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Samoan heart and soul gets Penrith Panthers over the line

The brotherhood left out on the 2021 NRL grand final arena ran deeper than just teammates that gather every game around a locker room.

That kinship tied from common bloodlines was all out to see on Sunday evening among the high emotions of a rugby league battle for the ages.

New premiership heroes Moses Leota, Tyrone May, Stephen Crichton, Jerome Luai, Spencer Leniu and Brian To’o were left beaming while proudly engulfing a Samoan flag amid the Panthers’ euphoric celebrations.

The roots of the winners are not only deep across Penrith, wedged between Sydney and the Blue Mountains, but among the sizeable Samoan diaspora across the small city of less than 15,000 residents.

These young men have lived in each other’s pockets for the better part of five years since carrying the weight of expectations as Penrith’s best chance to win another elusive premiership.

Though such high hopes have not stopped the group from humorously mocking one another, singing vocal harmonies together or perfecting try celebrations, all in full sight of a camera.

That third title in 54 years did eventually arrive off a brave 14-12 victory over South Sydney in Brisbane.

“It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” To’o told a press conference in Brisbane the next day.

“I’m still pinching myself we won the grand final especially with heaps of the young boys – the boys I grew up with.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to sink in.”

Samoan Panthers at the 2021 NRL grand final. Source: Nine News

The star winger was raised on the western outskirts of Sydney, less than 10 kilometres from his club’s home ground.

The Panthers have almost boasted about bringing through their talented crop of juniors through the club’s academy that was only launched in 2016.

No players have benefited from the academy more than the first Samoan generation of the tightknit community scattered throughout the rugby league heartland.

And on grand final night in a blink of an eye that came from the outstretched arms of Stephen Crichton.

To’o watched from the left flank as Crichton intercepted a floating Rabbitohs’ pass before sprinting more than 40 metres to the line to all but seal the first flag win since 2003.

“He really saved us, hey?” To’o said of Crichton catch and run.

“Stephen pretty much won us the game.

“I wish I had his ability to be tall and still be young – I am still working on my height.

“Maybe next year, the year after or 10 years down the track I’ll be taller.

“Nah, even though he is younger than me, I look up to him and I am his biggest fan.”

Crichton is the only one of the Panthers that was born in Samoa, but their cultural link to the islands has remained strong through the association of the club.

The 21-year-old leads most of the group in pre-match prayers in the shadows of his pastor father, which during the past two seasons of COVID-19 the invocation has turned into bible studies.

The humble players despite their game-day antics have struggled financially growing up in working-class Australia, only to be in a position to share their rewards of success with their people.

Leota was still living in a caravan from his concreting job on a building site when he first sent money back to his extended family before his NRL career took off – and now he can afford a car for his mum.

Luai saves every cent too towards paying off his mum’s Australian home where he also lives well after the five-eighth became a household name.

That says a lot about the importance of family after Luai’s father missed his son’s NRL debut, the birth of his grandson after facing financial destitution that led to jail time for drug trafficking.

To’o once would head to work in a warehouse in the middle of night to make ends meet.

The first NRL pay cheque purchased his sister’s headstone after she died of cancer in 2018.

The next two big moments of his life were happier and coincided within minutes of each other.

The jubilation of the Panthers’ triumph was followed by To’o proposing to his long-time girlfriend Moesha Crichton-Ropati.

“I was planning on proposing to her in (State of) Origin, but God had different plans,” To’o said.

He struggled to keep the ring a secret and only let a select number of teammates know of his plans to propose.

But in front of shocked onlookers after the final whistle that just held 39,322 spectators, To’o got down on one knee and said, “You’re the best thing that has ever happened to me – will you marry me?”

After asking had To’o sought approval from her parents, the answer to the question proved to be a resounding yes.

The tears of joy streamed down her face and it would not have mattered had the premiership ring being placed on her finger instead.

“Either way, I would have been more than happy,” she said.

1 Comment
  1. Craig 8 months ago
    Reply

    Great read Andrew.

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