The rise of Justin Olam

"The Melbourne Storm Grand Final in 1999 was the first NRL game I ever watched. That's the earliest memory of elite rugby league I have."

During a serendipitous trip to a nearby province in Papua New Guinea for a family wedding, a five-year-old Justin Olam caught the final 10 minutes of Melbourne Storm's inaugural premiership.

Hundreds of locals crowded around the town's only television to watch legendary PNG export and Storm winger Marcus Bai on the game's biggest stage.

"Everyone knew Marcus - we would all beg our parents to buy packets of noodles so we could collect his playing cards," Olam said.

"I was lucky to be there. We lived in a little village in the mountains with no electricity, so if we hadn't travelled to that province for the wedding I would never have seen the game.

"I felt like I was seeing myself."

A crowd gathers around a small television in rural PNG to watch Justin Olam play earlier this season.
A crowd gathers around a small television in rural PNG to watch Justin Olam play earlier this season.

Two decades later, hundreds of people gather around small televisions in villages across the country to watch Olam, who is representing the nation in the same purple jersey Bai wore 20 years ago.

"That's what it's always like back home - one little screen and 200 or 300 people. Most of those people walked 30 or 40 minutes to the nearest TV."

Growing up in rural PNG, Olam would walk 90 minutes from his village to watch rugby league games.

"I lived with my mum and dad, two brothers and one sister. We do have basic services and education but there is no electricity in the village," he said.

"We depended on generators and solar power and we would walk everywhere.

"I used to grab my mum's phone and run 30 minutes to a store to charge it for her. We showered in waterfalls and we cooked with firewood."

"I walked an hour and a half to watch games and it wasn't flat terrain either, we crossed three rivers on the way."

The nation's love for rugby league is also evidenced by the extreme efforts made by those living in remote villages to play the game.

"Basically we have clans, four or five clans that live together in a village," Olam explained. 

"We didn't have phones back then, so my village would write a letter to another village - maybe the distance between Melbourne and Geelong - to the captain of their team. In three or four days they would reply in another letter to confirm the date we would play.

"Even today people still walk huge distances to play friendly (exhibition) games."

Remarkably, Olam never played junior rugby league.

"I always wanted to play because my big brother played but my mum wanted us to focus on school," he said.

"I used to sneak around and play in the backyard. One time we had a friendly game with another school and in my first carry I broke my collarbone. I had to go home and tell my mum. I didn't play again for two years.

"At 18 years old I wasn't even thinking about playing rugby league as a career. I loved the game but it didn't seem realistic for me."

"It was important for me to go to uni because an education is your only ticket out of the village."

It was during the four years he studied an applied physics degree that Olam played his first proper league games representing the Unitech Spartans and Lae Snax Tigers in the national league.

"I started out playing at lock before the coach moved me into centre," Olam said.

"I was inspired by Justin Hodges and Greg Inglis but I wasn't as big as those guys so I modelled my game on Steve Matai."

Olam plays with seemingly no sense of self-preservation and it was his fearless style that caught the eye of selectors when the PNG Hunters were formed in 2013.

 
 
 
 
 
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Thank you Lord for giving me another opportunity to represent my Country and family ones again.#phil413#kumulnation#stay//real.🇵🇬

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"I was part of the 20-man squad in the Hunters inaugural training program - there was so much hype around this new international side," he recalled.

"Young boys from all over the country lived in a dorm in Port Moresby. I didn't have any expectations - I just wanted to do my best and see what happened.

"I ended up playing for the PNG national team in my final year of uni before I played a game for the Hunters."

At the end of 2016, Olam signed a contract with the first NRL club he had been exposed to 17 years earlier.

"I think it was round 5 when Bunny (Melbourne Storm recruitment manager Paul Bunn) contacted the Hunters. He was looking for outside backs and my name came up," Olam said.

"I didn't want to get my hopes up but I had a few goals that year and one of them was to sign with an NRL club. I played for the national team in rep round in the middle of the year and after that Storm sent me a two-year contract.

"I waited until I had signed before I told my mum. I still wasn't confident it was going to happen - I was very excited and very scared at the same time.

"As a Queensland fan I loved Billy Slater and Cameron Smith, I just couldn't believe I'd be meeting those guys. I couldn't stop smiling."

"I was at the stadium when I found out and I just sat out on the field alone and I was getting emotional. It was a dream come true, it felt like a fairy tale.

"I didn't tell any of the boys (at the Hunters) because I felt bad a little and I didn't want to be showing off. I wanted the coach or the media to put it out there."

Adjusting to the Storm system was a steep learning curve for Olam, who had only ever learnt to play a brutal, hard-running game.

"You don't get much coaching, just take the ball, run hard and tackle hard," he said.

"In my first year here the coaches would send me video clips showing me everything I was doing wrong and it felt like I couldn't get anything right.

"I play with more discipline now and I'm always asking the coaches and my teammates for feedback."

 
 
 
 
 
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Mum lewa ❤️💯blessed

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Olam has now cemented his spot in the first-grade side, having played in every NRL match since round 15.

He scored seven tries in those 10 games, including a hat-trick against Manly in round 24.

Teammate Josh Addo-Carr said he loves playing on the left wing with an "energy ball".

"He was one of the first boys I met when I came down here (to Melbourne) and to see he's thriving at the top level is something special for him and his people," Addo-Carr said.

"He has a whole nation behind him and I'm very proud of him, he's come a long way.

"Justin has been playing outstanding footy for us. He runs the ball hard like all the PNG players do. He's a true talent."

Josh Addo-Carr

"He spent a lot of time playing reserve grade and he's earned his spot playing NRL. He is very quiet off the field but on the field he's an energy ball - I love playing with him."

With finals looming and given his outstanding form, it seems unlikely Olam will lose his place in the starting side in the foreseeable future but he's not leaving anything to chance.

"In my position there are four or five players with more experience than me waiting to play first-grade," he said.

"I have to play my role and perform as best as I can every week. I'll keep running hard and making my tackles. It's everything or nothing."

See Juzzy in action at our last regular season home game. Purchase tickets to Storm v Cowboys here.

Quotes taken from the Fuelled by Fire podcast featuring Justin Olam. Listen on Apple or Spotify.