With the clock ticking, Olam played like it was the last time he would ever be allowed to lace up the boots. He tore the Hunters, many of them his former teammates, to shreds in a performance that left Ingebrigtsen shaking his head in disbelief.
“He was a little bit unhappy to only play that much but I said to him ‘go out and make the most of it and don’t waste a second’. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ingebrigtsen recalls.
“We played against PNG and he tore them apart. He ran for 208m in 40 minutes, he scored two tries. He physically destroyed them.
“His story really is incredible. He’s a really humble man, he’s always so grateful for what he was and never forgets where he’s come from.”
Where Olam has come from is as much a part of the DNA of his story as where he is going. On Friday night, he will line up against the Canberra Raiders at Suncorp Stadium, just one game away from an NRL grand final.
When it all began, Olam, now 26, would have happily retired with just one game of NRL to his credit. He had planned for a life without football and has a degree in applied physics already in his CV.
He has never had a chance to use it professionally and freely admits that he would have to hit the books once more when his ride in the NRL finally comes to an end.
“I didn’t get the chance to work. I just graduated and started playing rugby league. I’m a bit rusty. I need to hit the books for at least another year before I can become that person again,” Olam said. “At the moment, I just feel truly blessed.”
So do his fellow Papua New Guineans, who have a new hero to follow in the league-mad nation. Olam’s games regularly see hundreds cram around televisions to live and breathe his every run, or crunching tackle.
Some walk for miles just to catch a glimpse of him on the small screen. To put it bluntly, he’s a national sporting celebrity. That’s something Olam carries with him every time he walks onto the field for the Storm, whose gamble on his raw talent may well be a key factor in another premiership.
“The game is so big over there. Everyone has their own NRL team but sometimes they have to walk for a little bit just to find a TV [to watch me], so I draw energy from that. Where I come from is definitely a motivation for me,” Olam said.
Even having a ball was a luxury for Olam as a child. The weapon of choice, on some occasions, was a plastic Coke bottle stuffed with grass, just so you could give some more flight to those whirling cut-out balls.
He played soccer and volleyball at school and his first game of rugby league while he was studying for his degree. It’s safe to say he’s now one of the better credentialed products of the Unitech Spartans and Lae Snax Tigers.
Anyone who has seen a glimpse of PNG rugby league knows one thing they love above all is the thud and thunder of contact. The hits are ferocious and ball runners steam into the line with zero concern for their wellbeing.
That was the environment in which Olam began and one in which he thrived, styling his game on the fearless Manly centre Steve Matai as he started to catch the eye of scouts and local selectors.
“It used to be very tough back in the day. That’s the toughness you learn … you grow up thinking that’s how you want to play,” Olam said.
“They love their contact. I don’t know what the next generation are like but for us, the contact was the big thing. You play with grown men. I was 18. It could be brutal.”
Olam’s love of the collision was both a help and a hindrance for Ingebrigtsen when his new backline charger arrived at the Falcons. Olam never shied away from whacking an opposing runner, no matter their size, but it took a while to convince him that he had the option of running into space when he had the Steeden and didn’t always need to try and steamroll the nearest defender.
“He’s a very smart guy. But when I first got him, he simply kept trying to run over people. When I saw him play for Hunters, especially against us, (then Falcons centre) Curtis Scott had to mark him. I had to tell him to get the body in front all day because he was just going to try and run through him.
“Then when he came to us he started getting a bit of a serve, a bit of footwork, he started to develop an all-around game and he showed me a bit more skill than I might have initially thought. He learned a lot in a fairly short space of time.
“And he’s continued to do that in the NRL under Craig.”
Running is only half of the equation in the NRL. The other side, defence, was where Olam needed to accelerate his learning at lightning speed if he was going to make it. Courage was never in short supply but picking apart the attacking shapes that are run by NRL rivals, which demand split-second decisions on the edge, has been a labour of love.
“He could always run hard but it was his defensive reads that needed a lot of work,” Ingebrigtsen recalls. “I’m really happy Melbourne stuck with him because when we got him at first, his reads were poor, he’d turn his hips and shoulders, he was always looking to go in instead of being patient. He wanted that body on body, he wanted that physical contact.”
How the tables have turned. His Storm team-mate Felise Kaufusi now rates him an elite NRL defender to the point where he feels sorry for teams trying to crack Olam’s side of the field.
“He’s been outstanding. His defence has been second to none. I always get a bit of a smile when I think about his work,” Kaufusi said. “His attitude to defending, he’s really aggressive and that is a part of his game he’s improved dramatically in the off-season. He’s one of the best centres going around.
“His combination with that left edge, Fox [Josh Addo-Carr] on the side, Cameron Munster. I wouldn’t want to be attacking against them. He does his homework and every weekend he’s up against a pretty good centre and seems to get the better of them.”
Olam has made a habit of turning dreams into reality but the notion of winning a grand final leaves him at a loss for words, even if the thunder that could come from his home nation would be heard all the way to Homebush.
“I don’t know … it would be a big highlight for my career. Coming to play NRL is big but to go and win it … wow. It can’t find the words. That sums it up.”
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