Struggle Street: The doco that fuelled a Panthers revival
It was the controversial SBS doco that broke hearts and embarrassed a suburb - now six Panthers guns are using it to fuel an historic run to NRL glory, writes NICK WALSHAW.
Stephen Crichton sees none of the cash that comes with being rugby league's brightest young talent.
Or not unless he asks mum.
"All of my pay, it goes to her and dad," he says.
Really, all of it?
"They've even got my credit card," the Mount Druitt product laughs.
"Although if ever I do need to buy something, I just ask them for some money.
"Like the other week when a few of the boys came over, I shouted everyone a feed."
So your biggest spend is ... food?
"Well, I try not to ask for much," he says.
"I'd prefer, each week, to have money left over."
But again, not for him.
No, the reason for Crichton slowly building that bank - cheque by NRL pay cheque - is for mum Sina, who works night shifts in a factory, and dad Va'a, a Rooty Hill bus driver.
Together, a pair of humble, Samoan Christians who, 17 years ago now, quit their jobs at an onion factory in Apia for the punt that was shifting to Australia and raising six children in a western Sydney rental.
"So now," Crichton reveals, "I want to buy a house for them."
Which is no easy thing.
Especially for a kid who, still only 19, almost never played rugby league because his family couldn't afford the $130 registration fee.
A schoolboy who in Year 9 at Patrician Brothers Blacktown, was regularly teased for living on those same streets featured in the contentious 2015 Australian documentary, Struggle Street.
Crichton sure does.
With this now Dally M Rookie of the Year contender recalling how, in the days before its release on SBS, trailers promised to highlight the trials, truths, even aspirations of Mt Druitt housing commission families.
"But instead," he deadpans, "they threw us under a bus."
Despite record ratings, the Struggle Street series received widespread criticism out west, with Blacktown mayor Stephen Bali even branding the program "poverty porn".
But that same program - it's now the fuel for Penrith's 2020 NRL premiership campaign.
Not our words, but those of the six Mount Druitt products who today, and despite the odds, are providing an unlikely - and extremely vocal - heartbeat for this Panthers outfit currently on a run of 13 straight wins.
MAKINGS OF THE MOUNTY CREW
APART from Crichton, the 'Mounty' crew includes Jerome Luai, Brian To'o, Moses Leota, Tyrone May and Spencer Leniu.
A talented group who, from housing commission stock mostly, are an eclectic mix of rats tails, bible study, NBA singlets and, for at least four them, a life that is remaining in the family home until it's completely paid off.
Certainly that is the case for breakout No.6 Luai, who was 18 when Struggle Street aired.
"And all I can remember," he says, "is everyone saying how bad it was."
"At first, I thought the program was a joke," the winger recounts. "But then the more you understood it, the more offensive it became.
"Struggle Street made us feel like outsiders. Like we weren't wanted."
But here at Panthers?
"Us Mount Druitt boys are loved," Luai insists.
"Yes we talk differently. Dress differently.
"But the boys love us for that, love the vibe we bring."
Indeed, Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary needs only one word when explaining what the Mounties Six doesn't simply bring, but adds to these competition leaders.
"Swagger," Cleary grins.
It's why we're so lucky to have those boys. Because together, they bring a confidence with them, a swagger, which has spread throughout the entire side.
Spread loudly, too.
Take Luai, who earlier this year - and before compiling even 30 games - was ranked rugby league's third best sledger in an NRL Player Poll.
Or To'o, who often arrives at training sessions with the team boom box pitched on his shoulder.
Which is a different entrance to, say, Isaah Yeo, right?
"Oh, you'll never see 'Yeoy' walk with a speaker on his shoulder," Cleary grins of the Dubbo backrower.
"But that's fine. Those Mt Druitt boys bring the energy and others like him bring a calm head. That's why it works."
PROOF IS IN THE PERFORMANCE
FOR proof of the value these guys bring, think 13 straight wins.
It's why Crichton reckons that Struggle Street crew, they should haul their cameras, microphones, everything back out west to shoot the series over.
"Because that program, it really hurt," he says.
"Obviously living in Mt Druitt can be a struggle. And, yes, bad things do happen. But there's also a lot of great things. Great families.
"And the fact they hid all that … it's definitely what hurt the most."
Which is no small thing when you consider the very real hurt the documentary caused these now NRL stars.
"People made fun of us because of where we lived," To'o recalls.
"I never thought something like that would happen."
"At school, I was teased a fair bit," he recounts.
"Kids would laugh at me and say 'oh, you're from Struggle Street'.
"It hurt. But after a while, it also became my motivation.
Back then I was still only 14, playing division three at St Marys. But it's definitely when me and a few of the boys started talking. Started saying 'let's see if they're still calling us Struggle Street when we get out'.
"And so far, I haven't heard anything."
And it's why this Mounties mob are now motivating others to do the same.
WE CAN MAKE SOMETHING OF OURSELVES
Apart from undertaking various local programs with Panthers, all six players also form part of a community group dubbed FTA - or From The Area - which regularly hosts coaching clinics and sports programs for local youth.
Apart from providing opportunity for Mt Druitt kids, the players also use their own stories to explain the possibilities that come from hard work, devotion or simply saying 'no'.
"This stereotype that nothing good comes out of Mounty, it's wrong," Crichton says.
"And that's why we're letting people see the truth.
"I let kids know that it's because of my family, because of where I'm from that I made the NRL."
To'o agrees, adding: "It's about making a statement. Especially for those kids who feel like they don't fit in anywhere. We're trying to pull those kids away from the gangs. Trying to create a new family for them."
During his first NRL season, The Daily Telegraph revealed the touching story that was To'o helping purchase a $10,000 headstone for late sister Dannielle, who had gone 10 years with an unmarked grave.
Now, the young winger has begun saving to pay off his parents' home.
"Which won't happen overnight," he says.
"But I'm keeping my head down to make sure, eventually, it gets done."
It's a similar story, too, for both Panthers prop Leniu and five-eighth Luai, the latter of whom is refusing to leave home, even now with a young family of his own, until his parent's mortgage is wiped completely.
All going well, the No.6 hopes to have the house paid within two years.
"So all us boys, we're on this journey together," To'o says.
"All of us going places nobody thought we could. And I'm proud of that.
"Proud to tell people that, yes, I'm from Mount Druitt, from Struggle Street … and I made it."
Originally published as Struggle Street Six: The doco that fuelled a Panthers revival