Submitted by Peter Blucher.
Hewago Paul Oea is known to everyone as ‘Ace’. So by strict definition he’s either the top card in the pack, or a person who excels at his chosen profession.
In fact, ‘Ace’ is both. And he’s quite possibly an AFL trailblazer … the 13,008th AFL player all-time, he might just be the first who was not only born overseas but discovered and learned the game overseas before coming to Australia to play and work his way at the highest level.
It is a remarkable story. From the Gordons Kokofas in suburban Port Moresby, one of 10 senior clubs in the Papua New Guinea capital, to Metricon Stadium at Carrara, where he made a fairytale AFL debut for the Gold Coast SUNS against Collingwood on Saturday night.
And just when you think it’s not possible for the story to get any better, it did. The 20-year-old livewire kicked a beautiful goal with his first touch in the first quarter. Receiving a handpass from Sam Flanders, he had the poise to straighten, steady, get onto his right foot, and split the goals with a perfect checkside kick from 25m.
He was mobbed by his SUNS teammates as his own personal cheersquad in the grandstand erupted, but it wasn’t what it could have been. Because the electrifying small forward was a strategic late inclusion for Chris Burgess due to the wet conditions, sadly, a lot of people close to him could not get there.
But televisions around the country were tuned into one of the SUNS’s biggest games at Metricon, where a loud and boisterous crowd of 16,027 braved the inclement weather to cheer on his every involvement.
He finished with six possessions, one goal, one goal assist, one tackle and one clearance and loved every second of it despite the SUNS going down in the closing minutes.
Ben Drew, former Zillmere player and now AFL International Development Manager, recounts with great pride and passion the story of the new pin-up boy of AFL football in PNG.
It began a long time before Drew took up his post 10 years ago and is a triumph for a development pathway that began with Queenslander Scott Reid, who initially did some development work in the region while working with Westpac and coaching the Uni Bulldogs. After he reached out to the AFL they sent fellow Queenslander Andrew Cadzow to PNG as a development officer based in Port Moresby, and in 2001 established AFL PNG, with Reid, much loved in the region, taking on a key role as a director.
‘Ace’ was born in Port Moresby on 13 November 2001 six weeks after Mal Michael, also born in PNG, had been a member of the Brisbane Lions’ first premiership side. He lost his mother when he was young and grew up with his father Paul and their large family.
As the youngest born he inherited his father’s name as his middle name, hence his formal name registered with the AFL.
He played in the school’s competition in Port Moresby, known as Smart Start Niukick, and was spotted by William Yogomin, known to all as ‘Fada Willie’, who ran the Academy. And once he was into the AFL pathway he moved forward in leaps and bounds.
Still only 12 in 2014 he visited Australia for the first time with the PNG Under 14 side, returning in 2015. In 2016-17 he was a member of the South Pacific Under 16 side that play in the Queensland championships, and in 2017 he joined the SUNS Academy.
He had a three-month stint on the tourist strip and played a little football at Broadbeach, where older brother Hapeo Bobogi – same father, same mother, different name – had earlier played.
He starred for the PNG ‘Mozzies’, the national team, in the 2017 International Cup at 15, and, in an unforgettable highlight, was judged best afield in the Grand Final against New Zealand at the MCG.
He was chosen in the 2018-19 AFL Academy coached by ex-Lions star Luke Power and the Allies side which included nine others who have gone on to play AFL football – SUNS teammates Conor Budarick, Joel Jeffrey, Alex Davies and Malcolm Rosas, GWS’ Tom Green, Sydney’s Braeden Campbell, Richmond’s Will Martyn, Hawthorn’s Jackson Callow and Carlton’s Luke Parks.
He made his NEAFL debut with the SUNS in 2019, winning a Rising Star nomination, and after being overlooked in the 2019 NAB AFL Draft he won a Category B rookie spot with the SUNS in 2020.
The Covid outbreak brought tough times. Not only did it limit his football but he could not get home to PNG for two and a half years. Still, he endeared himself to the Suns ‘family’ with the way he embraced the situation, always kept a smile on his face, and worked hard on his game.
Sadly, one of the key people missing from Oea’s memorable debut was former AFLQ Gold Coast development co-ordinator Tim Searl, who with his wife Chris had become his local ‘parents’. He was in Sydney on Saturday and could not get a flight home in time.
Searl tells the story of how, when Oea first moved into his home, he would not sleep in a bed because PNG tradition suggested only the primary bread-winner in the family did so.
It is also SUNS folklore how the Searls, working in conjunction with the Suns and the AFL, played a key role in improving Oea’s literacy. After all, English was his third language when he moved to Australia, and he hadn’t done a lot of formal schooling.
Drew also missed the Oea debut – he was isolating at home with Covid – but says when the 172cm pocket rocket plays his next game at Metricon there will be an army of personal fans to support him.
Is Oea the first truly international AFL player? The first to discover and learn the game overseas rather than, as many have done, establish themselves in other sports before being targeted as AFL recruits? Nobody is prepared to claim as much, but there is no definite answer to say otherwise.
In November 2008, 17-year-old Tianen Carbry was invited to the AIS/AFL academy and in January 2009, 17-year-old Amua Parika was signed by the SUNS. Shortly after the SUNS signed Stanis Susuve and Peter Labi joined Carlton on an international scholarship. Gideon Simon signed with Richmond as an international rookie and Donald Barry was at Brisbane on an international scholarship but none played at the elite level.
Just as Mason Cox has famously become the first American to play in the AFL, and a host of Irishman have become household AFL names, Oea will forever carry the PNG tag as he continues to build a promising and heart-warming AFL career.
Sadly, the joy of the Oea debut in the Suns camp was off-set by the shattering news that Queenslander Connor Budarick had suffered a second major knee injury that will require another reconstruction.
The former rookie, who has become one of the most admired young players in the Suns camp, was playing just his ninth game back after missing most of the 2021 season when the same knee went from underneath him late in the game.
Peter Blucher is a consultant with Vivid Sport.