Hewago Oea (left) celebrates his first goal in the AFL during the R16 clash between Gold Coast and Collingwood at Metricon Stadium on July 2, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

WHEN Hewago Oea made his fairytale debut for Gold Coast against Collingwood last Saturday night, it signified a huge breakthrough for the sport outside Australia.

It made 'Ace' a trailblazer of sorts.

By running on to Metricon Stadium, the 20-year-old became the first player to learn the game in Papua New Guinea and play in the AFL.

Triple-premiership Lion Mal Michael, former Saint James Gwilt and current Kangaroo Aidan Bonar all have direct family ties to PNG, but Oea is the first to hone his skills there before moving to Australia at a later age.


His journey from Port Moresby to the Gold Coast is one of not only skill, but perseverance and resilience.

It was just eight years ago the lightning-quick small forward picked up a Sherrin for the first time, at a stage of his life he had no concept of the English language.

He was introduced to the game via the Smart Start Niukick program – the equivalent of Auskick – and identified by Academy head William Yogomin.

Oea's progress was as quick as his nimble feet.

He quickly made the PNG under-14 team that same year which headed south to take part in the Queensland underage championships.

Hewago Oea in action for PNG's under-14 Binatang side. Picture: Hetahou photography

Oea would then make annual trips to Queensland to play representative footy before eventually being assimilated into the AFL's pathway programs.

AFL International Development Manager Ben Drew told AFL.com.au it didn't take long for those in PNG and Queensland to identify Oea's talent.

"His weapons are his speed, but he's also got endurance and it's hard to find someone with that combination," Drew said.

"He gets up the ground, puts pressure on the ball and can beat anyone going back the other way.

"When he was younger, we thought he read the game really well. He could see ahead, he understood angles and could find space."

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and in Oea's instance it took a virtual village across borders for his burgeoning career to flourish.

From Scott Reid who started AFL PNG around the turn of the century, to AFL Queensland talent manager Mark Browning, and host family Tim and Chris Searl on the Gold Coast, who Oea still lives with today, hundreds of people have played a part.

Hewago Oea surrounded by his family Freda, Helen, Dash, Rueben, Annie and Cal. Picture: Hetahou photography

Oea made a permanent move south in 2018 to join the Suns Academy and the AFL Academy coached by former Lion Luke Power.

"Moving away from my family was pretty tough," he said.

"The lifestyle down here is different. Back home is a different culture, so moving away was tough.

"The first week I was so happy and the second week I was a little bit homesick. Lucky, I have a beautiful family."

That family – the Searls – helped progress his English from a second grade level to its current fluency.

Hewago Oea celebrates after the Allies beat Vic Metro in the U18 championships in 2019. Picture: AFL Photos

Oea would stand at the back of team huddles as a junior unsure what was being said, but would gradually learn over time.

"He's remarkable," Drew said.

"He's an amazing young man who is truly resilient. I cannot express how proud of him I am."

And now in his second year on the Suns list as a Category B rookie, Oea made the big breakthrough to debut at senior level after being called in as a late replacement last week.

Oea said he was "shocked" when coach Stuart Dew and development coach Rhyce Shaw arrived at his house seven hours before the game to deliver the news.

"Growing up, it's a kid's dream to play AFL," Oea said.

"It's going to be pretty special for everyone at AFL PNG and the community.

"Growing up rugby league is big back home, but I think last Saturday everyone just watched the footy and watched me play. 

"Now they want to join school footy pathways. I've got big trust and belief we've got a lot of talent back home and I think one day they'll follow my footsteps."

Drew agrees, saying the response since last weekend in PNG has been remarkable, with Oea on the back page of the Post Courier, the nation's daily newspaper, and on television and radio.

"This will spike participation, it'll spike interest in our game, it'll create more understanding and knowledge we're there," he said.

"It's such a feelgood story and a great reward for so many people in PNG.

"To see this happen, there's such immense pride. 

"There's so many more Aces in PNG, we've just got to find them."