Fuimaono relishing fresh start with Penrith

Panthers recruit Tyrell Fuimaono says he returned to Penrith for football reasons, but the chance to move back into the family home has also made life a whole lot easier.

The 22-year-old centre or back-rower had an injury-wrecked 2018 at South Sydney in his second year at the top grade, having come out of the Parramatta under-20s system after growing up in Penrith heartland at St Clair and Mt Druitt and playing junior football for St Marys.

New Panthers coach Ivan Cleary was yet to sign at the club when Fuimaono was brought home by head of football Phil Gould and caretaker coach Cameron Ciraldo last year.

In fact, other than the baking western Sydney heat during training and the loss of his former close proximity to Maroubra Beach for daily post-training swims, Fuimaono has found nothing but positives in his return out west.

"I've just moved back to my mum's place for the year… life's a lot easier, it's like moving back to a hotel with the cooking and cleaning!" Fuimaono laughs.

Panthers recruit Tyrell Fuimaono playing with the Rabbitohs in 2018.
Panthers recruit Tyrell Fuimaono playing with the Rabbitohs in 2018. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

"Moving home makes my life simpler. I live with my mum and sister, it makes everyone's life easier by me coming home. It was great to get the opportunity [at Penrith] but the cherry on top was the fact I can make things work with my family as well."

While he enjoyed the challenge of living out of home for two years it was challenging at times "just putting my big boy shoes on and doing everything like paying bills and rent."

What was no laughing matter was the toe dislocation Fuimaono suffered in round two last year; he was off the field for months and when he was available again the side was travelling so well it was almost impossible to break back into a winning team. Fuimaono finished with just five NRL games for the year.

"I did have a couple of unlucky injuries. Round two – it was against Panthers – I dislocated my big toe so that sat me out for the majority of the year," he recalls.

"Just having that time on the sideline, with the team playing really well, it's hard for anyone unless you're established to push back into the team.

"I ended up getting a few games but the team was playing really well so it's really hard to take the opportunity away that someone else has earned."

Fuiamono's 20-game NRL career to date has featured eight starts at centre with the rest either starting or off the bench as a second-rower. Penrith have depth in both spots but it is in the centres where Fuimaono will get his first chance when he takes on former club South Sydney in John Sutton's testimonial match this weekend.

"At the moment I'm playing centre but I dare say I'll bounce between the two wherever I'm needed," he says.

"Being young I think it's best if you can play a couple of positions so when the opportunity arises you can slot in.

"Wherever the coach sees you, you need to be able to put your hand up otherwise you see that opportunity go by. Over the last few years I've been in the position where if we need a back rower I'll play back row. Similar here at the moment, now I'm playing centre."

Fuimaono is excited to feature in former clubmate Sutton's big day.

"It's a big gig for them, I'd say [they'll play a strong team] because it's an important game for him. They've got a lot to play for and we'll see what we've got to offer as well," he says.

"We played against each other every day at training back when I was at the club – now it's no more jokes I guess! I've never played South Sydney before so that will be a first as well."

Panthers recruit Tyrell Fuimaono.
Panthers recruit Tyrell Fuimaono. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Fuiamono also got a lift out of his recent stint with the Indigenous All Stars; although he was originally named in the playing squad he only featured in the Sydney portion of the camp and did not travel to Melbourne, instead being required to stay at his club given he is still somewhat underdone after off-season surgery on the syndesmosis ligament in his left ankle.

"I was there at the start, I didn't end up playing, I didn't go for the full week. I had to stay back and do pre-season training just so I can get my whole body ready for the year," says Fuimaono, who is of Wiradjuri descent on his mother's side and Samoan descent on his father's.

"I had an operation at the end of the season so I kind of missed the start of the pre-season. I'm back in full training now but I just had to get those extra days in to make sure I'm ready for this week and ready for round one.

"It still is a big goal for me to play Indigenous All Stars and hopefully I do get the opportunity again to represent my people. I just need to make sure I'm ready, I don't want to let them down and I don't want to end up hurting myself.

"That's why we ended up making that decision [not to play]. I was still part of it at the start of the week, getting connected to culture, we did a lot of cultural stuff. I think that's my fifth Indigenous All Stars camp I've gone to. Every year I enjoy it, going along and mixing with all the other Indigenous Boys, it's a really good experience."