OpinionMarch 12, 2016

Russell Packer returns to the NRL – could he scare its next generation straight?


The NRL ought to use players like Packer and Greg Bird as ‘What Not To Do’ mentors to help young players avoid making the same mistakes they did, writes Ben Stanley.

Former NZ Warriors front-rower Russell Packer is now with the St George-Illawarra Dragons (Photo: Getty Images)
Former Warriors front-rower Russell Packer is now with the St George-Illawarra Dragons (Photo: Getty Images)

The Russell Packer redemption song reached its crescendo in Melbourne on Monday.

It was sung in hushed tones, really. There he was: just another big bopper carting the ball up – for an industrious 121 running metres in 13 carries – over 46 minutes in the Dragons’ tight loss to the Storm.

The wild cacophony that pulled him through to Melbourne began outside a Sydney bar in November 2013 with a brutal, drunken blur of punches and stomps termed “cowardly and deplorable” by the magistrate who gave Packer a two-year prison sentence.

There’s no point examining the Pride of Foxton’s journey since. That’s been done at length in any number of sports op-eds, tweets, exclusive ‘I’ve learnt my lesson’ interviews in big Sydney tabloids and conversations in pubs on both sides of the Tasman.

Yes, his near-instant allowance to stay in Australia to play pro sport – with other Kiwis booted back home for far less – makes a mockery of Australia’s deportation and detention policy. But Packer clearly deserves a second – though not a third – chance in league. We all stuff up, and we should all be allowed to show we have the motivation, and ability, to improve.

The NRL now needs to show that it can, too.

Packer’s situation obviously forms a small part of NRL’s greater, enduring problem: the ugly perma-tarnish it has been given by thuggish off-field actions. The sad reality of the NRL – which, in terms of consistent entertainment, is arguably Australasia’s top sporting competition – is that before any season starts, you can predict that there’ll be at least three or four incidents of drunkenness, violence or anti-women sentiment along the way.

We’ve already had Mitchell Pearce’s idiotic video antics this year – the clock is already ticking on the next incident.

Moronic acts from young men with too much money and admiration can never be completely stamped out. I certainly don’t have the solution to an issue that extends to all male professional team sports.

But how about using the NRL’s almost bottomless bullpen of disgraced players to educate, or simply scare, younger players to the consequences of their actions?

Count off the current players you could use: Packer, Blake Ferguson and Robert Lui (assault), Luke Burgess and John Sutton (assaulted a bouncer at an Arizona strip club in 2014), Pierce (drunken lewd behaviour), James Tamou (drunk driving), David Taylor and Greg Bird (cocaine possession and supply).

Every away game, get Packer talking to the opposing team’s Under-20s about booze, violence and how easy it is to lose everything. Next week, get Sutton doing it, then Bird. Drill it in. Over and over again.

Within a club, perhaps pair younger players up with first-graders – and make that senior player partially responsible for the youngster’s off-field actions. If the young player steps out of line, the older one should be penalised too – and vice-versa. You might find the patience for off-field stupidity drying right up.

Clubs themselves too have to be forced not to touch ‘hot merchandise’. Two years ago, the league brought in rules that make it easy for clubs to fire misbehaving players and re-appropriate their salaries elsewhere.

But if someone like Todd Carney or Ferguson is dropped by a club, regardless of the crime, make sure that player must serve a season-long banishment to the gritty trenches of reserve-grade footy before they are allowed to re-sign elsewhere. International bans must be enforced here too, so players don’t just jet off to the Super League.

Sure, it might mean you lose talent – but talent will always be replaced.

Packer – who spent last season at the Illawarra Cutters in the New South Wales Cup – will be quick to acknowledge how grateful it makes you to play in the first-grade.

The NRL has heard Packer’s redemption song many times before. It needs to change the tune.

Illustrations by Sharon Lam

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