The Newcastle Knights are keeping all options open regarding the future of controversial recruit prop Russell Packer, who faces the prospect of sitting out the 2014 NRL season irrespective of the outcome of his court case next month.
The NRL has refused to register the four-year contract Packer signed with the Knights in October, and Fairfax Media has been told the league will not reconsider that position for a year unless he and the club can convince them otherwise.
"That ruling will not change for 12 months unless he can demonstrate his circumstances have changed, his behaviour and attitude have improved, and that he is a fit and proper person," said a source with knowledge of the process.
The 24-year-old former New Zealand Warriors and Kiwis test prop will appear in a Sydney court on January 6 after he was arrested and charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm and failing to quit licensed premises.
Packer was charged on November 29 over an alleged assault in Sydney's CBD five days earlier that left a 22-year-old man unconscious and with a fractured eye socket.
If Packer is found guilty, he faces the likelihood of the Knights tearing up his contract.
Even if he is found not guilty, Packer and the Knights would still have to present a case to the NRL to convince them he is of sound character and worthy of having his contract reinstated.
Former Knights back rower Marvin Filipo faced the same circumstances when the club terminated his one-year contract in May, but Filipo pursued a professional boxing career instead of trying to re-establish himself in the NRL with another club.
After the Raiders sacked Josh Dugan in March, the NRL did not register his new contract with the Dragons until a series of meetings with the league and participation in welfare and counselling programs demonstrated he had taken the necessary steps to rehabilitate himself.
NRL chief operating officer Jim Doyle, the head of the league's integrity unit, said "other behavioural issues concerning the player" were taken into account when refusing to register Packer's contract.
"We will always respect the court process and if the only facts in question are those before the court then, clearly, we will ordinarily wait for them to be resolved," Doyle said on December 6.
"We have also been clear that we will always act on any information that demonstrates behaviour which is contrary to the interests, welfare and image of the NRL and we will of course take that into account in assessing any application for registration.
"While we make no inference in relation to the charges that Russell is facing, our integrity unit has reported conduct that leaves us with little choice other than to refuse the application for registration.
" ... In all cases we need to wait until information is established and that can mean in some cases awaiting the outcome of court proceedings.
"However, if at any time it becomes clear that there are grounds to reach a decision then we will not hesitate to act. That is what has occurred in this instance."
While playing for the Warriors, Packer incurred a $A15,000 fine for the club for bringing the game into disrepute when television cameras caught him urinating through his shorts on the field just before kick-off in a game against the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium on June 3.
At the time, NRL general manager of football operations Nathan McGuirk described Packer's indiscretion as "completely unacceptable".
Fairfax understands that amid a spate of antisocial off-field incidents involving NRL players, the Knights fear the league will make an example of all of them, including Packer.
Though his contract has not been registered by the NRL, Packer is still employed by the Knights and the club is continuing to support him despite standing him down.
It is understood Packer has already begun a counselling programme as part of the disciplinary measures the Knights have implemented.
Fairfax Media has been told coach Knights Wayne Bennett, chief executive Matt Gidley and football operations staff have made no attempt to source a possible replacement and are waiting until the outcome of the court case before considering what course of action to pursue.
Options include sacking Packer, or standing him down for next season then reinstating him for the final three years of his contract, but they will make no decision until his case is finalised.
On the same day the NRL announced they refused to register Packer's contract, the Knights issued a statement saying he had been "stood down from all club duties indefinitely".
Fairfax Media has been told that decision is the only obstacle preventing Packer continuing to train with the Knights, as the NRL has no issue with him doing that.
"It's not as if he's been done for steroids and under the WADA code he's not allowed to play or train," a source said.
"The NRL have said they're not going to register his contract so they're not going to let him play but anything else is up to the Knights. If they want to pay him or let him train, that's up to them."
Gidley declined to comment.
If Packer sits out next season, as expected, the NRL would consider allowing him to join a Newcastle Rugby League club or another lower-tier club in Australia or New Zealand.
Sacked by Canberra in 2008, Todd Carney followed a similar path when he played in Cairns for the Atherton Roosters in 2009 before rejoining the NRL with the Sydney Roosters in 2010.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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