Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs young gun Karl Oloapu has been provided with a positive update as he prepares for neck surgery after previously facing the prospect of being forced into premature retirement.

The highly-touted 18-year-old prospect had received two medical opinions that indicated he risked catastrophic injury if he continued in the NRL. However, a renowned spinal surgeon has now allayed those fears.

Oloapu was born with a serious spinal condition, and it is reported that when he flexes his neck and looks down, there is damaging pressing on his spinal cord, with cervical fusion surgery a possibility.

Bulldogs head of football Phil Gould told SEN Radio on November 22nd that the young utility was still weighing up his decision and there was no timeframe set for his return to play.

“We’re still working through medical opinions on that one,” he said.

“All I will say at the moment is that Karl’s welfare is our priority… we’re dealing with him, his management and his family on that and Karl has to make some decisions about how he treats this injury going forward.

“There is a non-surgical approach and a surgical approach that he needs to consider, and we need to consider what is in the best interests of him going forward.

“We don’t want to put him in a position where he can suffer any serious injury – those discussions are ongoing.”

Associate professor Mark Winder provided Oloapu with the hope that he could return for the Dogs sometime next season, as it was initially reported he could sit out for the entirety of 2024 and beyond.

“We went into it expecting that if it was bad news, we would accept that,” Oloapu’s manager, Matt Adamson, told The Sydney Morning Herald of their meeting with St Vincent’s Hospital spinal surgeon Winder.

“The way [Winder] articulated things in that meeting to say he was going to be OK is awesome, which has given Karl great hope. The key to all of this is he said, ‘This can be fixed’. Karl is excited, but there’s still some way to go.”

He notably turned down an opportunity to represent Samoa at the ongoing Pacific Championships in favour of rehabilitation, with Adamson noting they didn’t want to rush a decision.

“There’s no need for stupidity in this, we’ll take it a step at a time,” he said.

Oloapu made his full first-grade debut for the Bulldogs in Round 12 this year, becoming the youngest player to start at five-eighth since the Super League era, aged just 18 years and 123 days.

Who will play in the halves for the Bulldogs in 2024?

Despite making the majority of his seven appearances for the Bulldogs at five-eighth last season, Oloapu may be set for a positional switch once he returns from injury with Gould believing he could thrive at lock.

“He’s done a really good job – 18 years of age and before he got here, the only football he had really played was at schoolboy level,” Gould said in July.

“He didn’t do the off-season with us and he was blooded before his time a little bit, in a position that he’s not going to play long-term. We used him as a halfback there, just to give us a little bit of control, and I thought he did an outstanding job.

“I see him as a lock-forward, very much in the Cameron Murray mould, and I think he’s gonna be a really great player for this club for a long time.”

With Oloapu facing a lengthy stint on the sideline and his future seemingly not as a playmaker, the Bulldogs will have decisions to make when it comes to their halves pairing for the 2024 season.

Burton will almost certainly continue in the halves — most likely at five-eighth — in what will be his third year in Belmore, with Toby Sexton the logical choice to partner him in the No. 7 jersey.

Sexton joined the Bulldogs mid-way through the 2023 season and performed strongly in the middle of the park.

New recruit Jaeman Salmon has the ability to play five-eighth, too.

There are also eight spots remaining in the Bulldogs’ top 30 squad for next season, allowing the club to sign reinforcements in the halves if needed.

Karl Oloapu contract

Oloapu was signed by the Bulldogs earlier this year, with poached from the Brisbane Broncos for a $500,000 fee.

He inked a four-year deal with Canterbury that will see him remain with the club until the end of 2026.

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