There are two things the Penrith Panthers do well — grassroots development and nurturing its Pacific Islander players and their culture.
- Penrith will have nine players of Pasifika heritage in their starting grand final team on Sunday night
- It’s the culmination of years of work for the club recognising and celebrating the area’s high Pacific Islander population
- Former Panthers backrower Joe Galuvao has helped spearhead the club’s efforts
All but four of the club’s starting thirteen in Sunday’s NRL grand final are Pacific Islanders.
There are seven Samoan and two Fijian heritage players in the run-on side, with two more players of Pasifika heritage on the bench.
If Penrith wins the NRL Premiership this weekend, they’ll have won all four elite rugby league competitions in NSW this year: the NSW Cup, the SG Ball Cup (under 19s) and the Jersey Flegg Cup (under 21s).
Winning all four in the same year will be a first in rugby league history.
Penrith’s remarkable results this year prove its pathway and development systems are the gold standard.
Good systems are then paired with the club embracing its location and culture.
Penrith is in Western Sydney – a gritty heartland of rugby league with a large Samoan diaspora, especially in Mount Druitt.
Blacktown City Council data reports in the last 20 years, the number of Samoans in the area has more than doubled to account for 4.2 per cent of Mount Druitt’s population.
Penrith has led the way in cultural awareness and inclusion of its Pacific Islander players and Samoan community.
The Panthers field a large Samoan representation in all teams right through the lower grades and juniors.
Sunday’s line-up is a stark contrast to Penrith’s first NRL premiership back in 1991, where there were no players of Pacific Island descent.
That was pretty much reflective of the entire league at the time, but it’s been a rapid rise since then.
Now the NRL reports 45 per cent of its players identify as Pacific Islander or Māori.
Former Penrith players Joe Galuvao, Tony Puletua and Frank Pritchard are Samoan heritage players who broke through the Pasifika glass ceiling at Penrith.
They were part of the Penrith team who won the 2003 NRL grand final after a 12-year premiership drought.
“There has been a significant shift in terms of the club’s approach to engaging with Pasifika athletes over the years,” Galuvao said.
He is now a guiding force in the culture at Penrith.
A big part of his role as Wellbeing and Education Coordinator for Penrith is to advise and implement initiatives of Pacific Island culture.
After the Manly Sea Eagles Pride jersey controversy, when other NRL clubs were scrambling for workshops and bringing in consultants, Penrith already had Galuvao active and on the books.
“When the pride jersey happened, I could give my club a balanced view based on the research,” Galuvao said.
“I helped them navigate through it from a place of understanding and not judgment.”
To guide his approach Galuvao said he uses academic literature, especially from academic David Lakisa.
He believes clubs are now becoming more “culturally competent to create culturally and psychologically safe spaces for players”.
This includes employing a diverse training staff and incorporating prayer circles to team culture, as well as prioritising the Pasifika cultural pillars of family, faith and spirituality.
Another aspect of Galuvao’s work is nurturing the rise of the club’s Pacific Islander stars.
He said an identity crisis can start early and young players often have to navigate living in two worlds while trying to make in the NRL.
“A lot of our culture is status-driven,” Galuvao said.
“There is good and bad to that, but it puts an immense amount of pressure on kids to make it and adds a layer of anxiousness to our players.
“Knowing who you are being authentic in who you are is some way to help overcome this.”
Penrith winger and 2021 Premiership winner Brian To’o is a born and bred Mount Druitt boy who came up through the Penrith club system.
He is one of the six Samoan heritage players starting for the club at the grand final on Sunday.
“We come from humble beginnings. I come from a house with a family of 10 people,” To’o told the NRL.
“I’ve slept on the floor with my parents and siblings sleeping in the living room. It drives you to get where you are today.
“[The club’s success] is something we’re all proud of. It’s not just for Samoans who live here but all the Polynesian cultures, just to send a message to all the young kids in the area that anything is possible.”