 with 29 tries in 23 games for Canberra’s feeder team, Mounties.

“My whole season last year was played for him,” Olam said. “I used to write his name on my wrist, it’s something all the boys do before we go to a game.

“We even take the banner to the dressing shed so it is pretty special. We always try our best to remember him because he was one of our brothers and we will always have him in our hearts at all times, outside of footy as well.”

While Ottio was born and raised on Tatana Island, near Port Moresby, Olam grew up in Gon, a tiny village in the Sinesine Sinesine Yonggomugl District of Chimbu Province.

There was no electricity in the village so residents would walk 90 minutes to watch an NRL match on television, with Bai the biggest star in a country where every player is a household name.

“He was a role model and he have is this hope that if he can do it other young guys in PNG can do it as well,” Olam said.

Yet no-one else has made the transition directly from Papua New Guinea to NRL star for almost 20 years until Olam and coincidentally he has done so at the same club as Bai.

“He is a legend at the Storm and to see one of my PNG brothers get that kind of respect for the things he did is special for me as well,” Olam said. “I don’t talk to him too much but I see him as an idol and someone I respect.”

Olam, who supported Melbourne because of Billy Slater and Brisbane because of Darren Lockyer while growing up, is now creating his own history at the Storm after scoring seven tries in 14 matches this season. He also played three NRL games last year.

However, he said nothing compared to pulling on the PNG jersey and he was looking forward to the World Cup 9s and Tests against Fiji in Christchurch on November 9 and the touring Lions at Port Moresby on November 16.

“Whenever we get the chance to go out and play for our country it is totally different feeling,” Olam said.

“It is not like anything else and the passion and pride that comes with it is the best feeling. Every time you put on the jumper it feels like the first time.”

For ticket and travel packages for the Downer Rugby League World Cup 9s Sydney 2019, head to nrl.com/tickets.