Home Australia Inside Eli Katoa’s journey from a village in Tonga to the Melbourne’s Storm star factory

Inside Eli Katoa’s journey from a village in Tonga to the Melbourne’s Storm star factory

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A man runs the ball during a rugby league game.

As Melbourne defender, Eli Katoa has a lot to live up to.

Playing second row for the Storm is a star-making position – players like Ryan Hoffman, Felise Kaufusi, Kevin Proctor, Kenny Bromwich, Tohu Harris, Sika Manu and Adam Blair all rose to represent their countries while lurking on the edge for Craig Bellamy. great winning machine.

Sometimes it was a matter of removing them directly from the lower ranks. Hoffman was an Australian schoolboy. Blair and Manu were both Junior Kiwis. Proctor, in some ways, was both.

Others came from more remote places. Harris started after impressing in an open trial in New Zealand. Bromwich and Kaufusi got their opportunities after long apprenticeships off the club’s bench.

But none of the Storm’s legion of successful rowers has a history like that of Katoa, the current heir to the second-string throne.

It began a world away from the bright lights of NRL stardom in the Tongan town of Koulo.

It’s the kind of place that’s hard to find unless you already know where it is. Head north from Nuku’alofa for about 200 kilometers until you reach the Ha’apai island group.

There, on the island of Lifuka, you will find Koulo, with a population of 171. That’s Katoa’s home, he always will be, and until she went to boarding school in Auckland when he was 17, it was his world.

“Mum and my family are still there. Last year I managed to invite them to a game, it was the first time they left Tonga. I want to do the same this year, bring them here, that’s the most important thing for me,” Katoa said.

“What I miss the most is my family. The whole community is great, but it’s all about my family. I have a brother and two sisters, I’m the second youngest and everyone is still there.

“I try to go once a year, I always love coming home.

“It’s a flight from Nuku’alofa, or a ship. But no matter how far away it is, not for me.”

Katoa crossed the line in Melbourne’s win over the Roosters. (Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

It must feel so far removed from the bright lights of Sydney’s football stadium, where Katoa scored a try and set up another in Melbourne’s win over the Roosters last week.

The game showed why the Storm were so keen to get Katoa away from the Warriors last year and why he signed a three-year extension with the club in mid-2023.

He has the size to outrun defenders, the quick feet to make holes, the athleticism to act as an aerial threat, the soft hands to throw passes and catch bombs, and the attacking ability to play before the line and offload on contact.

There were flashes of those attributes during his time with the Warriors, where he played 46 games in three seasons from 2020 to 2022, enough for Canberra and the Dolphins to take an interest in the 24-year-old.

But finding raw, talented players who just need the right guidance is as much a tradition for Bellamy’s Storm as producing rowers. The fit was perfect, from the beginning.

Katoa had a strong inaugural campaign with the club, recovering from an eye injury that he initially feared would leave him half-blind to finish the season strongly and earn his Test debut for Tonga.

There has been more of the same in 2024: he scored three tries, set up two more, averaged 100 meters per game and increased his defensive work rate.

In short, he is starting to do all the things that the great Melbourne rowers of the past have done. There’s a lot to take on, but he’s up to the challenge.

“Everyone knows what a good club they are, their history speaks for itself. When I first came in, everyone was very welcoming and you could see that culture from day one: everyone wants to win, but everyone is equally focused on working for each other,” Katoa said.

“That’s what we pride ourselves on here.”

Katoa admits that he is far from the finished product. When it comes to rugby league, he remains a relative beginner even after four years in the top grade – he had only played 13 league games in his entire life before his NRL debut in 2020.

He made a couple of mistakes against the Roosters, but each week he comes closer to realizing his enormous talent and his off-ball work, especially defensively and chasing kicks, has remained strong.

For all the things he can do that few other fullbacks can match, mastering those little things is what will truly make him the Storm’s next third-line success story, and he’s hell-bent on doing it.

“I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable, I’m more confident. Last year was a lot about adapting to the system, learning how they play, and this year I know my role better and the role of the players around me,” Katoa said.

“It all depends on the repetitions we do in training, that is what is behind all the combinations.

“I didn’t have the best start [against the Roosters]I was forcing some downloads, but that’s football and I’m not going to lose strength.

“I still have to work on it, because it put a lot of pressure on us. Sometimes it’s not there, that’s what I’m still learning.

“Jahrome Hughes has been a big part of this, he’s worked really hard to build our combination, but everyone’s been great. I don’t have family in Melbourne, but I live close to some of the guys and they’re always there to help me.”

Katoa will once again form a big part of Melbourne’s game plan when they take on the Rabbitohs on Anzac Day.

The match is one of the highlights of the club’s season, a large crowd is expected at AAMI Park, and everyone will be watching from home.

Digicel CEO bought a TV for Katoa’s mother shortly after his NRL debut to watch his son play, and now half the town comes to watch Koulo’s pride as he strives to live up to what came before him.

He’s doing everything he can to get there and everyone is with him every step of the way.

“They loved the Warriors,” Katoa said.

“But as soon as I moved, everyone jumped on the Storm.”

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