When St George Illawarra Dragons winger Nene Macdonald dives over for his first try of the Telstra Premiership season, keep an eye out for his reaction.
The Papua New Guinea representative is set to acknowledge his great mate and former Kumuls player Kato Ottio, who passed away in January after collapsing with severe heatstroke at training.
Macdonald was the only NRL player able to attend Ottio’s funeral service in Port Moresby, where the traditional week-long farewell made headlines across the world as the talented 23-year-old was laid to rest.
With only a 53-day age gap between them, Macdonald opened up to NRL.com about the tragic loss of his friend and how Ottio’s death will bring the rugby league community in PNG closer together.
“I was at training and went on my phone when I found out,” Macdonald said.
“One of the boys messaged us and it was a shock. We all messaged each other to make sure it wasn’t a mistake and that we all received the same thing. We were all in disbelief.
“For me he’s the same age. He was fit, healthy and looked like nothing was wrong with him … then that happens. It’s obviously something no one can see coming.”
Macdonald said he cleared his weekend in short notice in a bid to be there for Ottio’s family and the PNG Hunters players, who were with the former Canberra Raiders player at the time of his death.
“I didn’t get to see the burial which hurt but went to the service and said my goodbyes,” Macdonald said.
“I went on behalf of the boys in the NRL that couldn’t go. It was tough seeing his mum, for any mum to lose their son is massive. The boys were all down. Whoever you play with, their family becomes your family. It was good to go back and see everyone as tough as it was.
“The whole country knew about what happened. If you’re playing for the Kumuls everyone knows you. There were 7000 people at the service, the fans all hurt as much as we do.”
Sitting in the grandstands of WIN Stadium, Macdonald glanced over towards the field when asked how Ottio would be remembered.
It was revealed by Ottio’s brother Ahulo jnr during the eulogy that Kato knocked back the chance to join Macdonald at the Dragons in 2018 so he could represent his country at the World Cup.
“One thing I’ve learnt from it is being more grateful,” Macdonald said.
“Like I’m here in Wollongong and it’s such a nice place, we train in nice facilities and there is a beach close by. He was fine over there too and then that happens. Any day could be your last.
“His village is called Tatana and we always made this joke because he loved the place. It was a joke we always had just between us. It would always bring out his smile, that will never leave me.”
It was only three months ago Macdonald lined up alongside Ottio and the rest of his Kumuls teammates as the side powered towards their most successful World Cup campaign.
Macdonald admitted there was a sense of warmth knowing Ottio was surrounded by teammates and family doing what he loved most in the final months before his passing.
“That World Cup brought everyone together,” Macdonald said.
“We’ve all played together in the past and were close but we always had to separate. That was the first time we spent more than two months together, seeing each other every day.
“We met everyone’s families, had dinners and played cards every night.
“I remember jumping on the bus when it was time to go our separate ways and seeing Willie Minoga, who is tough and a big front-rower … we said our goodbyes and he just broke down.
“These boys all look big and tough but they’re not. They’re very emotional and grateful people. It makes your belly sink. That was the bond we made and it will be there for the rest of our lives.
“That’s what made Kato’s passing a lot harder to take but we’re also grateful of the moments that we had together with him. I’ll always be out there knowing he’s there with me and watching over me.”