Panthers winger Brian To’o is renowned for making show-stopping moves on and off the field, but he won’t let contract talks distract him from the job at hand for Penrith.
Panthers star Brian To’o and his partner Moesha have a knack for stealing the show.
First when Moesha graced last year’s Dally M red carpet in a Samoan Tapa dress, then when the Panthers star dropped to one knee to propose to her in the midst of Penrith’s grand final victory celebrations.
The photogenic couple did it again last week when they donned matching traditional Chinese outfits to the club’s presentation night.
For To’o, the Changshan was a chance to celebrate his Chinese heritage.
“I have a bit of Chinese in me. I asked mum about my Chinese heritage, her mum’s dad was Chinese … my partner loves to dress up in our cultural clothing,” To’o said.
“We love to celebrate our culture and be proud of our culture. She asked me if I wanted to celebrate my Asian heritage and it was pretty mad to do it and match up with her at the presentation night.”
These days, when strangers stop To’o on the streets of Penrith, football isn’t the first thing on their mind.
“There are a lot of Filipino people that come up to me and ask me if I am half Filipino. I don’t know why, I think it’s my smile,” To’o said. “People also mistake me for it, I get asked a lot.”
But this isn’t the first time To’o has tapped into his Asian background. He quickly built a cult following in the NRL thanks to his kung fu warm-up routine before games.
The St Marys junior has spoken in the past about the influence of martial arts, and his admiration for the likes of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, has had on his rugby league career.
He was introduced to league after a junior coach spotted a young To’o practising his kung fu kicks at the park while training his older brother.
To’o plans to delve further into his Chinese heritage by learning to speak Mandarin.
“I would love to start learning Mandarin. I tried to learn a little bit while I was in school but I was terrible at it, it’s very hard,” he said. “Even the basics were very hard to learn. I only speak a little bit of Samoan too, that’s definitely something I need to work on.
“I can barely speak English, I’m struggling everywhere.”
To’o will have to put any language lessons to good use when his contract negotiations ramp up in December. To’o headlines a slew of Penrith stars, including Stephen Crichton, Liam Martin and Spencer Leniu, about to hit the open market, where they can field offers from rival clubs from November 1.
It’s unexplored territory for the NSW Origin representative.
“I haven’t had to think about it before or be in a situation where I’ve had to test the market,” To’o said. “Whatever happens, I’m sure myself, my team, my family will decide from there.”
Securing his family’s future will likely be on the forefront of To’o’s mind. He recently purchased his first property, a house in Sydney’s west for parents Fati and Fale.
But with a win against South Sydney on Saturday night to put Penrith into a third consecutive grand final, To’o wants to put talk on hold until the season is over and until after his wedding in December.
“I’m trying not to think about it too much, I know November 1 is coming but I’m leaving it up to my manager to deal with it until the season is over and when it’s time to talk about it, I’ll start looking into it,” To’o said.
“I think it might have to wait until after everything, the World Cup, the wedding. It’s exciting but I want to focus on the task at hand before anything else.”
The Bunnies charged with silencing Penrith’s ‘hitman’
South Sydney risk being “kicked to death” unless they go out and “whack” Penrith superstar Nathan Cleary in Saturday night’s preliminary final.
But getting to the Panthers halfback and dominating him is proving a tough task for teams trying to stop Cleary from giving them the type of nightmares Parramatta’s Waqa Blake endured in the first week of the finals.
For the Rabbitohs, standing between them and the Panthers maestro, and a date in next week’s grand final, are Cleary’s forward pack bodyguards.
Led by the broad shoulders of hard man James Fisher-Harris.
“To beat Penrith, you have to bash them. But Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeo are very good at protecting him, no one can come near him,” former Rabbitohs enforcer Mark ‘Spudd’ Carroll told The Daily Telegraph.
“But this is do-or-die. You have got to come out of the line and whack him.
“You have to get the halfback, put pressure.
“If you give a penalty away, fine, but get him on the ground.
“As a kicker, he’s going to start thinking ‘shit, the next time I do this, I’m going to get hit’.
“If they don’t, it opens the passage for someone like Nathan to put up his kicks and destroy people.”
Rabbitohs and Queensland forward Jai Arrow has already put his hand up to get “stuck in” to disrupt Cleary’s kicking game, something the Maroons to perfection did by bashing him into submission in State of Origin I this year.
“Taking time away from him will be vital to us and vital to us playing down their end of the field,’’ Arrow said.
“Because in the past, Nathan has kicked us to death.
“He’s put us in a corner and we’ve found it very hard to even cross their 50-metre line, let alone get inside the 20-metre line and play some footy.
“I’m going to go out there and play my game, which is to be aggressive and get stuck in.
“I love that physicality of the game and I love getting in there and the niggle and all the fun things that come with it.”
Fox Sports Lab stats show Souths do indeed target Cleary.
In 2022, only Brisbane have been better than the Rabbitohs this season at heaping pressure on Penrith’s kicking game.
The Rabbitohs have averaged 10 kick pressures a game across the season but that figure rises sharply against Penrith.
In their two clashes with the defending premiers, Souths have pressured Penrith’s kicks — of which Cleary takes the most — 29 times, although they only made contact on seven occasions.
Preparing for Cleary’s aerial raid, Rabbitohs ace Latrell Mitchell gave an insight into the level of focus that the entire South Sydney line-up needed to dent the Panthers playmaker.
“I just sit out the back and try to catch his bombs,” Mitchell said.
“Us doing our job and focusing on the club and what we have to do, putting all our energy into that, is probably one way of stopping him.”
According to Carroll, skipper Cameron Murray is the man Souths should turn to in order to disrupt Cleary, explaining the Rabbitohs needed to find an alternate way to get past Fisher-Harris and Yeo, who often stand just off the ruck on the last tackle.
“It’s got to be Cameron Murray, he’s the captain. He has to lead the charge when it comes to stopping Cleary,” Carroll said.
“They need to get the quarterback, it’s as simple as that. Have an angle runner, like in the NFL you have to get someone to sack the quarterback. He’s their quarterback, and if he gets any of those kicks away, then look out.”
Parramatta failed to smother Cleary in week one of the finals, allowing the halfback to mount an aerial assault on Waqa Blake with his floating bombs, terrorising the Eels winger all night.
Fijian powerhouse Viliame Kikau told The Daily Telegraph, the job of guarding Nathan falls on every Panthers forward.
“For us, that’s what we have been doing all along, protecting him,” Kikau said.
“The boys in the middle, like Fish (Fisher-Harris) know they will have to work a bit harder to protect him.
“But every team protects their quarterback and he is our quarterback.
“We know we need to protect him, all of us, wherever he is on the field or from whatever Souths have planned.”
Backrower Liam Martin, who lines up alongside Cleary in defence, vowed the pack would do “whatever we can to give him space and room to do what he does best”.
While Cleary knows he is a marked man on Saturday night, Martin not only backed the 24-year old to weather the hits, but dish out some punishment himself in defence.
One of the bigger halves in the competition, Cleary is also an accomplished defender.
Martin teased the Penrith skipper for adopting the moniker ‘The Hitman’ after monstering North Queensland forward Coen Hess back in 2020.
“He’s one of the best blokes to defend alongside. He’s a bigger body,” Martin said. “There was a game where he put on two decent shots and then after the game he was trying to call himself ‘The Hitman’.”
After just 25 NRL games, rookie Rabbitohs halfback Lachlan Ilias has been thrust into a dream duel with the game’s best playmaker.
The 22-year-old admits he is constantly trying to adopt elements of Cleary’s game.
“He takes control of the game and that is something I can keep watching,” Ilias said.
“He really takes control with his kicking and passing, he really dominates the ball. That is something I can learn from.”
The Saturday night preliminary final showdown at Accor Stadium is also an opportunity for the Rabbitohs to do what many thought was impossible, by advancing to the grand final after finishing the regular season in seventh position.
“We’re in a preliminary final and no one gave us any chance in both semis we’ve played,’’ Arrow said.
“We’d finished seventh and had a bit of an up-and-down season.
“But it’s a new season now and we get a crack to go into the big one.
“And what is staying in front of us is the best and that‘s Penrith.
“We’re in the final four and with the strike that we have on our side, other sides will know that and they’ll be looking at that.
“All sides now have nothing to lose.
“It will be up to us to go out there and play footy.
“History shows that no one has won the comp from outside the four, but records are there to be broken.
“We’re looking to do that.’’
Cleary emerges as modern-day captain-coach
Two coach Clearys are better than one.
That is Isaah Yeo’s take on his co-captain Nathan Cleary’s eye for leadership.
Once common across the top grade in the 1970s and 80s, the captain-coach is now nothing more than a faint memory from a bygone era.
Parramatta have brought the role back at NSW Cup level with Jordan Rankin the Eels’ captain-coach.
And Yeo believes halfback Cleary has crafted his own version of the dual role and it could be the key to Penrith’s dominance over the next decade, starting with back-to-back tiles in 2022.
Cleary was forced onto the sidelines in the final five rounds of the season after he copped a ban for a spear tackle on Parramatta’s Dylan Brown.
In that time, the 24-year-old left no stone unturned in preparing for his return to the field, including putting on his ‘coaching hat’.
“The way he sees the game is like a coach already,” Yeo told News Corp.
“He’s a halfback, so he sees the game well anyway but it’s the confidence in his opinion that was the biggest thing while he was out.
“The way he has grown as a player as he has gotten older and more mature as well, he is a lot more comfortable in his own skin and the way he can project his opinion and back it up as well.
“They are all attributes a good coach would have, he has them already.”
Cleary delivered a masterclass in his first game back in week one of the finals against Eels. It was clear the playmaker had spent his time ironing out the few kinks in his kicking game.
But when he wasn’t fine tuning his own arsenal, Cleary took the opportunity to study the side’s attack from the coach’s box alongside his father Ivan, where he was spotted numerous times during his suspension.
“Andrew Webster, he’s our assistant and he does that stuff, our attack, for us. But he (Cleary) might have clips that help support Webby as well, they talk to each other as it is anyway.
“When he wasn’t playing, they were talking more often and feeding off each other a little bit more.
“It’s not so much he made changes to how we are playing but backing up Webby.”
Cleary’s banishment also meant the No. 7 was able to ensure he was in peak physical condition during Penrith’s finals campaign.
“With the short turnarounds we had (before the final) you’re not doing big weight sessions or strictly fitness sessions … so Nathan has been able to do a lot of that,” Yeo said.
“Physically, he’s probably in the best shape he has been … he’d much prefer match fitness … but had the chance to do the weight sessions and the cardio, like a mini preseason”.
The Panthers will ramp up their title defence on Monday when players return to training after they were given the weekend off to freshen up ahead of Saturday’s blockbuster grand final replay against South Sydney at Accor Stadium.
While key men Alex Johnston and Jai Arrow are under an injury cloud for the Rabbitohs, the Panthers are enjoying a rare luxury of fielding a near-fully fit playing group.
Only rising winger Taylan May, who is also serving a one game ban for a high tackle on Parramatta centre Will Penisni, is struggling with a hamstring injury.
Flyer Charlie Staines is shaping as the most likely to replace May on the edge this weekend. Other options include Robert Jennings, Sunia Turuva and Thomas Jenkins.
It’s a far cry from coach’s Cleary’s predicament in last year’s finals series, where only eight from the 17 to play in the grand final were not carrying a significant injury, including Cleary’s precarious shoulder injury and Dylan Edwards, who played the decider with a broken foot.