In the blood and thunder world of the NRL every young playmaker needs a bodyguard and the Wests Tigers’ battalion of budding stars have one of the best in the business in reborn centre Justin Olam.

Every team the Tigers face is going to try and get at the club’s rookies, be it Lachlan Galvin in the club’s recent back-to-back wins or Latu Fainu this weekend against the Dolphins. That’s just how this game is played.

But with Olam shaking off the injuries that blighted his last year at Melbourne, come after the kids at your peril because the Papua New Guinea centre is back to hitting his opponents so hard they’ll still feel it years later on cold mornings.

“I don’t go out there looking for it but sometimes it has to happen. I have a young half [Galvin] with me and I do my best to protect him, I don’t want them to bully him because he’s a good kid,” Olam said.

“He’s still got a lot to learn but you can’t question his effort and his heart. He’s a strong kid mentally and he has a long way to go but he has a really bright future.”

Olam has been outstanding through two games as a Tiger and not just with his protection work.

He’s scored three tries, including a double in the epic win over Parramatta on Monday, and is averaging 161 metres per game. The doubts over his move to the Tigers now seem totally off the mark.

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Such questions were somewhat justified over the summer — from the outside, Olam’s recruitment felt like a risk. At 30, his career was at something of a crossroads.

He endured a tough season at the Storm last season, spending time in reserve grade for the first time in five years and rarely looking like the physical force of the past.

His own body, which had helped him level many an opponent in the past en route to becoming one of the game’s best centres, just wasn’t co-operating with his hard-nosed style.

A groin injury stopped him in the pre-season and he broke his arm in a trial match but the big one was a left knee problem that gave him grief all season.

Tough to a fault, he played through it – to the point where he had to get his leg drained due to fluid build-up under the knee cap.

Eventually, it began to weaken his quad, which robbed him of the strength and explosiveness that made him so dangerous.

But a revamped approach at the Tigers has made all the difference, with Olam transforming back into the sort of player who can inspire fear in the opposition on both sides of the ball.

“Last year I was not myself and I didn’t really do the pre-season this year, I was just looking after my knee. I don’t know how I go out there and play, I guess it’s just an experience thing,” Olam said.

“I can feel the difference [in my knee], it’s a lot better. It’s still there, but I manage it. The physio team is doing a really good job with me, when I need a day off they’ll give me a day.

“They understand I’m carrying an injury and that helps, and when they do that for me I want to play for them, it shows they’re in my corner. It makes me want to give back to the club.”

So far, the pride of Papua New Guinea is doing just that. He doesn’t just look after the young fellas on the field, he shows them the way off it.

The journey from the village of Gon in the PNG highlands to NRL stardom was a long one and Olam couldn’t have ever made it without the kind of tenacity and resilience the Tigers are now trying to make their trademark.

“There’s a lot of young guys out there, so I’m trying to play the veteran role, show them how to win and lead through my actions,” Olam said.

“You have to be resilient, even if we’re down and things aren’t going our way you have to keep fighting.

“Keep doing the little things right, put in the effort, do that and you can turn anything around.

“It’s easy to say but to go out there and do it, that’s the hard part, that’s what they’re learning.

“We weren’t good in some areas [against the Eels] but our effort, the way we looked after each other, how we played for each other, that was definitely there.”

dan