Under pressure

LEIGHTON KEITH
Last updated 08:55 11/01/2014
Warriors
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Russell Packer charges ahead for the Warriors against the Titans.
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Former Warriors front rower Russell Packer was sentenced to two years' imprisonment this week for a drunken attack in Sydney's CBD last year. Packer's not the first professional sportsman to run foul of the law. Taranaki Daily News reporter Leighton Keith talks to those in the know to find out what's happening with elite athletes.

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It's a little after 2am. Could be 3am for all you know. You've had a few and this guy is in your face.

He's had a few as well and he's going on about how tough he is and that you're not so tough; he's screaming that you're just an overpaid "f...... soft cock".

You're barely 20 years old, paid half-a- million dollars a year and you've just had one of the best games of your fledgling career. You smashed the ball up, ran over players and physically dominated other men in their physical prime. You did what you are paid to do week in, week out, what you were signed up for, and this guy is in your face.

Now he's jabbing you in the chest, shoving you, dissing your club and family, and being egged on by his equally intoxicated mates.

You look around desperately for support, a scent of weakness picked up by this idiot and his mates. They feed off of it.

Your head is swirling with booze. There's little room for thoughts of consequences for that multimillion-dollar contract, let alone your career.

Just enough room for instinct. And the image of this angry, annoying guy who is in your face . . .

No one really knows what went through young league star Russell Packer's mind when he bashed and stomped on the head of another man outside a Sydney pub recently.

But the consequences of those actions for the former Warriors hardman are well known: Jail, the tearing up of a four- year, A$1 million contract, and possibly the end of a promising career.

At 24.

Packer's booze-fuelled brain explosion has highlighted yet again the incredible pressure on young sportsmen unable to turn off or subdue the instinctive aggression that makes them stars on the field.

It's a potentially violent muscle memory that New Zealand Rugby League president and Sport Taranaki CEO Howie Tamati sees often.

"The intensity of the competition that they play in requires them to be an aggressive person, to physically dominate other people, to be the alpha male," Tamati says.

"You can't always expect someone to go from the alpha male to a lamb when they are out relaxing with their mates and people want to try and take them on all of the time."

Tamati says modern football clubs do their best to look after players, educate them about the required standard of behaviour, their obligations to the organisation and sponsors, and to give them the skills to deal with situations.

But they cannot look after them 24/7, at the bar at 2am when that guy is getting in their face.

"Walk away - I accept that's the right thing to do, but it's very difficult when you are in that sort of situation, where someone is trying to bait you and is giving you a mouthful and pushing the envelope to see what you will do; it can be very hard to walk away from."

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He cites incidents involving league star Benji Marshall, former All Blacks Pita Alatini and Jerry Collins as other examples of top-class sportsmen who have found themselves in trouble after reacting wrongly to taunts from the public.

He doesn't condone Packer's actions but he hopes it doesn't end his career.

"People do make mistakes but at the end of the day, it's the lessons that you learn from those mistakes that makes you a better person if you take responsibility for what you've done."

And it's tougher for the modern athlete than it was when he was making his name as a professional at Wigan.

"The thing is, you can't get away with the things you used to back in the day when there was two cameras, four max, but now there is 50 and everything that goes on is recorded and you can see it from all different angles."

Tony Bedford also thinks it's tougher for the modern star.

The Taranaki man spent 15 years with the Hurricanes franchise - seven as manager and eight as operations manager - at the dawn of the professional rugby union era.

He says players back then had come out of jobs and had established work ethics and life experience, whereas young men nowadays were being thrown straight into the spotlight.

"They're on big money, jet-setting all over the world and then the pressure comes."

And there was pressure from the public. "These people didn't ask to be there, it's the public that's placed them up there [as role models].

"These people have their own standards and realistically I can only hope that these people who watch the sport and expect the standards of rugby players or any sportsperson have those same standards of themselves, because in a lot of cases that doesn't happen."

Clubs and franchises had also moved with the times and higher profiles. They had a number of systems in place to help young players deal with life as professional sportsmen, including professional development managers who give players advice on their careers, goal setting and off field behaviour.

And those systems are needed. "People always want a piece of them."

He says a lot of people question what professional sportspeople were doing out at two or three in the morning, but he doesn't have a problem with it.

"A lot of people are out at two-three o'clock in the morning but when you are playing a night game, you sleep in the afternoon. So you go and play the game; by the time you get back to the hotel it's 11 o'clock at night, being out at two-three o'clock in the morning is like being out at 8pm for a member of the public.

"It can be quite dangerous out there because by the time they go out those people who are out and about on the streets and in bars and nightclubs have been out for eight, nine, 10 hours and a lot of the time there are a lot of nuisances out there."

Nuisances who like to remind players "if they had lost a game".

"But that's all part and parcel of learning how to handle it."

As a former professional rugby league player and Warriors coach, Tony Kemp knows all about the pressure. But he doesn't think the clubs are doing enough to support aggressive and vulnerable young men.

He says players are often targets for people looking to cause trouble.

"It's a lot worst these days than it was back in my day because you are in the media 24/7."

He worries about the 74 per cent of under-20 players who don't make first grade.

The clubs owe those players a duty of care, he believes, by letting them know what they are getting themselves into, rather than just pushing them out the back door.

And not enough is done for those who do make the NRL grade despite having clear and obvious violence, drug and alcohol issues.

"You can't agree that the clubs have done enough, 'cause they haven't.

He says clubs have to continually look at their programmes and support networks.

"The best advice you can give a parent who has got a 14-year-old kid is - leave them in school. I'd say they aren't going to be an NRL player so leave them in school and let them get an education before he goes out to try and chase a football career."

Taranaki Rugby League chairman and former head of the New Plymouth CIB, Grant Coward, says the organisation does its utmost to nurture potential stars.

A camp in July for up to 60 promising players will focus on more than the players' on-field skills.

"As part of that camp we are going to run them through the skills of life: how to cope with the pressures of the game and how to keep themselves safe."

He says it isn't just sportspeople who get themselves into trouble but they are often held to a higher standard because they are already in the public eye.

"There is bad apples in every organisation."

- Taranaki Daily News

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