Thirty years ago the opening of a church in Mount Druitt set in motion a chain of events, which over the next three decades would contribute to an influx of Samoan migration to the area, and help the Penrith Panthers unearth a crop of players who have made them the NRL’s dominant force.
When the Puletua family made the move from Auckland to western Sydney at the end of 1991, the Panthers were the hottest ticket in town, having just defeated the Raiders in that year’s Grand Final to claim their first ever Premiership.
Back then the Penrith side had no players of Polynesian descent and Tony Puletua, who six years later would make his first-grade debut for the club, recalls his family being among the few Samoans in the area at the time.
“There wasn’t many around at all, probably about four or five Samoan families in Mount Druitt at that point,” Puletua told NRL.com.
When I first joined my junior club St Marys, there were literally two Samoan guys playing for the entire club, that was me and a friend of mine who played in the same team.Tony Puletua
“It’s the total opposite now. You have got Pacific Island kids through most of the teams at St Marys and dominating in numbers throughout clubs in the area.
Building a community
After moving across the Tasman from Blockhouse Bay – an area of Auckland with a large Pacific Island population – where church had been a huge part of their lives, the Puletua parents, Alafaga and husband Mu, sought to try and recreate that part of the community in Mount Druitt.
It led to them forming Ekalesia Faapotopotoga Kerisiano Samoa, a church similar to the one Mu’s sister and brother-in-law had run in Auckland, which the family attended.
“It was a small congregation at the time,” Tony said of his parent’s project.
“Mum and dad had to go around the small community at the time and round up the numbers of Samoans to attend.”
As the church grew and contributed to a thriving Samoan community in Mount Druitt, more and more Samoan families began to move to the area from other parts of Sydney and further afield in New Zealand.
In the last 20 years, the number of Samoans in the district has more than doubled to account for 4.2 percent of Mount Druitt’s 115,609-strong population, according to data from Blacktown City Council.
That growth is seen in the junior league scene as well, with increasing numbers of Samoan kids getting involved in rugby league.
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That was further driven by the success Tony and older brother Frank, who by the early 2000s were both regulars in the Penrith first-grade side.
Between them the pair amassed 363 games for the Panthers and were members of the club’s 2003 Premiership-winning squad.
“Frank and I playing influenced a lot of the families at the time, especially at our church, to put their kids into footy,” Puletua said.
“They saw the success that was happening, they saw the good things that were coming through footy and they started to put a lot of their kids into footy clubs.”
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“It’s the best to represent the area”
Fast forward to present day and some of the kids from those families are now integral members of the Panthers’ first choice-17.
Mount Druitt products Jarome Luai, Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton and Spencer Leniu will represent the district in Saturday night’s Preliminary Final against the Rabbitohs, having all taken the field in last year’s Grand Final victory as well.
Match: Panthers v Rabbitohs
Finals Week 3 -
Venue: Accor Stadium, Sydney
To’o said that in addition to their efforts on the field, the group feel a responsibility to inspire the next generation of kids coming from the area, and work towards changing the negative stereotypes that are often associated with Mount Druitt.
“It’s the best to represent the area. That’s something we’re proud of. Mount Druitt gets a bad rap, but I feel like we’ve changed that a bit. Showing that positivity. It’s our happy place,” To’o said.
I feel like we’re a bit of a beacon and shining light for the young kids out there to inspire them, so one day they can grow up and inspire others, generation by generation.Brian To'o
“We come from humble beginnings. I come from a house with a family of 10 people. 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.
“It’s 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.”
The fact that all of Penrith’s Mount Druitt crew have also committed to playing for Samoa at next month’s World Cup – in some cases turning down the likely chance of representing the world champion Kangaroos instead – speaks to the high regard they hold their culture in.
That part can undoubtedly be credited to the strong Samoan community they grew up in, with Puletua proud to know his family played a role in it.
“It’s really touching to see that. They’re going back because of what their culture means to them,” he said.
“It’s really special for me. Coming from the area and knowing what these guys are going through, it makes me really proud.”