JAELEN Feeney admits there were plenty of times he wanted to go back home during his “roller-coaster” ride to the NRL.
Having left Keebra Park State High on the Gold Coast in year 11 to link with Canterbury, Feeney moved again, in 2013, to join Newcastle.
“The big thing for me was leaving my sister,” Feeney said. “My sister was young and my brother moved away early to Canada, so my sister sort of grow up with her two brothers away chasing their dream. So I didn’t see her grow up and go to school, and she went through the things she went through, and we couldn’t be there for her.
“That’s my biggest letdown so far. And mum seeing her two boys move away at 16, 17 was tough for her too. But they all know it was for a bigger reason and I try to get them here for the games and I try to go home when I can.”
It was fitting then that the proud Wiradjuri man had his mum, Jodie, and sister, Saige, in the stands at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday when he had his breakthrough performance for the Knights in their Indigenous round, Mothers’ Day 34-20 win over the Raiders.
“My mum, my nan and my sister were all at the game on the weekend, the first time they’ve all been at a home game, so it was definitely special,” said Feeney, who helped design the Knights’ Indigenous jersey. “Mothers’ Day, Indigenous round, wearing the proud jerseys that we did, it all came together.”
Feeney had a tough initiation to the NRL in 2016, playing five games away from his preferred position of halfback. Then came the challenge this year of taking over from former NSW halfback Trent Hodkinson after his shock axing. After an underwhelming start, Feeney was pleased to repay the faith of coach Nathan Brown.
“Some people can just go into first grade and strive, and I sort of had to learn the hard way, and I think I’m better for it,” he said. “I had to learn a couple of new positions, but I just stuck at it, and I just go out there each week and try to play my best footy. But it’s good to finally put in a couple of solid performances and show Browny that I deserve to be there.”
He said his brother, Taylor, and dad, Dean, have been his “biggest inspirations”.
“Taylor was the freak of the family,” he said. “He made Queensland schoolboys and was in position to make Australian schoolboys, but he got injured. He had a five-year deal with Parramatta when he was 15, but he just realised there’s more to life than football, so he decided to just travel. He’s just doing what he wanted to do in life, and nothing holds him back.”
Dean Feeney is a welfare officer for the Eels.
“My dad said you’ve got to make sacrifices in your life to get where you want to be, so I made the sacrifice to leave and it paid dividends.”
“He couldn’t make it [on Sunday] because he was with Parra, but he called me straight after, which was good. He was definitely proud.”
Despite the effort against the Raiders, Feeney, who laid on a try for Joe Wardle with a deft pass, said: “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I just want to do my best, and I think I have where ever I’ve been chucked.
“I’d never played fullback, centre or hooker before, but I went out there and played my best.
“I’ve had good solid performances in parts but never a full 80 minutes together and I thought I did that on the weekend.
“If I can just build from that and continue to do that, hopefully it can show my experience as a halfback.”
Feeney said it had been a roller-coaster ride since leaving home.
“It was definitely tough to move away,” he said.
“I left in grade 11, leaving my mates and family, my younger sister, my brother.
“Grade 12 is the best year of your life, everyone says, but I had to start fresh at a new school.
“But I just took my opportunity. I had a good season in under 20s and capitalised making Queensland under 20s here the year after, then winning a NSW Cup, playing first grade. So I don’t look back and say I made a bad decision, but my roller-coaster has been a lot different to other peoples’.”