Rabbitohs second rower Keaon Koloamatangi has enjoyed a breakout season in cardinal and myrtle.
The 23-year-old forward, also utilised as a prop, made his debut just 15 months ago in a loss to the Storm. It was a difficult game to appear at the top flight for the first time, spending just 18 minutes on the ground and making three tackles.
He would go on to make 13 more appearances for the rest of the season, including in the preliminary final loss to the Panthers.
It’s been 2021 where Koloamatangi has proved his worth, even earning State of Origin selection as a late call-up to Brad Fittler’s extended Blues squad.
While he ultimately never took to the field, the opportunity itself has just added to his collection of growing experience.
Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett earmarked his young forward for a breakout year before the season even started. That faith has kept Koloamatangi in good stead come finals time.
“I remember [Wayne] saying that, and at the time I probably didn’t believe it,” Koloamatangi told media on Tuesday.
“I just put my head down and worked as hard as I could. I’m a believer in hard work… you work as hard as you can and live with the results. I’ve been grateful enough to get opportunities.”
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Being able to train alongside and learn from the likes of Mitch Moses, James Tedesco, and Josh Addo-Carr was almost a bit of a reality check for Koloamatangi.
“With the Origin team, I never in my wildest dreams thought I would have got that,” he said.
“Everything just sort of came from that. It’s still sort of surreal to me.
“When ‘Freddy’ [Fittler] called… I didn’t have his number at the time. I thought it was a prank! When he called me and told me to come I was pretty shocked.
“Seeing all the top players in the comp, I used to watch them on TV. Getting to hang with them every day, and learn what it’s all about to become one of the best in the game.
“It helped me want to put my head back on my shoulders and work harder for myself and try and get the best out of myself and my ability.”
A focus of Koloamatangi’s game this year has been improving his leadership as a young player.
Surrounded by stars on all sides at the Blues training camp, he learned pretty quickly that if you don’t talk up, you get talked over.
“Using my voice and leading from the front… all of them when they go back to their teams lead from the front,” Koloamatangi said.
“They use their voice, they don’t wait for someone else to do it. That’s what I’m trying to do, helping the younger boys like [Blake] Taaffe… trying to lead by example and show them that they’re here for a reason.”
That building and learning across the season amounted in a huge individual performance in Saturday’s qualifying final win over Penrith.
Koloamatangi worked all game in the second row, finishing with a team high 41 tackles, none of which were missed. He also made 11 runs for 97 metres.
Watching his young forward stand up under pressure will have Bennett keeping him comfortably starting in the preliminary final against the winner of the Manly Sea Eagles and Sydney Roosters.
“I was blowing a bit in the game, I got suspended for two weeks so my match fitness was down a bit,” Koloamatangi laughed.
“I just wanted to turn up for the boys and give my best effort, because it was such a big game for all of us… had a lot of emotions at the time and let it all out.”
The stage is set for the young star’s 2021 preliminary final to be a completely different story to last year’s.
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