Rugby league is one of the toughest games on the planet – and it takes a special type of player to make a success on the game’s biggest stage: State of Origin.
Plenty of that toughness comes from the player’s upbringing and the adversities they overcome to reach the elite level.
These are hard men, playing a hard game, who are prepared to sacrifice and overcome challenges far beyond fitness and injury.
On Wednesday night, the next generation of NSW Blues and Queensland Maroons stars will be born when they run onto the Origin arena for the first time in Townsville on Wednesday night.
Three Penrith Panthers stars will make their NSW debut while Queensland’s sole debutant is making his first appearance at the age of 29.
From family tragedies, cancer battles and tough upbringings to family behind bars and pre-season form slumps, Daily Mail Australia pays tribute to the stars who have overcome adversity to reach rugby league’s biggest stage.
Jarome Luai, 24,
Martin Luai was jailed for drug trafficking in 2017, leaving his eldest son Jarome to help raise his three siblings on top of becoming the breadwinner and starting his own family.
He not only missed the birth of Jarome’s son Israel but also his NRL debut for the Penrith Panthers in 2018 during his two-and-a-half-years behind bars in a Brisbane maximum security prison.
Jerome Luai (second from left) with his family and father, Martin (far right) who was in jail when his son made his NRL debut. He presented his jumped to his son this week (above)
Martin Luai presented his son with his NSW jersey on Sunday night
He had to listen to his son’s milestone game against the Newcastle Knights on the radio in his prison cell.
Luai, his partner Bailey and their three-year-old son still live with his parents to help pay off their mortgage and recalled how his father cried when they learned he’d been selected to make his NSW debut.
Luai Sr broke down again as he presented his son with his number six NSW jersey on Sunday in front of some of the greatest players to put on the sky blue jumper.
‘I ended up sobbing halfway through, I just couldn’t get any more words out,’ Martin told NRL.com.au this week.
‘I’m looking around the room at all these incredible players, guys like Freddy (Blues coach Brad Fittler), Greg Alexander, [Paul] Sironen, [Danny] Buderus, Craig Fitzgibbon, just thinking this is incredible. I can’t believe we’re here.’
‘I had all this planned out to talk about, it’s a massive deal for us as a family and we’re all so proud of him. But it just got the better of me.’
Brian To’o, 22
Like teammate Luai, the young winger is one of several Penrith Panthers stars who hail from the 2770 postcode of Mount Druitt, which was subject to a controversial SBS documentary called Struggle Street six years ago.
He was a day shy of his 10th birthday when his sister Dannielle tragically lost her hard-fought battle with cancer in 2008.
‘I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, I miss her so much,’ he told Fox Sports in 2019.
‘I would do anything just to see her again, it’s so hard to describe how much I love my sister. I’d do anything to take her place. I would do anything for her.’
Brian To’o (pictured with his partner) is one of three Panthers who will make their NSW debut
Brian To’o often thinks of his sister Dannielle who died from cancer a day short of his tenth birthday and visits her grave
To’o still visits her grave regularly.
‘She had the mentality to never give up and always keep smiling. That’s something I spoke about amongst the boys and something I want to have myself. When I grow up I want to pass that on to my kids.’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald late last year.
His parents often struggled to make ends meet.
‘There would days when we would be sweet but then there would be days I’d have to sacrifice all my meal prep for training for my parents and siblings,’ To’o recalled.
Born and bred in Temora in the NSW Riverina region, the Penrith Panthers second rower, 24, was just a teen when his older brother Jarred took his own his life seven years ago at the Falls Festival in Byron Bay
He was just 22.
Martin rues never getting the chance to play alongside his older brother, who won’t be far from his mind when he runs onto the field on Wednesday night.
Liam Martin (left) was a teen when his older brother Jarred (right) took his own life
He admitted shedding tears for his brother while making his way to Blues camp.
‘Hopefully I do my brother proud,’ Martin told Nine News last week.
‘I actually enjoy talking about him, it sort of keeps the memory alive. He’d be ecstatic. He was the first person who saw anything in me, he had belief in me before anyone else did.’
His mum Maxine added: Jarred’s always with us. I can imagine Jarred in the car on the way to Coogee the other day. he would have been there giving Liam advice.’
She recalled how Jarred’s death changed his brother’s life forever.
‘Poor Liam had to be so adult in that moment in terms of the things he had to do,’ she said.
‘We couldn’t find him at one stage and I said, ‘I know where he is’, and he was, we found him at the football ground just sobbing.’
Jarred Martin (left) won’t be far from his brother Liam’s mind when he makes his NSW debut
Kyle Feldt, 29
The North Queensland Cowboys veteran winger will finally put on the Queensland Maroons jersey for the first time at the age of 29, eight years after he made his NRL debut in 2013.
The Townsville local looks forward to playing on home soil after the Origin opener was relocated from Melbourne to up north.
Feldt is best known for his last ditch efforts to dive over the try-line on the stroke of full-time in the 2015 grand final to send the game into golden point which saw the Cowboys to go on to win their maiden premiership
But a previous habit of enjoying his off-seasons too much delayed Feldt’s predicted progression to representative level.
Kyle Feldt (pictured with his wife Deanna) will make his Queensland debut
Few mentors will be more prouder than former Cowboys chief executive turned NSW Blues manager Peter Parr.
‘He was always an elite level junior and someone at the Cowboys we had high hopes for from a young age. It took him a little bit of time to work out what you had to do to be a professional athlete,’ Parr told The Australian.
‘But once he worked that out, he hasn’t looked back. Pre-season was never his strong point. He used to take the attitude that he would have a good rest and it was the trainer’s job to get him fit and he didn’t really have to play a part in that.
Joe Ofahengaue, 25
The nephew of former Wallaby rugby union star Willie Ofanhenague, Joe Ofahengaue was always destined for sporting greatness.
He turned down scholarships to private schools in favour of staying close to his tight-knit family and five siblings in Brisbane.
Ofahengaue has been recalled to the Maroons line-up after he was overlooked for last year’s Origin series after a disappointing season with the Brisbane Broncos.
His 2019 Origin debut came 13 months after his partner and high school sweetheart Sofi Leota was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age 23.
Joe Ofahengaue has been recalled to the Maroons side, three years after his partner Sofi (pictured with daughter Mila) battled breast cancer
He paid tribute to his wife after marking two years in remission earlier this year.
‘Two years cancer free my darling ! You are the strongest and most loving woman I know, so proud of how far you have come mentally and physically!’ Ofahengaue posted in January.
His Origin recalls comes after walking away from final two years of his Broncos contract to make a fresh start at the Wests Tigers.
Now living in Sydney, he and his partner welcomed daughter Mila a year ago and are expecting their second child in September.
Sofi (pictured with Joe Ofahengaue) celebrated two years in remission earlier this year