In jail, Russell Packer's league career in ruins

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:00 07/01/2014
Russell Packer
Fairfax Australia
JAILED: Russell Packer arriving at court yesterday.

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Former Kiwis and New Zealand Warriors rugby league prop Russell Packer's career looks to be in tatters after he was jailed for two years yesterday for a vicious assault in which he stomped on a man's head after repeatedly punching him.

Packer and his legal team were left stunned by the sentence and promptly lodged an appeal.

In Newcastle, the Knights, who had stood Packer down from club duties when the NRL refused to register his contract after the incident, issued a brief statement saying they would not comment until the court process had ended.

If the decision stands, the NRL can be expected to come down severely on Packer, particularly given its attempts to improve its image after a number of assault and anti-social allegations against its players in recent years.

Clean-shaven and with his extravagantly tattooed frame tastefully obscured by a suit, Packer resembled a model citizen when he entered the Downing Centre Local Court in Sydney yesterday.

Yet five blocks away in the Sydney CBD during the early hours of a late November morning, he cut a more ominous figure.

Severely intoxicated and recently ejected from a central city hotel, Packer was involved in an altercation with a 22-year-old man in Martin Place, a pedestrian thoroughfare leading into George St entertainment precinct.

After a brief dispute over cigarettes, the man was punched in the face multiple times and after tumbling to the ground he was then stomped on the head. In the midst of the assault he lost consciousness and sustained facial injuries.

Packer yesterday pleaded guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm when he appeared before Magistrate Greg Grogan and was then blindsided with the two-year jail term.

His lawyer Murugan Thangaraj promptly lodged an appeal and then made an unsuccessful application for bail until the case resumes on February 11.

Packer, astonished by the sentence, later sat stoically as Magistrate Grogan refused bail. His partner, Lara Wilcox, broke down in tears as he was led to the holding cells in handcuffs. The couple and their young children had relocated to Newcastle in October ahead of Packer starting a four-year contract at the Knights.

The 24-year-old, who played two tests for the Kiwis in 2011, had not consumed alcohol since the incident and according to Thangaraj, who conceded Packer had overreacted when striking the victim, the potential for rehabilitation was promising.

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Thangaraj cited supportive references from the Knights, including legendary coach Wayne Bennett, to no avail.

During sentencing Grogan labelled Packer's actions as "deplorable and cowardly" and although he acknowledged the benefits of the rehabilitation programme he was also mindful the assault could have had severe consequences.

"The person fell to the ground and luckily it would appear did not suffer those injuries seen in media reports as of late," he said, referencing the escalation of alcohol-fuelled violence in Sydney.

Thangaraj said Packer's reaction did not qualify as a one-punch "king hit", though that was no mitigating factor as Grogan criticised the footballer for attacking a defenceless individual.

"You added fuel to the fire by attacking a man lying motionless on the ground, punching him and then standing up and stomping on his head," he said.

Grogan noted Packer had a long-standing problem with alcohol abuse, an issue that stemmed from his life as a street kid from age 12 until football offered an alternative.

And although Packer had a support network in place the fact remained he was "on the night of the incident, a ticking bomb," Grogan said. "I'm concerned for the protection of the community if Mr Packer is released," Grogan said at the end of his ruling on the bail application.

Meanwhile, former team-mates expressed support for Packer, who played 110 games for the Warriors over six seasons.

"Tough times for my good friend and his family. Always got you my bro," tweeted Warriors and Kiwis prop Ben Matulino.

- Fairfax Media

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