Family turned Segeyaro's life around

Family matters: Dean and  Susan Barnard, James Segeyaro, Taylor and Trent Barnard.
Family matters: Dean and Susan Barnard, James Segeyaro, Taylor and Trent Barnard.
All smiles: James Segeyaro has been a hit with the Panthers. Photo: Anthony Johnson

All smiles: James Segeyaro has been a hit with the Panthers. Photo: Anthony Johnson

After Ifiso Segeyaro was held up at gunpoint during a bank robbery in Papua New Guinea in the 1990s, he realised his country could not provide his family with the life he wanted for them.

Ifiso was something of a legend in Papua New Guinea – he even went head-to-head with Mal Meninga in a Test match for the Kumuls in 1982. But he could do little to protect his family in a country with dangerously high levels of crime and violence.

His son James, only six years old at the time, left Papua New Guinea with his mother, three sisters and one of his two brothers to find safety in Cairns.

"After that incident at the bank he realised 'this country wasn't safe for my kids'," James said of his father. "He wanted a better future for us. He sacrificed a fair bit for us to make sure we were safe and grew up with an education.

"I didn't get the father-son relationship most kids do growing up. As a young kid, I barely saw my dad because he was working, so I'd only get to see him once a month. As the years continued, I rarely ever saw him."

On his way to discovering the hidden talent that would one day see him follow in his father's footsteps and represent PNG in rugby league, James found refuge in an unexpected shelter.

His family was torn when his mother remarried an Australian within a few years of her arrival in Cairns – a man Segeyaro admits he "didn't get along with".

His mother's relationship divided the family. His father stopped sending money from Papua New Guinea to support them, and Segeyaro's life began to unravel.

Still only nine years old, he stopped attending school. He spent more time at the house of his friend Trent Barnard than he did at home.

As the years went on, Segeyaro's relationship with his stepfather didn't improve and the hours he spent at the Barnard household under the eyes of Dean and Susan Barnard increased.

"Someone had to do something otherwise he would've ended up in one of the suburbs roaming the streets and getting up to no good," Dean Barnard said. "We didn't want that because he was a great little kid."

By the time he was 13, Segeyaro finally parted ways with his mother and moved in with Dean and Susan, joining Trent and Taylor as the children of the family.

"I consider them my parents and I call them mum and dad," Segeyaro said. "Dean has been a father to me. He pretty much raised me, put clothes on my back and put food in my stomach. Everything I needed they did for me. They loved me unconditionally, like I was one of their own, and that was the relationship I was lacking in my life. I owe a lot to them. They've been my biggest supporters and still have a massive influence on the decisions I make today."

On the rare occasion he would visit his birth mother as a teenager, more often than not he would be on the phone to Dean and Susan to come back for him, even before they returned home from dropping him off.

The Barnards paid for his schooling and made sure he kept playing rugby league, a sport he wasn't able to play as a child because of his mother's religious beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist.

James was always seen as the third brother in the family, not just by Dean and Susan.

"My grandma recently passed away and he was the apple of her eye as well," Dean said.

"Easter, Christmas, birthdays . . . everyone got the same; mum and dad would send cards with money and photos. They talk to him just as much as we do, and to them, he's their grandson.

"He might be a different colour but he's definitely family. I remember when he was at Souths and he introduced me to all the Tongan and Samoan boys that were there. There were quite a few comments about the difference until James explained the story."

Segeyaro moved to Sydney as a 16-year-old after scoring a contract with South Sydney.

However, that didn't last long. He was sacked in 2008 for breaching the club's disciplinary guidelines.

"Souths had their mad Monday, then my junior club, Mascot Jets, had their mad Monday the next week and I didn't go to work after them for a couple of days," Segeyaro said.

"I was a plasterer at the time, but the club found out I wasn't going to work, which is part of the 20s contract, and they terminated my contract."

Cronulla offered him a lifeline, but Dean Barnard intervened, asking Segeyaro to come home to Cairns to keep an eye on him. Segeyaro later signed a two-year deal with the North Queensland Cowboys, where he made his NRL debut.

While he was waiting for Aaron Payne to decide on his future, Segeyaro was approached by the Panthers and met with Ivan Cleary and Phil Gould for coffee to discuss a move to the foot of the mountains in Sydney.

Segeyaro has been a revelation at the Panthers, but it hasn't all been smooth sailing. He lost his close friend at the Cowboys Alex Elisala in April last year.

"People looking in, they don't realise how much pressure is on these 18-year-old kids," Segeyaro said.

"The expectations to perform week in and week out is a lot of pressure for young kids to take. Especially some backgrounds, like the Pacific Islanders, you're expected to provide for your family back home. If you're in the NRL squad, they think you're a millionaire.

"Alex was really good at putting on a brave face. I knew to an extent that he was having some troubles, I just didn't think it was to that extent. It's been a life changer. It's showed me life's too short and live every day to its fullest."

This story Family turned Segeyaro's life around first appeared on Brisbane Times.