Singing, praying, Bible-reading church-boy's NSW Blues State of Origin debut
Meet Christian teammates Brian To’o and team mate Jarome Luai
To state the obvious, most people don’t associate the State of Origin with Christian devotional practices. ‘Hard’, ‘tough’, ‘brutal’ – even ‘gladiatorial’ – are all words more likely to come to mind when someone mentions the National Rugby League series which sets the New South Wales Blues against the Queensland Maroons. “State versus state” and “mate versus mate” are the taglines emblazoned across television screens.
Footage of players coming to blows – their aggression and emotion spilling over – always feature in Origin promotions. And this year, much of the talk leading up to Origin has been dominated by the violent subject of the NRL’s recent ‘crackdown’ on head-high tackles*.
“Will the match officials pull back from their strict enforcement for the State of Origin games?” sports commentators have asked. “Will someone get sent off for a low-grade, head-high tackle and affect the outcome of the game?” coaches have worried. “We need a gentleman’s agreement that nobody lays on the ground feigning they are hurt in order to ‘milk’ a penalty,” the Players Association rep said.
But when the Blues and the Maroons run on to the field of Townsville’s Queensland Country Bank Stadium tonight – and the crowd roars and the familiar voice of Ray ‘Rabs’ Warren declares the atmosphere to be ‘electric’– there will be one player, Blues winger Brian To’o, taking a knee and quietly committing his game to the Lord.
“Every time I step out in the corner I always pray before and after the game. It just gives me the strength and belief,” To’o has explained.
22-year-old To’o delighted the sports media two weeks ago when he told them he was actually in church when his phone began to ring with a call from Blues coach Brad Fitler telling him he had been selected to represent New South Wales.
“I quickly ran outside. It had no name on it, so I thought it was like Uber Eats or something,” he jokingly told reporters.
But jokes aside, To’o was grateful for the opportunity the NSW selectors had bestowed upon him – and 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.
Both To’o and Blues five-eighth Jarome Luai’s will make their Origin debut for NSW tonight. The pair have grown up playing together in Mount Druitt in the west of Sydney and sharing their Christian faith. They now both play for the Penrith Panthers, along with another Christian teammate Stephen Crichton, whose father – Va’a Crichton – is actually the pastor of their church, Rooty Hill Assemblies of God.
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 comunity. 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.”
At a club football level, To’o and Luai have had a truly #blessed couple of years. Their team Penrith dominated the competition in 2020 – only falling short in the grand final. This year, Penrith have remained undefeated until last weekend, when To’o, Luai and five of their teammates were unable to play due to Origin commitments. At this stage, they are tipped to win the premiership.
To’o and Luai’s excellent form and sunny dispositions have also made them favourites of various NRL commentary teams – not least because they are more than happy to sing and dance their way through post-match interviews (skip to 1.07 of this video for their rendition of a Boys to Men classic).
Yet the talented young player’s effusive will certainly be tested in the Origin arena tonight. To’o is expected to be targeted especially with high balls by the Queensland team, and commentators have repeatedly mentioned his relatively shorter height that often sees him standing 15-20 centimetres below his opposition’s winger.
Blues coach Brad Fittler says he isn’t concerned.
“It’s funny, Brian was training and I was watching and talking to a few forwards, and their reaction, these big, 110-kilo guys, the feedback was ‘he’s a nightmare’,” Fittler told NRL.com reporters Dan Walsh and Chris Kennedy. “He’s a punish to tackle and put down. I think we see that just watching him.
“Everyone’s going to target him, he’s just not that tall … I think they try to affect his confidence [under the high ball] and hopefully I think have an effect on him running out of trouble and taking those tough carries.”
Perhaps all Eternity readers can send up a prayer for the young duo – our brothers in Christ – tonight? Or at least those of us who will be barracking for the mighty NSW Blues.
* Less than a month ago, NRL Chairman Peter V’landys announced the league would be taking a hard line on head-high hits in a bid to eliminate the dangerous behaviour – along with the traumatic brain injury it can cause – from the game. Head-high tackles have always been against the rules, but NRL officials have previously showed leniency for hits that were around the collar area, or where the tackler’s arm slipped up or the person being tackled dropped down during the tackle, and even where a shoulder collided with a head. That leniency is over. Since then, record numbers of NRL players have been penalised, sent to the “sin bin”, sent off altogether and “put on report”, with their actions reviewed by the NRL judiciary after the match and punishments, like suspensions, allocated – drawing a mixed response from players, coaches, sports commentators and fans.