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The toughest team in the NRL: Read the inspirational success stories in the Penrith Panthers

The remarkable success of Penrith Panthers NRL team this season has been nothing but incredible.

The minor premiers hope to continue their dream 17-game unbeaten run when they take on Melbourne Storm in the NRL grand final at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium on Sunday night.

It will be the club’s third premiership if the fairytale script goes to plan, following previous success in 1991 and 2003.

Many of the locally-raised Panthers stars have endured mammoth personal challenges and tragedy off-the-field which have inspired their on-field success this season.

From family heartache and tough upbringings to extreme poverty and family behind bars, many have defied the toughest of odds to overcome adversity.

‘They embody the battler spirit the Penrith club prides itself on,’ Panthers legend Mark Geyer told Daily Mail Australia.

‘Coming from tough backgrounds, they’ve had to work harder than anyone else to get where they are today, which has made them more resilient. Everything else that comes their way is a bonus.’ 

 Geyer was the only player who grew up in the Mount Druitt area when the Panthers won their maiden premiership in 1991.

Six players in the Panthers line-up this Sunday come from the 2770 postcode, which was subject to a controversial SBS documentary called Struggle Street five years ago.

‘The five or six players from Mount Druitt are the driving force behind this year’s side, which has brought a culture that’s made them so successful ‘ Geyer said.

‘They’re role models to today’s youth from the 2770 postcode that they too can be a success.’

Daily Mail Australia pays tribute to the Panthers stars who have defied the toughest of odds to overcome adversity.

Brian To’o

The young Panthers winger was a day shy of his 10th birthday when his sister Dannielle tragically lost her hard-fought battle with cancer in 2008. 

‘I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, I miss her so much,’ he told Fox Sports in 2019.

‘I would do anything just to see her again, it’s so hard to describe how much I love my sister. I’d do anything to take her place. I would do anything for her.’

To’o still visits her grave every week.  

‘She had the mentality to never give up and always keep smiling. That’s something I spoke about amongst the boys and something I want to have myself. When I grow up I want to pass that on to my kids.’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald this week.

His parents often struggled to make ends meet.

‘There would days when we would be sweet but then there would be days I’d have to sacrifice all my meal prep for training for my parents and siblings,’ To’o recalled.

Penrith winger Brian To'o, pictured with his partner is one of several Panthers stars to endure family tragedy

Penrith winger Brian To'o, pictured with his partner is one of several Panthers stars to endure family tragedy

Penrith winger Brian To’o, pictured with his partner is one of several Panthers stars to endure family tragedy

To'o still visits the grave of his sister Dannielle, who died a day before his 10th birthday

To'o still visits the grave of his sister Dannielle, who died a day before his 10th birthday

To’o still visits the grave of his sister Dannielle, who died a day before his 10th birthday

Jarome Luai  

Martin Luai was jailed for drug trafficking three years ago, leaving his eldest son Jarome to help raise his three siblings on top of becoming the breadwinner and  starting his own family. 

He not only missed the birth of Jarome’s first child but also his NRL debut in 2018 during his two-and-a-half-years behind bars in a Brisbane maximum security prison.

He had to listen to his son’s milestone game against the Newcastle Knights on the radio in his prison cell.

The young Panthers playmaker learnt a great deal while his father was behind bars.

‘You’ve got to work for everything in life and there’s no easy road, which is  something I took out of that,’ Luai told Nine News this week.

‘It gave me more motivation to make it for my family as well. My dad wasn’t around so i had to step up and take that father role in the house. 

His father is proud of how his son stepped up in his absence and will be in crowd cheering him on  at ANZ Stadium this Sunday night.

‘To show that maturity as a young man, to step up, I just get emotional thinking about it,’ Mr Luai said.

Jarome Luai became his family's breadwinner when his dad Martin was sent to jail. The Panthers star is pictured  with his partner and young son on a Gold Coast holiday in January

Jarome Luai became his family's breadwinner when his dad Martin was sent to jail. The Panthers star is pictured  with his partner and young son on a Gold Coast holiday in January

Jarome Luai became his family’s breadwinner when his dad Martin was sent to jail. The Panthers star is pictured  with his partner and young son on a Gold Coast holiday in January

Martin (right) is proud of his son Jarome (left)

Martin (right) is proud of his son Jarome (left)

Martin Luai will be cheering from the stands

Martin Luai will be cheering from the stands

Martin Luai  (right) was jailed for drug trafficking three years ago, leaving his eldest son Jarome (pictured left with his dad)  to help raise his three siblings

Viliame Kikau  

It’s been 10 years since the backrower’s older brother Jope was confined to a wheelchair by a spinal infection.

Kikau idolised Jope, who had been a rugby union prodigy until his promising career was abruptly cut short at age 19. 

Kikau brought his Panthers teammates to tears when he opened up about Jope’s story at one of the club’s regular vulnerability sessions earlier this season.

‘He (Jope) was going places. I have no doubt one day he would have worn an All Blacks jersey. And just like that it happened,’ Kikau told the Sydney Morning Herald.

‘But for him, it’s still hard.’

Kikau famously made a post-game 6750km dash to Fiji to be the best man at Jope’s wedding last season which involved two mid-game vomits and three missed flights.

He will be playing for his older brother when he runs onto ANZ Stadium on Sunday night.

‘I am living his dream,’ Kikau said.

Viliame Kikau (right) still idolises his brother Jope (left) who's confined to a wheelchair

Viliame Kikau (right) still idolises his brother Jope (left) who's confined to a wheelchair

Viliame Kikau (right) still idolises his brother Jope (left) who’s confined to a wheelchair

Viliame Kikau (pictured at Panthers  training this week) will be playing for his older brother

Viliame Kikau (pictured at Panthers  training this week) will be playing for his older brother

Viliame Kikau (pictured at Panthers  training this week) will be playing for his older brother 

Stephen Crichton 

The Samoan-born centre, 19, has become one of the code’s brightest rising stars since bursting onto the scene to make his NRL debut 14 months ago. 

When he was two, his parents Sina and Va’a ditched their jobs at an onion factory in Apia and moved their growing family initially to New Zealand and then Australia, where they settled in western Sydney.

He almost never played rugby league because his family couldn’t afford the junior registration fees.

Crichton was in year nine when SBS aired Struggle Street, filmed in the Mount Druitt housing commission streets where he grew up.

He recalls the deep hurt suffered and being given a hard time by Patrician Brothers Blacktown schoolmates about coming from the area when the documentary dubbed as ‘poverty porn’ by the local mayor aired in 2015.

He’s one of six Panthers stars who grew up in the 2770 postcode who now use the documentary as motivation towards premiership glory. 

Crichton is desperate to the dispel the misconceived stereotype that nothing good comes out of Mount Druitt.  

‘At school, I was teased a fair bit. Kids would laugh at me and say ‘oh, you’re from Struggle Street’. ‘It hurt but after a while, it also became my motivation,’ he recently told the Daily Telegraph. 

Stephen Crichton (right) was raised in Mount Druitt and was teased by schoolmates when Struggle Street aired in 2015. He's pictured with teammate Brian To'o, who also grew up in the 2770 postcode

Stephen Crichton (right) was raised in Mount Druitt and was teased by schoolmates when Struggle Street aired in 2015. He's pictured with teammate Brian To'o, who also grew up in the 2770 postcode

Stephen Crichton (right) was raised in Mount Druitt and was teased by schoolmates when Struggle Street aired in 2015. He’s pictured with teammate Brian To’o, who also grew up in the 2770 postcode

Brent Naden

The centre who has scored 12 tries this season was raised in Wellington, a town in central west NSW often dubbed ‘Little Antarctica’ for its high use of the drug ice.

He’s the cousin of notorious murderer Malcolm Naden, who was Australia’s most wanted man before his dramatic capture in 2012 and has since been sentenced to life behind bars

Naden, 24, has never met or had anything to do with his notorious cousin.

‘My pop used to say you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives,’ he told the Newcastle Herald in 2017 during a brief stint with the Knights.

‘My parents knew him but I’ve never met him and they did their best to distance us (the family) from him. When I was younger, it affected me though.’

Naden returns to the starting line-up for Sunday night’s clash.

Brent Naden (pictured at Panthers training on Tuesday) has never met or had anything to do with his famous serial killer cousin

Brent Naden (pictured at Panthers training on Tuesday) has never met or had anything to do with his famous serial killer cousin

Brent Naden (pictured at Panthers training on Tuesday) has never met or had anything to do with his famous serial killer cousin

Malcolm Naden who was Australia's most wanted man before his dramatic capture in 2012

Malcolm Naden who was Australia's most wanted man before his dramatic capture in 2012

Malcolm Naden who was Australia’s most wanted man before his dramatic capture in 2012

Tyrone May 

Another 2770 product proud of his Mount Druitt roots, May would wake up at 4.30 every morning to pick and pack fruit at a plant called StarTrack before heading off to school.

A little over two years ago, he was living out of his car and sleeping on friends’ couches.

But things would get a whole lot worse in 2019, when the utility player faced the prospect of time behind bars after being charged with four counts of intentionally recording an intimate image without consent.

He narrowly avoided jail and was sentenced to 300 hours of community service plus a three-year good behaviour bond over sex tapes filmed without consent.

He was also sternly reprimanded by Magistrate Robyn Denes.

‘This behaviour is not only morally reprehensible, it’s criminal, Ultimately, this is an offence which takes what was consensual sexual acts to another level. It does breach trust,’ she told him during sentencing.

Tyrone May (pictured) narrowly avoided a jail sentence after he was embroiled in a sex tape scandal.

Tyrone May (pictured) narrowly avoided a jail sentence after he was embroiled in a sex tape scandal.

Tyrone May (pictured) narrowly avoided a jail sentence after he was embroiled in a sex tape scandal.

May was also suspended for the first four games of the 2020 NRL season and fined 25 percent of his 2019 salary.

The ordeal left him ashamed and embarrassed but May says he’s now turned a corner and is seeking redemption.

‘I want to prove a lot of people wrong. That I’m not the guy they picture when they hear about me,’ he recently told the Sydney Morning Herald.

‘I just want to make amends for what I did and justify the support people have shown me to help me get through it. It wasn’t that long ago I was sitting in the little cell at Penrith police station. I genuinely thought I might be going to jail. 

Source:Daily Mail AU | BBC News & Gossip

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