Russell Packer’s rise from jailbird to NRL skipper is all but complete, but it’s one of the most enduring relationships of his life that is beginning all over again for the Wests Tigers co-captain.
Of the five co-captains Ivan Cleary named last week, none have come as far as Packer, who rugby league all but washed its hands of when he served a 12-month prison sentence for a vicious alcohol-fuelled assault.
Out the other side of a year behind bars, another in reserve grade as the NRL watched on and a return to the top flight with St George Illawarra Dragons, Packer will play his first game for the Tigers in Saturday’s trial against Cronulla.
It’s his first game under Cleary, the one-time Warriors coach who signed Packer as a 15-year-old. Debuted him as a 17-year-old. Took him to a grand final at 21.
Then visited him at Silverwater Correctional Centre when Packer was 24 and serving time for the “cowardly and deplorable” stomping of a man’s head in the Sydney CBD. Provided the courts with a character reference, stressing that a return to rugby league could get Packer’s life back on track.
In Packer the game now has a redemption story that truly resonates and has endured now for four years, without the slip-up so many fall into.
He hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in that time. He has his partner Lara, his two kids and a Dean’s Award for outstanding results in completing his commerce degree.
And Cleary once more has his forward leader, a 28-year-old prop he was willing to front around $2 million over the next four years for.
“When I first met Ivan, well it’s been over a decade and it’s a different relationship now,” Packer told NRL.com.
“I’m 28 now but it’s still the same, and you’re right we’ve been through a lot and he’s always been there.
“It’s a very open and honest relationship and you can’t ask for more than that from someone.
“That honesty is all Ivan is about, and that’s all I look for. Someone who can push me and tell me what they think, not what they think I want to hear.
“I personally love that about Ivan, we’ve worked together a long time before and it’s exciting to get to do that again.”
Packer is reluctant to track back over the journey told so many times since his return to the game.
But he knows being named alongside Chris Lawrence, Elijah Taylor, Josh Reynolds and Benji Marshall as co-captain is a fair landmark all the same.
“I don’t look back too much, it’s just a massive honour to captain this club,” Packer said.
“The fact it’s based on how other people see me, that they feel I’m suitable for the role, that’s the honour. I don’t like letting people down, so it’s going to be a good challenge.”
Packer has skippered occasionally in his previous rugby league life, leading New Zealand at Junior Kiwis and under 16s level.
Along with Cleary, veteran Warriors back-rower and then-skipper Simon Mannering provided serious influence during the club’s surprise run to the 2011 grand final.
And Mannering remains the ‘actions over oration’ leader that rings loudest for Packer some seven years and all manner of obstacles on.
“I played under Simon Mannering at the Warriors when he was captain and he’s someone that I’ve got a lot of respect for and look up to in terms of how he’s approached his career,” Packer said.
“He’s someone that I personally really look at when I think of leading by example and doing what’s best for the team.
“Hopefully my teammates can say the same about me… that extra responsibility I think that works well for me.
“The best way for me I think is performing and doing my job on the field. If you’re not setting a good example how can you ask someone else to perform.
“I think we’ve got a good mixture in that five, we’re all different people, all different personalities and we all play different positions too.
“It’s been working well in terms of building a culture and setting our standards. It’s going to be interesting to see how it evolves over the year.”