SIX hard weeks training with Penrith's NRL squad - that is what Brad Fearnley hopes will only be the start of a big season for the Panthers.
A big season is exactly what Fearnley had been hoping for this time 12 months ago. The versatile forward was backing up after being named Penrith's SG Ball player of the year for 2019.
But he was suspended following a pre-season game and missed out on making his Jersey Flegg debut in the opening round. Then came the suspension and eventual cancellation of that competition due to COVID-19.
He still got some football in when called into the Western Rams' senior squad for the Presidents Cup competition. It was only a handful of games, but it was still something Fearnley learned from.
"It wasn't much footy, but at least it was something," he said.
"It was definitely different playing men, getting hit, getting tackled and making tackles with men is a lot different than playing with younger blokes. They are bigger and a lot more seasoned to footy."
Fearnley carried that experience with him into a six-week training block prior to Christmas with the Panthers' 2021 Jersey Flegg squad.
But then came an unexpected phone call. He was invited to join Penrith's NRL squad for pre-season training.
"It was a bit of a shock because I got a call just before Christmas from them saying they wanted me to go up there and train with them for six weeks after Christmas, so I was a bit surprised," he said.
"It's been a bit tough on the body, but it's been good, I've learned that much with them.
"Just the amount of stuff that goes into being a first grader, you wouldn't think they do all that extra stuff they do - it sort of shows you why they are there."
Now into his third week of training with last season's NRL grand finalists, Fearnley is continuing to learn from Ivan Cleary and his coaching staff.
He knows it will serve him well as he aims to be a regular in the Panthers' Jersey Flegg outfit this season. Fearnley does face competition for a spot in the forward pack from others in the 26-man squad for the under 20s competition.
"Hopefully after this six-week period with the NRL boys I might get a pre-season trial with them, then it will be back down to Flegg for a season with those boys," he said.
"In my position there are about three or four blokes who play in the middle, so there'll be a bit of competition for spots there. It's always good to have competition within squads though, that way you're on your game when you finally get a run.
"Hopefully I get to play those longer minutes, I'm more suited to playing the longer minutes rather than coming on and being that impact player.
"But wherever they want to put me is okay, you are still getting to play footy, you are still getting a run with Jersey Flegg."
Fearnley's other goal for the season is to get some game time alongside his older brother Adam, a member of Penrith's Canterbury Cup squad.
That is an open age competition.
"It will be a goal for me to, hopefully by the end of the year, play a few Canterbury Cup games. Maybe this year we might get to play a couple of games together," he said.