The National Rugby League’s State of Origin gets underway tonight, and as Eternity’s self-appointed NRL journo (hit me up, NRL 360, I’m ready), I can’t let the occasion pass without a shout-out to everyone’s favourite Christian footy stars – the Blues boys from Penrith.
Yes, I’m talking about the ever-smiling, often-dancing Brian To’o and Jerome Luai and the son-of-a-preacher-man Stephen Crichton, who makes his Origin debut.
The bond of being FTA
The Panthers trio are bonded by a shared experience of growing up in one of Sydney’s low socio-economic areas, Mt Druitt and “making it” in the NRL. All three boys remember the shame that the controversial SBS documentary Struggle Street brought on the suburb’s residents in 2015. Locals had agreed to participate after being told it would highlight the struggles, wins and aspirations of Mt Druitt families living in government housing. Instead, the program embarrassed them, with the Blacktown Mayor describing it as “poverty porn”.
“At first, I thought the program was a joke,” To’o says. “But then the more you understood it, the more offensive it became. Struggle Street made us feel like outsiders. Like we weren’t wanted.”
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Now, all three take great pride in playing as a representative From The [Mt Druitt] Area (FTA) – even when Melbourne Storm players mocked their blue-collar upbringing. Mount Druitt locals refer to themselves as “mounties” and even have a dance move – the “mounty bop” courtesy of local drill and rap group ONEFOUR – a move To’o proudly broke into when he scored his first try in the NRL in 2019 (see video below).
“Growing up in Mount Druitt … you’re sort of ashamed to say you’re from Mount Druitt” – Jerome Luai
“[I’m a] massive fan of anyone who comes from the area and that’s able to make a name for themselves,” Luai explains. “Growing up in Mount Druitt and getting the vibe of no one wants to be from there, or you’re sort of ashamed to say you’re from Mount Druitt … Until this point, where everyone loves it and wants to be recognised, and a lot of people are making noise from the area, so that’s pretty cool.”
To’o, Luai and Crichton grew up attending church together, with Crichton’s dad the pastor. But these aren’t just church attendees. They’re real-deal Christians who love God with all their heart and are determined to acknowledge him as Lord, even in a game of football.
From wristbands declaring “JESUS” in large letters, to heavenward acknowledgments when they score a try, and post-match prayer circles on bended knee, watching these guys is good for the soul.
So, here’s your guide to your brothers in Christ who will be wearing Blue tonight – and a treasure trove of anecdotes for your office water-cooler conversations tomorrow.
Brian To’o – winger
23-year-old Brian To’o (AKA Bizza) – a personal fave of this Official Sports Journalist – made his origin debut for the NSW Blues last year. When asked about receiving The Call from coach Brad “Freddy” Fittler, To’o delighted fans by telling them he was in church when his phone rang – and he answered it.
“I quickly ran outside. It had no name on it, so I thought it was like Uber Eats or something,” he jokingly told reporters. “As soon as I got home, before I started packing, I did a little prayer … just to thank God for blessing me with the opportunity.”
Straight Christian talk – with the media!
Football players bringing their Christianity into the public square hasn’t always gone great guns in Australia. But To’o has a winsome way of sharing his personal practices, even those that might sound weird to a non-believer.
In 2020, he told reporter Scott Bailey that he fasts for seven hours at the start of every day – abstaining from all food and all drinks, except water – even when he has training.
“It’s pretty tough for me with training,” To’o said. “I go from 6am until 1pm with no drink or food. Me and my missus try and go two days a week.”
He even tried abstaining from drinking water twice, he revealed: “But it affected me a little bit too much … So I drink water but just take that extra hour.”
When NRL players were kept in a “bubble” in 2020 due to the pandemic – seeing only their families, teammates and the coaches and staff of their club – To’o, Crichton and Luai found themselves unable to attend services and gather with the rest of their church community. Instead, they gathered together to study the Bible.
“It’s tough,” To’o said at the time. “I spoke to my parents about it and they understand. As long as I am staying consistent with everything and praying and fasting.”
In a disarmingly open interview with Fox NRL in 2019, To’o invited League Life host Hannah Hollis to attend church with him and welcomed her into his family home. The result is a moving video story in which To’o reveals his humble beginnings and the personal tragedy he suffered in the loss of a younger sister.
For the last three seasons, To’o has battled injuries. But, he says, he has a secret weapon – prayer.
“I didn’t think I would be back [to playing] as soon but I prayed on it and am really grateful that I came through. All glory to God to get me through this process of healing,” he said. “Praying is my secret. I am like Stephen Crichton and Jarome Luai. We are high on our faith and as long as we keep that faith we will always come through.”
And when To’o’s club team, the Penrith Panthers, won the grand final last year, To’o rushed over to his partner Moesha Crichton-Ropati in the crowd and proposed to her on one knee.
“First of all, I want to give all the glory to God, what a year it’s been for not only myself but for my community as well,” To’o told the Nine Network afterwards. “I want to thank my beautiful partner for saying yes and also for the boys for getting us the win. I’m just grateful to be here.”
To’o’s task in Origin 2022
To’o’s Origin selection this year is again peppered with questions about his “small stature” (by NRL standards) and his ability to leap up and get a high ball. But there’s no doubt that the Penrith flyer is a massive threat in attack. Look out for his acrobatic leaps over opponents to score in the corner – at least a couple of experts are tipping him to score the first try tonight.
Jarome Luai – Five-Eighth
True confessions, Jarome Luai (AKA Romey) is the Blues boy I am most nervous about profiling in this piece. Not because I doubt his faith, but because he’s a bit, well, naughty on the field. All in the spirit of the game, of course.
Last year, for example, Luai got snapped in a photograph mid-blues game that was used to fire up their opposition, The Queensland Maroons, for the next match. Let’s just say Luai doesn’t appear to have been manifesting the fruit of the spirit in that shot (epic as it is).
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The story behind the fierce footballer
But the 25-year-old Luai’s ability to switch between the on-field aggression and off-field softie makes more sense when you discover his story. In a profile by Michael Chammas for the Sydney Morning Herald, Luai and his father, Martin, shared the story of how their family’s toughest season began in 2015.
“Until then, Martin had lived an honest life. He worked every day for 20 years to put food on the table for his wife and four children. But a desperate act to save the life of Jarome’s friend, Panthers SG Ball teammate Casey Lafaele, caused Martin’s own life to take a sudden turn for the worse.
“The father of four broke his hand on the rocks at Shelly Beach pulling a drowning Lafaele to safety. The injury he sustained prevented him from returning to work as a storeman at a milk factory in Lidcombe, meaning the family had to live off the Centrelink allowance Martin’s wife, Raumako, was receiving.”
When both the microwave and the washing machine had broken, and it became hard to put food on the table, Martin accepted a friend’s suggestion to begin selling drugs.
“We weren’t making ends meet,” Martin told Chamas. “I didn’t go looking to do it. It was the biggest mistake I’ve made in my life, but when they tell you the amounts of money you can make … money can sway your mind very quickly knowing your family will be better off with you bringing that home. I was just trying to look after my family.”
“It was the biggest mistake I’ve made in my life,” – Martin Luai
Martin was arrested and put in jail for two years, two months and 16 days nights. He missed being at Luai’s NRL debut – he listened to it on the radio – and the birth of his first grandchild, Luai’s son Israel. Martin struggled with self-pity, but after getting a job as a butcher in the prison kitchen and beginning a Christian fellowship, he realised that his family was suffering the most.
Luai had taken on the responsibility of providing financially for his family.
“I’m the oldest child and with three younger siblings I had to step into that father role for my family.”
Martin has truly repented for his mistakes and says that, even though he had his reasons, “there really isn’t any good enough reason to do what I did.”
“When I did it at the time, I thought I wasn’t hurting anyone because I wasn’t doing it. I wasn’t the one putting it into their arms, but I was contributing to getting that stuff out there.”
“I can’t ever give back to my kids and family the two years that I took away from them,” Martin says. “And I will live with that pain for the rest of my life.
While Luai hasn’t spoken (verbally) much about his faith in the media, his soft-spoken respect and joy are evident for all to see. And when it comes to those post-match prayer circles, Luai has been there from the start.
Luai looking to shine in Origin 2022
Look for Luai alongside teammate Nathan Cleary tonight. The pair match up against Maroons’ Cameron Munster (who is in amazing form) and Daly Cherry-Evans (who has been around longer than Methuselah) in the halves. Yet despite their formidable opposition, Cleary and Luai are sure to shine, having played together since they were kids.
“You can’t hear your own teammates, but I know what he’s (Cleary) thinking, if that makes sense,” Luai told nrl.com.au this week. “I know when he’s going to do something – it’s a pretty cool connection.”
Stephen Crichton – Centre
Stephen Crichton (AKA Critta) is the preacher’s kid playing out of his skin this year for the Penrith Panthers this season.
He’s just 21 and is untested in Origin, but his club stats this season show precisely why he was selected. In just 12 games this year, Crichton has scored 8 tries, kicked 14 goals, made 27 tackle breaks and 6 line breaks, and has averaged 140 running metres per game.
Christian roots and gutsy parents
Crichton, To’o and Luai have all grown up playing together in the west of Sydney and sharing their Christian faith. To’o and Crichton actually met when they spotted one another on a train – both Samoans decked out in Penrith Panthers gear – and became friends. Now, they read the Bible and pray together before and after they play.
Crichton’s father, Va’a Crichton, is the pastor of their church, Rooty Hill Assemblies of God.
“I feel like a lot of people at church tell me I can be like my dad because I’m talkative and I can really preach the word,” Crichton told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Adam Pengilly in 2020.
“Down the track, I will see how things go and whether God still wants me to play footy or gives me other plans. My dad’s the pastor of our church, but it’s up to us if we want to live that right life to please God.
“A lot of Bible verses encourage me and I feel that’s what has pushed me to where I am today. God’s put me in this position and it’s up to me whether I take it with both hands and prepare properly to win a grand final, or just be there for the sake of it.”
For now, though, Crichton’s doing anything he can to honour God as a professional footballer. He often sports a cross shaved into his hair or painted in zinc on his face and points heavenward when he scores a try. He even has ‘Psalm 118:6’ written on his mouthguard to remind him of the verse, ‘I will not fear for the Lord is with me, what can man do to me?’
Like To’o and Luai, Crichton comes from humble origins. Born in Apia, Samoa, Crichton and his family settled in New South Wales when he was still a child. His parents had worked in an onion factory back in Samoa. Here, mum Sina works night shifts in a factory and dad Va’a is the Rooty Hill bus driver.
Growing up, Crichton often did not get to play weekend rugby league because the $130 registration fees were out of his family’s reach financially. And now, like his Penrith teammates, a large proportion of the money Crichton makes now goes straight into providing for his family and seeking to improve their living standards.
Crichton ready to play wherever, whenever in Origin 2022
Part of Crichton’s appeal is his height under a bomb. Another is his versatility. And, while he will start on the interchange bench when he makes his Origin debut tonight, Fittler will be able to use him in the centre, on the wing or at fullback as needed.
Last night former Maroon and sports commenter Corey Parker said he disagreed with the decision to start Crichton on the bench, saying he didn’t “see the value of a debutant — particularly an outside back — sitting on the bench for such a long period of time using up that nervous energy”.
Look out for how Crichton manages his wait on the bench, and where and when he is brought into the game. And maybe send up a prayer for the preacher’s kid debutant.