Olam: I’ve more room to improve


“I just want people to live a good life. I want the corruption to stop,” says Melbourne Storm centre Justin Olam.
That’s not a usual topic of conversation in an interview with a rugby league player.
But then again, Olam isn’t your conventional rugby league player.
If anything, he shouldn’t even be a rugby league player.
Little, if anything at all, about Olam’s journey to this point has been conventional.
There was no junior highlights reel, he didn’t have an agent when he arrived in Australia, and his only scheduled fixture in his homeland of Papua New Guinea before the age of 18 involved one village sending a letter to another asking for a game two weeks in advance.
He only got a shot at playing regular organised rugby league when he moved from his village of Gon, Chimbu, to Lae to study because his mum, who stressed school was his priority, was four hours away and couldn’t prevent him from playing.
Now, though, as he prepares to face Penrith in a grand final rematch on Saturday (4pm kick-off), the 27-year-old is being talked up as the best centre in the National Rugby League, just 62 games into his career.
Rugby legends Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler believe it.
“I think I’m still growing, but it is good to hear great players say nice things about me,” Olam said.
“There are a lot of good centres in the game and when they say that about me it is a blessing.
“I still feel like I’ve got a lot to improve on.
“My progress is to do my job for the team day in and day out, and I still think I have to cut the errors off my game.”
Across 24 games this season, Olam has 12 tries, 85 tackle busts and is averaging 112m with the ball in hand.
Not bad for a bloke who some clubs feared was too small at 178cm.
Even his own coach, Craig Bellamy, said last year: “The first 12 or 18 months, I don’t think anyone saw NRL in Justin.
“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.”
Olam, though, has made a habit of disproving the doubters.
When he got his first start in PNG’s domestic competition he was spotted playing in a university carnival.
During the first game of that tournament, he was assigned the most unwanted role in sport: the water boy.
He finally got his chance to play, bagging five tries in the last two games to pique the interest of Digicel Cup heavyweights Lae Tigers.
Olam arrived at pre-season training four days early and referred to all of his coaches as ‘sir’.
He repaid their faith with a win over Goroka Lahanis and knocked off fellow title contenders Rabaul Gurias for the first time in years in a stadium they call ‘The Graveyard’.
“People having criticism or underestimating me, I use that as a fuel,” Olam said.
“I love it when people challenge me or say I can’t do one thing.
“I love that chance to prove them wrong and prove to myself I can be whoever I want to be.
“Whenever I take the field or go to my dressing 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 that.”
He is now two games away from winning back-to-back grand finals and his progress has led to new-found stardom in his homeland.
Pictures of villages in the countryside crammed round a television screen have become part of Olam’s story, with Storm fans launching a GoFundMe page to get one installed in his home village.
Back home, Olam’s face is splattered across billboards.
There are Facebook pages celebrating Olam with a combined following of 150,000 people.
Such is his influence that in conjunction with Nasfund and the World Health Organisation, he was chosen to deliver messages on social media around the risks of the Coronavirus (Covid-19).
“I think the way we live in PNG, it’s easy for Covid-19 to spread,” Olam said.
“There’s a lot of conspiracies around but for me, personally, I’m going to get the jab after the finals.
“The message I wanted to promote was to not be selfish.
“Families live with kids and grandparents and the young people can bring it back to the house and the older people will suffer.”
Stanley Tepend, Olam’s coach with the Tigers, likens the centre’s impact to that of football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
“When he plays, he stops the nation,” Tepend said.
“The Storm have taken over the Brisbane Broncos as the team of PNG.
“If they had merchandise stores like they do in the English Premier League, he would sell like Ronaldo shirts have for Manchester United.
“If he wanted to (go into politics), he’d win easily if he contested it.”
So what does Olam want to do and how does he cope with his celebrity status in his homeland?
“I definitely want to do coaching for the next generation coming up,” he said of life after rugby league.
“I’ve learned a lot at Melbourne.
“It’s not part of who I am, but I want people to live a good life and the corruption to stop. That (politics) is something to think about in 10 or 20 years.
“It makes me feel good seeing the billboards. Now I have the platform to be a role model to young Papua New Guineans to follow their dreams.
“When they see me on the billboards back home, that’s good, it lets kids back see there is a pathway for our best young talent to come out.
“One of my main goals when I started playing was to just play one game.
“I’ve not seen it, the billboards, in person because I’ve not been back in a while … I am hoping to go back later this year, so hopefully I can see myself again.”
For Olam and the people of PNG, he hopes he will be doing so with another premiership ring in his possession. – Fox Sports