On a (chicken) wing and a prayer: Brian To'o's secret weapons to get on the field this week

Brian To’o and his Penrith panther teammates need to win just one more game to play in this year’s NRL Grand Final – and they have a tough contest ahead. But first, the much-loved Christian winger is praying God would heal his ankle.

To’o missed last week’s semi-final game against the Parramatta Eels due to a persistent injury flaring up. On Saturday, Penrith takes on the league’s minor premiers, the Melbourne Storm, in a preliminary final. The Storm beat Penrith in last year’s grand final, and most people expect them to win on Saturday.

Even with injury troubles, To’o has had a stellar season.

The 23-year-old has averaged almost 250 metres per game in running metres – which is first in the league and 30 metres more than the next best player, Manly’s Tom Trbojevic. The NRL only started keeping stats on running metres in 2013, but in that time, nobody has had a higher average than To’o.

This year, To’o made his State of Origin debut. This week, Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga said the spot in the national representative team is his if he chooses to represent Australia.

Oh, and the last time To’o played, he scored a hat-trick.

So it’s easy to understand why Penrith fans are praying his ankle has healed and he can take to the field.

“It’s inspiring at every game to see Brian and the boys showing glory to God before and after every game. We are believing for Brian and all the injured players for a full recovery and to watch them seal the deal this weekend,” said Penrith supporter Bec, adding that she also loves what Brett Naden, who replaced To’o last week, brings to the team.

“Brian To’o has a reputation at the Panthers for his miraculous healing powers,” reported Joel Gould earlier this month. “… it has emerged that the power of prayer and a diet described as ‘the worst in the NRL’ is the secret to his most recent speedy recovery.”

“Praying is my secret” – Brian To’o

23-year-old To’o had undergone surgery to repair a syndesmosis injury  – the second in consecutive seasons. When the young player was declared fit to play two weeks before expected, footy fans inquired what the secret to his speedy recovery was.

“He is a bit of a different breed and has come back from injury a few times, pretty bad ones too,” said teammate, close friend and fellow mischief-maker Jarome Luai.

“It is probably what he eats. It’s the worst diet in NRL history, but it is working for him. Chicken and cheese … full stop. I can’t give any more away.”

To’o admitted to his “chicken and cheese” diet but added it is praying that is his so-called “secret”.

“I didn’t think I would be back 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.”

To’o’s open witness has made him a firm favourite with Christian NRL fans – even those who aren’t Penrith supporters.

“I love that my boys who play and love Rugby league have such positive role models like Brian and Jerome [Luai]. Eli who is only 11 is praying that Brian is better and will be playing this weekend,” says Panthers fan, Christina, who works at a local church.

“It’s so great to see not just boys from our area playing great footy, but those same boys setting a great example for young people” – Sam, local youth pastor

Earlier this year, sports commentators were delighted to hear To’o was in church when Blues coach Brad Fitler phoned with the news of his NSW selection.

“I quickly ran outside. It had no name on it, so I thought it was like Uber Eats or something,” To’o jokingly told reporters.

Jokes aside, To’o was grateful to God for the blessing.

“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,” To’o says.

To’o and his teammates Jarome Luai and Stephen Crichton have all grown up playing together in the west of Sydney and sharing their Christian faith. Crichton’s father, Va’a Crichton, is the pastor of their church, Rooty Hill Assemblies of God.

“It’s so great to see not just boys from our area playing great footy, but those same boys setting a great example for young people. We are believing for the best on and off the field for the boys!” said Sam, a youth pastor in the local Penrith area.

To’o has always been open about his Christian faith with the media, even opening up about his practices of studying the Bible, prayer and fasting.

Last year, he told an AAP reporter 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 said.

“But it affected me a little bit too much … So I drink water but just take that extra hour.”

During last year’s pandemic, when NRL players were kept in a “bubble” – 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.”

While not all Christians are NRL fans or Penrith supporters (this author is not), there is something everyone can love about Brian To’o.

If he is fit to play this weekend, look out for him sending up a prayer on bended knee before the game starts. Keep your eyes open for the bold “JESUS” written on his wristbands.

And if he doesn’t play, or Penrith doesn’t win, still watch at the game’s end. You will see Brian To’o and his Christian teammates form a circle on the field, bow together in prayer, and thank God for their blessings.

You might even feel inclined to add your own ‘Amen’.