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Rising Storm back-rower Eliesa Katoa lost his vision first in his left eye, then his right.
Happily for the Tongan-born edge runner, a significantly upgraded extension to one 2023’s best bargain contracts was being put together while he worried he “could be blind for the rest of my life”.
Even better, Katoa’s sight began to return after a mind-numbing week spent lying face-down on a massage table did the trick.
Katoa arrived in Melbourne last November on around $200,000 a year after a promising 2020 rookie season with the Warriors had fizzled out into an early release.
By the end of Melbourne’s pre-season, the 23-year-old was rated one of their best trainers, and by mid-June he had claimed Felise Kaufusi’s old back-row spot as his own.
“And then it was just a bit of friendly fire – Welchy [captain Christian Welch] poked me in the eye against Cronulla and I had a bit of a tear in my eye,” Katoa says.
Eliesa Katoa with a Storm trainer after copping friendly fire from Christian Welch against Cronulla.Credit: NRL Imagery
“It was a tear [injury] above the retina and I had to get surgery on that. And I’d actually had that surgery before on my left eye, it was really similar a few years ago after I [had] got a poke in that eye.
“The first time it was ok, a couple of days after surgery I was sweet. My vision came back with that one really quickly and it was in the off-season.
“This year’s one, though, that was no good. I completely lost my vision after it had happened and it was much scarier than the first one. At one point I thought I could be blind for the rest of my life.
“That’s a tough way to be thinking when you’re stuck on a massage table. I couldn’t do a thing except lie face-down for a week, 24-7. That was how the eye had to heal and settle down.
Like most at Melbourne, Eliesa Katoa wasn’t happy with his performance against Brisbane.Credit: NRL Imagery
“The liquid they put in after surgery had to settle there, so I couldn’t move around with it, I just had my head in this hole in the table, staring at my phone under the table.
“It was not fun, I can tell you. Your brain goes weird places when you’re like that, so I’m very glad I’m OK.”
Before Katoa’s return, a three-year extension to stay with the Storm until the end of 2027 – the equal-longest terms at the club – was locked in.
And when Katoa came back after six weeks out, his impact was immediate.
In the six games since his eye injury, Katoa has helped himself to five tries, four line-breaks and 19 tackle busts outside Jahrome Hughes. Missed tackles and penalties in Melbourne’s 26-0 loss to Brisbane still grate with Katoa, though.
“It was my first finals game and I was probably in the wrong mindset,” Katoa says. “I needed to calm down a bit and focus on the little things in my game, that was the biggest learning. My job is those little things, not the massive plays, so that’s what I’ll look at against the Roosters.”
Watching all the while will be his family and Mum Akanesi from the tiny Tongan village of Koulo, where Katoa was raised until he was 17.
It was a one-TV town until Katoa’s rise at the Warriors saw Anthony Seuseu – a one-game Warrior and brother of club favourite Jerry – organise a new television for his family to keep up with the NRL.
When Katoa fell down the pecking order in Auckland and Stephen Kearney urged the Storm to pursue him, Melbourne eventually came calling for the rest of the Katoa clan too.
“Mum’s first time on a plane and first time out of Tonga – she came and visited earlier this year,” Katoa says. “She loved it, everything except the Melbourne weather and she’s really happy for me and how everything’s worked out with the Storm so far.”
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