Highlands hero Justin Olam - PNG's newest NRL star

5:53 pm on 24 October 2020

Melbourne Storm centre Justin Olam will have the hopes of a nation behind him when he runs out in Sunday's National Rugby League grand final.

Born and raised in Papua New Guinea's Highlands region, the 26 year old has this year established himself as a regular starter for the three-time NRL champions.

PNG Kumuls coach Michael Marum said, after a difficult start to life in Melbourne, Olam's hard work has paid off.

"For him to run out this weekend, this Sunday with this Melbourne side, which is one of the best teams in the world [is amazing]," he said.

PNG Kumuls star Justin Olam is now a regular starter for the Melbourne Storm.

PNG Kumuls star Justin Olam is now a regular starter for the Melbourne Storm. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"Potentially for him to go out there and make sure he just plays well and come out a winner this weekend."

The former Lae Snax Tigers and PNG Hunters star first signed for the Storm in 2016 but did not make his first grade debut until midway through the 2018 season.

Michael Marum coached Olam during his breakout season in the Queensland Cup - in which he scored 14 tries in 20 games, attracting the interest of NRL scouts from the Storm and Canberra Raiders.

But the veteran coach had to counsel the Kundiawa-born flyer against throwing away his NRL dream, after failing to crack first grade in his first two seasons in Australia.

"It goes back to all his hard work and the patience that he had, he never gave up," Marum explained.

"We've see a few of our own boys that are sent overseas and after a short time they quickly turn around and want to come back home, but Justin he was strong in his head.

"He stayed with the Falcons [feeder team in the Queensland Cup] for two years and kept playing there, playing hard...I'm just really proud of him. Now he'll be remembered as one of the greatest players in PNG after Marcus Bai."

Papua New Guinea international Justin Olam had to fight for his chance with the Melbourne Storm.

Papua New Guinea international Justin Olam had to fight for his chance with the Melbourne Storm. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Speaking of Marcus Bai - the 1999 NRL champion played no small part in persuading his compatriot to reject the Raiders four years ago and sign on with his beloved Storm.

"I said to him: 'Listen mate, you're not going to Canberra because the late Kato Ottio was there and I said I don't like to see two Papua New Guineans in one club because it's never been good news.

"You guys will be drinking and enjoying yourselves and you won't concentrate on the game', and a lot of other coaches supported me."

Bai advised Olam that he should go to Melbourne and learn from the structures there.

"I said you will love it there because there's a lot of Kiwi boys there, Samoans, and I know Cameron [Smith] very well and he will learn a lot from him."

Justin Olam.

Justin Olam first signed for the Storm in 2016. Photo: NRL

It's been 21 years since Bai helped the Storm to their their maiden NRL Premiership against the St George Illawarra Dragons.

Now 48, the legendary winger is thrilled to see his fellow countryman playing an important role for his former team.

"For me it's a special, special time for me," he said down the line from his home on the Gold Coast.

"I'm so excited being able to take my three kids to go up and watch Justin and Melbourne Storm play against Canberra [in last week's semi final in Brisbane] and win it. I'm standing there clapping my hands and looking at him and I'm so proud of his effort."

The Melbourne Storm celebrate their 1999 NRL Grand Final win.

Marcus Bai and the Melbourne Storm celebrate their first NRL title in 1999. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Born in the Niugini Islands, Bai had two playing stints in England either side of his time with the Gold Coast Chargers and Melbourne Storm.

He said the customs and cultures between PNG and Australia were completely different and, like Justin Olam, he found it tough to adapt in his first couple of years.

"I've been warned and [former Melbourne coach] Chris Anderson in 1998 told me: 'I'm going to tear your contract and you can go back to your country where you come from if you want to come at your own time'.

Melbourne Storm winger Marcus Bai in action for the Melbourne Storm in 1998.

Melbourne Storm winger Marcus Bai in action for the Melbourne Storm in 1998. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"...and Justin did the same thing in his first year here, turning up late...I said: 'Hey Justin, what are you doing?'"

Bai said Olam had to be reminded to be early as it was not about him, but the community.

"During my time I was lucky to be under the big names like Tawera Nikau is a legend and Stephen Kearney...they were more experienced and they called me in and said: Marcus you can't be doing this."

"As soon as he changed his attitude everything changed for him. He started to get recognised. In Melbourne, if your attitude is right these other players - even though they are not better than you - Craig Bellamy or the club will pick that player ahead of you."

Now Justin Olam is starting in his first NRL grand final against the Penrith Panthers, who are on a 17-game winning streak.

Michael Marum said the rise of Justin Olam is a good lesson for young players in PNG who dream of playing in the NRL.

"It doesn't take for you to go out there and just overnight get selected and play in a local side or NRL side," he said.

PNG Kumuls coach Michael Marum, will be the facilities manager for the new High Performance Centre.

Michael Marum. Photo: Facebook/PNG Hunters

"It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, discipline - all these other things that people talk about - the coaches, respecting everyone else. He's done all that and I think the biggest thing is just being patient down there."

Marcus Bai was starting to question if he would ever see another local PNG player establish themselves at an NRL club.

As it happens, Justin Olam revealed this week the first NRL game he ever watched on television was the 1999 grand final.

The feats of 21 years ago inspired a five year old boy from the Papua New Guinea Highlands to dream big and now Marcus Bai hopes that Justin Olam can inspire the next generation to follow their path.

"The young boys and girls can now see if Justin Olam can come from the village, played in the local football club and then go to Digicel Cup and play well and then be selected for the Hunters and as soon as he plays for the Hunters he's got every chance now for NRL clubs and scouts to be able to pick him up from there.

"The bridge is now built for them and Justin is the new era...if he can do it everyone can do it."