Brian To'o in sad development amid Jarome Luai's $6m exit from Penrith Panthers

The powerhouse NRL club has been forced to say goodbye to several top players in recent years.

Brian To'o and Jarome Luai at the Penrith Panthers.
Brian To'o will lose another one of his 'brothers' when Jarome Luai departs the Panthers. Image: Getty

Jarome Luai's decision to leave the Penrith Panthers comes as the latest sad blow for Brian To'o, who has already seen two of his other 'brothers' depart the club this season. To'o has formed a life-long bond with fellow Samoan players Luai, Stephen Crichton and Spencer Leniu during their time at the Panthers, describing them as more like brothers than teammates.

But in 2025, To'o will be the only member of the quartet playing for the Panthers. Crichton has joined the Canterbury Bulldogs for the 2024 season, while Leniu will line up for the Roosters.

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And in the latest crushing blow for To'o, Luai confirmed last week that he'll be heading to the Wests Tigers in 2025 on a five-year deal worth $6 million. The Panthers have become victims of their own success and the NRL's salary cap after winning three consecutive premierships.

As well as Luai, Crichton and Leniu, they have also been forced to say goodbye to the likes of Matt Burton, Viliame Kikau and Api Koroisau in recent years because they simply can't afford to keep them. And while To'o, Luai, Crichton and Leniu will likely be friends for life, it doesn't make it any easier having to split up.

Crichton was a groomsman at To'o's wedding last year, while Luai was the best man. “'Bizza' (To'o) was the first person I told," Crichton said last year about his decision to join the Bulldogs. "He and his partner were pretty emotional. I grew up with them and he's been my best mate ever since footy started.

“It was pretty sad telling him. I told him first out of all the boys, but I’m just trying to lap it up with Bizza and our last few sessions together. We’re heaps tight. Just the bond that we’ve had and success that we’ve had brought us together.

"Just not on the field, but off the field it’s just always fun, always mucking around. Our families are pretty close, too. We go to the same church as well, so we've kind of been together ever since we were young. We’re not brothers by blood, but we are brothers by choice. If I don’t see him for three months, we can catch up one day and it’s like we’ve never been apart.”

Brian To'o, Jarome Luai and Stephen Crichton, pictured here after a game for the Panthers in 2021.
Brian To'o, Jarome Luai and Stephen Crichton in 2021. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Brian To'o left heartbroken as 'brothers' leave Panthers

To'o said: “It was a bit of mixed emotions when he told me because I was happy for him, but I was also emotional that he was leaving. We’ve been in the system together for a very long time, and even off field he’s like a brother to me and someone that I look up to. To see him earn the rewards for his family by setting himself up for the next few years is great to see, but it does make me emotional because we’ve achieved a lot together.”

All four players are Penrith juniors and played lower grades together, right up to NRL and international level with Samoa. But when faced with a decision about club or family, the latter will always come first.

Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton, Brian To'o and Spencer Leniu.
Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton, Brian To'o and Spencer Leniu after a game for Samoa in 2022. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images for RLWC)

Crichton made similar comments about Luai late last year, predicting that he would take the $6 million being offered by the Tigers. “The last time I did speak to him, I told him to do whatever makes him and his family happy, and I’ll be happy," he said.

“He’s kind of my best mate as well, so wherever he goes or stays, I’m happy with wherever he goes. I’d probably sit down with my parents and see what the best solution is to put him and his family in the right position. I’d tell him to not listen to the outside noise because I had that as well last year when I was moving. As long as he knows that his family is happy wherever he goes, that’s the best thing for him."

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