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How bush footy helped Yeo's family after Bali bombing tragedy

Isaah Yeo only has to glance at his left shoulder to know who he will be representing when he runs out in the No.13 jersey for NSW in Wednesday night’s State of Origin series opener in Townsville.

Like his father Justin and other male family members, Yeo has a tattoo with the name of his late uncle Gerard and the date of the Bali bombing on October 12, 2002 in honour of the then 20 year-old, who was one of six Coogee Dolphins players killed in the terror attack.

Yet it is also a reminder for the Penrith co-captain of how far the Yeo family’s rugby league roots extend and the support they received in Dubbo, where Isaah is considered the "perfect role model" for aspiring juniors because of the sacrifices he made to achieve his NRL dream.

"I was only in Year 2 at the time, but it was obviously hard for our family and I’m sure if you asked them now it would still be as hard as the day it happened," Yeo said.

"You wouldn’t wish something like that on your worst enemy.

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"It is obviously not a nice thing to happen to anyone but the silver lining when you are from a country town, and you are a big family, is that everyone really rallies around you.

"I remember a lot of nice things about people coming around to make sure all the family was supported."

A Dubbo CYMS junior, Yeo is one of just three players in the NSW squad not from the city or coast, along with Penrith teammate Liam Martin (Temora Dragons) and Canberra star Jack Wighton (Orange CYMS).

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Justin Yeo is a bush football legend after returning from stints with North Sydney in 1998 and Balmain in 1999 to help Dubbo to premierships in 2001, 2002 and 2003 with cousin Bernard Wilson, who also played for the Bears and Tigers.

Current Dubbo CYMS coach Shawn Townsend, who is married to the sister of Yeo’s mother Amy, played lower grades for Norths and was at the Coogee Dolphins in 2002, along with Gerard and another of Isaah’s uncles Paul.

"All the Yeo boys have got the Gerard tattoo," Wilson said. "I saw Isaah the other day with his shirt off and his tattoo is much clearer than mine because he didn’t get it until he was 18.

"He was only young at the time and he probably struggled to fully understand what was going on, but he is a pretty mature kid.

"Justin coached him through a lot of his junior years and then I helped coach him in under 18s. We used to coach CYMS first grade together. Having that family association we did everything together and we are definitely a football family."

Isaah Yeo divers over for the Panthers.
Isaah Yeo divers over for the Panthers. ©NRL Photos

'Footy is all we've sort of known'

Isaah jokes that his father's NRL career was curtailed after 11 games due to the fact that he was born when Justin was only 18 years of age and the young family returned to Dubbo.

However, the move had an influence on Yeo’s development as he grew up around the game.

"Footy is all we have sort of known," Yeo said. "Dad went back home in his prime and had a really successful career in the country.

"He was about 22 or 23 years old and had just done four or five NRL pre-seasons so he was as fit as a fiddle. He was a really good centre. He captain-coached Dubbo CYMS and he coached me as I came through the grades.

"Growing up, Monday to Friday I would go down to their training sessions and I was a ball boy on the weekend."

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Panther cub on the rise

Yeo was signed by Penrith recruitment guru Jim Jones after a 2011 trial in Nyngan and played in the club’s premiership-winning under 20s team two seasons later, which included the likes of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Bryce Cartwright and Waqa Blake.

The 26-year-old forward started from the interchange in the 2013 NYC grand final but he was the first member of the team to make their NRL debut for Penrith, to be named captain and to reach the 150-game milestone.

Ivan Cleary handed Yeo his NRL debut in the opening match of the 2014 season at centre and he has played most of his career in the second row before making the transition to lock last year.

It is a move that has brought out the best in Yeo, who developed his ball skills playing five-eighth in juniors for St Johns Dubbo and has beaten off the likes of Jake Trbojevic, Cameron Murray and Dale Finucane for the NSW lock role.

"I am really excited to be able to put that No.13 jersey on," Yeo said. "There is a lot of depth in the lock position, so it is something I am very proud of.

"It is nice to be able to lock down a spot for the start of the game and know what my role is but if I have to move during the game then I understand that.

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"I played five-eighth in juniors, which has probably helped my ball skills now, and being able to play a couple of positions probably helped get me in the team."

Blues assistant coach Craig Fitzgibbon has been impressed by Yeo in the NSW Origin camp and believes he is naturally suited to lock.

Fitzgibbon predicted he would only improve as he plays more games in the position.

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"It's been a pretty remarkable rise but he looks to me that he has found a home in the middle," the former Kangaroos back-rower said.

"I just think that he has got the balance of being able to play as a hard middle and roll the sleeves up, but he has also got the ability to pass the ball in good circumstances.

"He doesn’t overplay his hand but he still uses the ball well, he has got a big motor and defensively he is rock solid. He is a good humble kid, he works hard, he trains hard and there is no bullshit with him."

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A shining example

At St Johns in Dubbo, where Wilson remains heavily involved, Yeo is held up as a shining example for talented juniors if they are prepared to make sacrifices like he did.

To play for the Panthers while completing his HSC at the college, Yeo would catch a bus and train from Dubbo each Thursday and return on Sunday.

He missed friend’s 18th birthday parties and other events but the sacrifices paid off when he was chosen in last year’s NSW Origin squad, was this season named as Penrith co-captain along with halfback Nathan Cleary and he also signed a new three-year contract.

"Isaah is our perfect role model," Wilson said. "When he got to 16 or 17, Isaah just decided to make some sacrifices and have a crack because he wanted to give himself every opportunity to realise his dream.

"When his mates were going out to parties and staying out late or finding trouble, he never got on the drink or did those things because he had a focus on playing in the NRL.

"We are fortunate to have young Matt Burton coming through now too. He has a lot more natural ability than Isaah, but Isaah’s story is a good one because he did make every single sacrifice. He is an easy sell to a kid. We don’t have to dress him up.

"When we sit down with our under 16s kids, we say ‘this is what you can achieve if you want to put a few things on hold'. You are going to have to make sacrifices, you are going to have to work hard – that is what Isaah Yeo did, and that is why he is now achieving what he is."

Acknowledgement of Country

Penrith Panthers players and staff respect and honour the traditional custodians of the land and pay our respects to their elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.