PNG Hunters chief executive Reatau Rau has described the death of Kato Ottio and a recent earthquake to the region as part of a “rollercoaster ride” for the reigning Intrust Super Cup premiers.
“We’ve been hit by tragedy and now we must slowly climb our way back up,” Rau said.
The PNG boss, who was in church on January 7 when he heard that Ottio had collapsed from extreme heatstroke while training with former Hunters teammates, said it was not a scenario he had ever expected to encounter.
He first met Ottio in 2014 when he was identified as a talent to watch the in the PNG zonal championships, and like many he formed a deep respect for the entertaining speedster.
Ottio, 23, was back training with the squad on his way to taking up a contract with English club Widnes when he collapsed, having featured for PNG at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Hunters coach Michael Marum said it would be “tough” for the Hunters to be firing on all cylinders for Sunday’s clash with the Ipswich Jets at the PNG National Football Stadium.
However, he was confident that the appropriate level of support had been offered to all players, and that the club would come through the experience stronger and more united.
“After the incident (Ottio’s death) we didn’t train for two weeks,” Marum said.
“Our priority was – and still is – making sure the players are mentally okay.
“It’s something that affected everybody, but I particularly think that’s the case for the older guys who knew Kato longer and had a closer relationship.
“It’s going to take a while to get out of their minds.
“Even at training you are seeing guys a little bit hesitant to push themselves because they saw what happened to Kato.”
One thing the club believes has worked in its favour is that PNG culture encourages people to talk about loss and grief.
Rau said players had openly discussed their experiences with their families and clans and this had sent a message to younger team members that it was best to communicate.
A team chaplain was brought in to consult, and players were addressed right down to the junior levels.
“Mike Marum has done a fantastic job as coach to make sure firstly the boys were okay, but also that they can push past this together,” Rau said.
“It’s a new challenge for us…something that we could never foresee.”
Queensland-based NRL Wellbeing and Education Officer David Solomona – a former elite player in the NRL and Super League - regularly works with the Hunters squad when they are in Australia.
He said the latest incident displayed a need for that area of the game to become more encompassing and for consideration to be made for players in external countries.
“I was mates with Adam Watene (previously Adam Cook) who played in the early years of the Intrust Super Cup and passed away when he was training with English club Wakefield,” Solomona said.
“I was also in England when Terry Newton took his own life.
“They were good friends and it wasn’t the easiest thing to go through, so I can empathise with the Hunters.
“Wellbeing is a pretty new area in the game and we will continue to refine processes and have better systems in place for all these challenges.”
Solomona said a QRL Critical Incident Plan had been now rolled out at every level across Queensland which gave clubs guidance on who should be contacted in the event of tragedy and what resources were available.
He said there was no cookie cutter approach to dealing with a travesty and every incident had to have its own strategic response.
While cases where players have died have been front-of-centre in media attention, Solomona said there had also been incidents where players’ family members had died on the sideline while games were underway.
“We deal with a lot of issues – regarding mental and physical health - that aren’t really caused by rugby league itself, but they occur in our jurisdiction because so many people are drawn together to play and watch the sport,” Solomona said.
“I think it’s really important to remember that for a lot of people, rugby league provides the happiest part of their life and isn’t necessarily the cause of their problems.
“They might have work or family or other outside issues going on, but that 10 hours a week when they are involved with their footy club is the highlight for them.
"Rugby league sees it as its responsibility to look out for those people and help when things turn bad."
The Kroton Hela Wigmen and PRK Gulf Isou teams will play the curtain raiser to this Sunday’s PNG Hunters v Ipswich Jets game. The Wigmen represent the people of Hela Province who have recently been devastated by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. The Hunters will also be asking their fans to give generously to support the victims, with buckets going around the ground to collect much-needed donations.