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Keaon keen to take down Kikau in epic back-rower battle

Once upon a time, being a second-rower wasn’t much fun. You were an in-between middle: not quite a prop, not quite a lock and liable for the dirty hit-ups, bulk tackling and decoy running of all of them, without the pay cheque to match.

In the height of the grind era of the NRL, it was perhaps the least glamourous position on the field. Now, however, things have changed. Back-rowers are scoring more points than ever – tries for the position have skyrocketed since 2020 – and one of the key beneficiaries has been South Sydney’s Keaon Koloamatangi.

This weekend, he’s set to face one of the best in the world in his position in Viliame Kikau, with a place in the Grand Final on the line.

“I’m expecting aggression and hard-running,” he said of the showdown. “I have to match that aggression and hopefully come away with the win.”

Make no mistake: this is two of the best in the comp, at a time when the NRL has never been stronger in the position.

“It’s good that back-rowers are getting more ball and scoring more tries rather than running decoys!” sid Koloamatangi.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

“I’ve scored a few more tries than last year, but that’s just through playing the game and being more confident.”

The style of play that has taken over the best of the best helps. With the ball-playing lock now a feature of the elite teams, space is more readily available for edge forwards.

Koloamatangi has formed a particularly strong bond with his lock, Souths captain Cam Murray, and with rookie halfback Lachlan Ilias, who has made an art form of slipping the big back-rower through holes.

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“Camo is probably the best ball-playing lock in the game and the time that he gives us on the outside makes my job a lot easier. If I didn’t have Cam there I wouldn’t get as many tries.

“The relationship with Lachy, who’s giving me the ball at the right time, helps too.”

“We’ve got the best spine, with Cody (Walker), Latrell (Mitchell), Camo and (Damien) Cookie, and in their positions they’re the best ball-players. Having all of them on my team, it’s easy for them to score points because they’re so good at it, they can read the defence like it’s nothing.”

The rise of the back-rower has not passed Koloamatangi by. He knows the threat he will face on Saturday night frm the two-time Dally M Second Rower of the Year in Kikau, and has watched his Tongan teammate, Haumole Olakau’atu, go from strength to strength at Manly.

“My favourite player growing up was Sonny Bill Williams and he was a hard-hitting player on his lines, as well as Sammy Burgess,” he said. “Now, Haumole is a beast – if you give him early ball and he’ll score tries out of nothing.

“Viliame is good too. It’s good that there’s so much competition with back-rowers now, I like that and it helps my game grow. I love it.”

His relationship with Ilias helps, too. The pair are tight off the field and, according to Koloamatangi, that transitions into a great relationship on it.

“We’re always talking when we’re at home and on Instagram,” he said. “The play comes from that. When he first came we just bonded and it shows on the field.

“If you’re close with someone off the field because it translates. You get a feel for each other and you learn what they’re about, what they like and what they don’t like. You build a relationship from there.”

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