From Glenmore Park to Lang Park: Katoa lines up childhood mate Suaalii in historic clash

The original plan for this story was to write about Dolphins young gun Isaiya Katoa and how some schoolboy rugby judges believe he has the potential to be better than Joseph Suaalii.

Katoa led Barker College to success in the CAS competition in 2022 and was rated the country’s best schoolboy No.10, but he chose to move north to be a part of Wayne Bennett’s Dolphins revolution.

However, after a little digging, the story took a very different turn as The Sun-Herald quickly learnt Katoa and Suaalii have been mates for nearly a decade.

They won two junior grand finals together playing for the Glenmore Park Brumbies in the Penrith rugby league competition. Their families are close, and even dined out together in England the night Suaalii’s Samoa knocked Katoa’s Tonga out of the World Cup quarter-finals last year.

Now Katoa will wear the No.6 for the Dolphins when he makes his NRL debut in front of 40,000 fans at Suncorp Stadium on an historic Sunday afternoon … opposite Suaalii.

Isaiya Katoa, 19, will make his debut for Redcliffe on Sunday.Credit:Getty

Playing on the right for Redcliffe, Katoa will go head-to-head with Suaalii at left centre.

The Panthers were desperate to keep Katoa, but with Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai the established halves, the 19-year-old was unlikely to force his way into the starting side any time soon.

Dolphins coach Wayne Bennett knew that, and after watching a highlights reel compiled by one of Katoa’s schoolmates, arranged a Zoom meeting, and within a week had brokered a three-year deal.

Never one to play a kid before they are ready, Bennett is clearly comfortable enough to give Katoa a start, and even at the expense of former million-dollar playmaker Anthony Milford.

During one of the first meetings with Katoa’s parents, Kotoni and Maire, Bennett vowed to look after the youngster.

“Wayne told us, ‘Come to us, and I’ll make sure I look after your son, and I will never put him in positions where he is uncomfortable’,” Kotoni said.

Wests Tigers made inquiries about Katoa last year. Former head of football Adam Hartigan and former coach Michael Maguire had kept tabs on the youngster, and Maguire was even keen to see him pledge his allegiance to the Kiwis.

For the record, Brad Fittler and the NSW Blues have also carried out their due diligence in the past month to see if Katoa can play Origin for NSW.

Joseph Suaali’i (front row second from left) and Isaiya Katoa (back right) celebrate a title with Glenmore Park.

Born in Wellington, New Zealand, or more specifically Lower Hutt, Katoa, the youngest of five children, moved to Sydney when he was nine. His older brother, Sione, played with Penrith and the Bulldogs.

Isaiya has played for Tonga, can play for NSW and Australia, as well as New Zealand. Under the eligibility rules, should he choose the Kiwis, it will end his Origin dream.

Super Rugby franchise the Brumbies were also keen, and gave Katoa a tour of their facilities, but coach Stephen Larkham called after the Dolphins deal had already been finalised.

But back to Katoa and Suaalii, and those Penrith roots.

Isaiya Katoa on the charge for Barker College against Knox Grammar last year.Credit:Barker College

Katoa was a year younger than Suaalii, but always played a handful of games in the older age group so he could qualify for the finals in both grades.

Suaalii was the towering fullback and Isaiya, or “Izzy”, was the five-eighth capable of filling in at dummy half.

“They always wanted Isaiya to qualify himself for finals time, so whenever Isaiya’s team got knocked out, he could then go and play with Joseph,” Kotoni said.

“We did that for four years, and they won three grand finals.

“Joseph is a freak of nature. We know Joseph and his family really well. The main thing with Isaiya is his leadership – his biggest attribute is his leadership and ability to direct a team around the field. That’s where he excels.”

Barker College First XV head coach Dean Hargreaves coached Suaalii in a NSW schoolboys under-18s team and said when it came to comparing the two child prodigies, there was little between them.

“Joseph is such a lovely kid, really professional and a wonderful athlete,” Hargreaves said.

“But I think ‘Izzy’ has that capacity to influence others around him more, partly due to the position he plays, but also his temperament.

“He’s a natural leader who people look towards. Anyone who comes into contact with him, within five or 10 minutes of meeting him you think what a champion player and person.”

Hargreaves’ former assistant, Simon Kerr, who also coaches the colts at Norths, said: “I wouldn’t put either player above or below the other. They’re on par.

“I think Izzy has a higher ceiling, because of the position he plays – if he touches the ball more often, he’ll have more of an influence on a game.”

Katoa isn’t just lightning on his feet either. The kid is tough. He broke his jaw in the first half during a game last year against St Joseph’s College, but refused to come off, only for the worst news to be confirmed later that night at hospital.

You get the sense when it comes to which player is more likely to have his head turned by rugby, it is Katoa, not Suaalii.

Kotoni said the ultimate dream would be to see his son switch codes and pull on the All Blacks jersey.

“Isaiya grew up on rugby union, and he’s a much better union player than he is a rugby league player,” Kotoni said.

“Rugby comes very naturally to him. He knows the game inside out. When he was only three or four, he would sit with me and watch an entire All Blacks game or the Hurricanes.

“The dream would be to see him play for the All Blacks. It would be his biggest dream as well, to be an All Black. He still has that dream in the back of his mind.

“At the moment, we’re so grateful he has an opportunity with the Dolphins.”

Stream the NRL premiership 2023 live and free on 9Now.

Sports news, results and expert commentary. Sign up for our Sport newsletter.

Most Viewed in Sport

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article