On the ball - at uni and Dolphins

Published 10:00am 13 October 2023

On the ball - at uni and Dolphins
Words by Nick Crockford

Isaiya Katoa is a typical first-year business student at the University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC), living, studying and working in Moreton Bay. 

But there is one huge difference.

At the weekend, he pulls on a Dolphins jersey and faces Australia’s biggest, strongest and fastest NRL players, in front of thousands of screaming fans.

Still, that doesn’t scare the 19-year-old half-back/five-eighth as much as an exam block!

“I don’t want to face either honestly. But I think I probably deal with pressure in footy a bit better than exams,” he said. “Exams haunt me! But it’s cool.”

Balancing study and sport has been a constant for Katoa after being rated as one of this country’s top schoolboy rugby league and rugby union talents.

On the ball - at uni and Dolphins
Isaiya Katoa going over for another Dolphins try.

“I finished up school last year in Sydney and then had to sit my HSC exam across the other side of the world in the UK,” he said.

He wasn’t on holiday. He was representing Tonga at the Rugby League World Cup in England at just 18 years of age.

“That was a different experience. I was in a hotel room by myself with no one to study with and get help from - it was pretty difficult,” he said.

Joining Dolphins for their first NRL season brought him to Queensland and UniSC's High Performance Student Athlete Program.

“I’ve always been pretty intrigued by business management – whether that’s related to sports business or even just running your own,” Katoa said.

“I wanted to get a good insight of what it takes to do things like that.

“After talking to the wellbeing staff and understanding how this is setting myself up for the future, I realised it was probably a smart decision.

On the ball - at uni and Dolphins
Isaiya Katoa at UniSC working on his Bachelor of Business degree

“Especially as a young kid just coming out of school with studying still fresh in my brain. It’s been a matter of time management."

Katoa says it was "probably halfway through the year" when he finally found a rhythm balancing studying and training.

“Luckily one of my teammates Jack (Bostock) is studying a Bachelor of Business at UniSC too," he said, "that’s been really good as we feed off each other.

“Honestly, I might have been a bit lost or forgotten some of the work that needed to be done if he wasn’t in my class!"

There has also been support at Dolphins with a study group organised by welfare and wellbeing staff.

"Once every week or so we can come in and even get tutoring help if needed," Katoa said. "We’ve had really good support from the club and UniSC.”

On the ball - at uni and Dolphins
Big smile from Isaiya Katoa after scoring at Kayo Stadium, Redcliffe.

A business degree might not help much with his current day-to-day concerns of tackling technique and quick play balls.

But, the Dolphins' star has seen some overlaps between coursework and the business of rugby league.

“I think the business management side of it and decision making … that's been a massive part that I’ve found interesting,” he said.

“Obviously it's in a different industry. But seeing some of the decisions our coaches make, and the things they have to take into consideration – whether that's injury, workload or how the body's travelling, etcetera.

“Understanding the link between that, and the concepts that we've been learning, has been pretty interesting.”

Sounds like Wayne Bennett might make a good business teacher?

“Yeah, for sure,” Katoa said. “He’s smart bro, he knows a lot. He’d be good.”

On the ball - at uni and Dolphins
Isaiya Katoa taking a break from his studies at UniSC Moreton Bay

Katoa stresses the impact his friends, family and girlfriend have had in helping him keep his priorities in check, as well as role models at the Dolphins.

"The leadership group we have at our club has to be one of the best in terms of looking after their life outside of footy with the likes of our captain Jesse (Bromwich), Felise (Kaufusi), Euan (Aitken) and Sean (O’Sullivan),” Katoa said.

“It’s been awesome to have those guys around as mentors.”

But, at just 19, a rugby league international and university student, he’s becoming a role model in Australia, Tonga and New Zealand, where he grew up.

“Honestly, I try not to think of myself as a role model or anything. I'm still pretty young and working out how to juggle my studies with my footy,” he said.

“I just to try to be a good human first, and a good footy player second.”

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