In some alternate rugby league universe, no one is talking about Russell Packer right now.
The former Warriors front rower would be in the final season of a four-year contract with the Newcastle Knights, which he inked in October 2013. Packer would have more than 200 first-grade games to his name, and a few test caps too.
Speculation might be building on the Foxton-born prop’s next contract; could Stephen Kearney lure him back to Mt Smart? Perhaps he’d already signed an extension to stay in Newcastle.
In this league universe, there’s been a little more chatter about Packer over the past week, though not nearly as much as you would have thought.
Last Friday, in Canberra, the 27-year-old prop played his first international for the Kiwis since 2011 in their annual Anzac test against Australia.
That a burly ‘take-no-prisoners’ player like Packer hadn’t been an international for six years wasn’t the story. His absence from league for the better part of two of those was.
On November 23, 2013, outside a bar in downtown Sydney, Packer punched a man in the face and then again as he lay on the ground – before stamping on his head.
Sydney magistrate Greg Grogan described the former Warrior’s attack as “cowardly and deplorable” and sentenced the Kiwi to two years in prison.
Packer’s crime came at the high-water mark of a publicity campaign against street ‘king hits’ and violence while drinking. In that respect, the Kiwi’s timing was terrible. On some level, Packer needed to be made an example of.
The Knights cut his contract, he had his sentence shrunk to a year on appeal and the Dragons picked him up. Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton threatened to boot him back over the Ditch, but he didn’t – and Packer has impressed on the field since getting back into the NRL since 2015.
While Packer’s recall, and appearance back on the international paddock, did generate some discussion, it was largely muted. Surely a convicted criminal pulling on a national jumper would warrant some radio talkback, right?
It certainly has in the past. Former Kiwi Dave Watson – who played for various UK and Australian teams through the 90s – is probably New Zealand sport’s best comparative case to Packer.
In 1991, the 15-test fullback was dumped by Halifax after testing positive for cannabis. Three years later, he broke the nose of a Bradford nightclub owner while out on the town, copping a four-month suspended jail sentence and a NZ$5000 fine.
Last sighted playing for the Rochdale Hornets in 2001, Watson has since faded into obscurity; his sins virtually forgotten.
Unlike Watson, the deeds, and subsequent judgment, of All Blacks prop Keith Murdoch during the 1972 New Zealand tour to the UK haven’t been.
The Otago front rower was booted off the tour after punching a hotel security guard in Wales. Murdoch was became a social pariah back in New Zealand, forcing him to move to the Australian Outback.
A total recluse, Murdoch was last sighted publicly as a witness during an inquiry into the death of Christopher Limerick, a young Aboriginal man, in the Northern Territory in 2001.
Though never named a suspect, Australian police spent weeks tracking the ex-AB, who caught Limerick breaking into his house the night before he disappeared.
Over the past decade, cricket has provided New Zealand with its share of badly behaved athletes. Controversial but immensely talented batsman Jesse Ryder struggled for years with his drinking, incurring a number of suspensions and raps across the knuckles by New Zealand Cricket (NZC) for his booze-affected actions.
The low point, of course, came at a Christchurch bar in March 2013, when he was attacked and placed in a coma. It was later revealed Ryder had been drinking when the assault took place and had been goading his assailants.
Two weeks ago, Black Caps seamer Doug Bracewell was stopped by police more than three times over the driving limit in Hawke’s Bay. An old drinking buddy of Ryder’s, Bracewell has been in hot water with NZC several times before.
Regardless of his last indiscretion, Bracewell remains fourth or fifth in New Zealand’s seamer stocks. A call-up wouldn’t shock many.
Yet public patience is totally worn on Ryder. Why? After all, he’s only ever hurt himself. Though he swung a few punches that night in Christchurch, he’s never put the lives on anyone else in real danger unlike Packer.
Ryder’s tragedy lies in the fact his habits never seemed to change as opportunities were doled out, leading people to consider that he probably didn’t take the responsibility of playing for his country all that seriously.
Never say never of course, but the Kane Williamson/Mike Hesson Black Caps don’t seem to jibe with another Ryder revival throwback. He’s destined to end up as a tragic figure in Kiwi cricket, whose talent was never given the room his addictive side got.
While Packer has hardly endeared himself to the Kiwi sporting public since getting out of lock-up, he has benefited from playing in Australia.
The big bopper has been able to keep his head down and just play league, offering the odd interview on his ‘previous life’. Last week, Packer merely expressed delight in getting back into the international ranks, offering few thoughts on his crime.
Apathy seems to have displaced judgment in Packer’s case. Distance has helped him a great deal.
Yet Packer’s crime was heinous. He could have easily killed or seriously injured the man he attacked.
And, unlike former Warrior Suaia Matagi, who did a stint in prison for assault as a teen, Packer hasn’t re-invented himself as a bloke who visits prisons or youth groups talking about violence and where it can lead you.
Instead he’s kept a low profile – and it has worked in spades.
It didn’t for Shaun Metcalf. The star of the Auckland league youth scene in the early 2000s, the teenage half had been selected for the New Zealand Under-16s team to play Queensland and had scored a development squad contract with the Warriors. Some had already him pegged as a future international.
In August 2003, he traded all that away with one of the most disgusting acts imaginable.
With two teammates in tow, the teenager invited his pregnant girlfriend to a park in Mangere with the intention of terminating his unborn child’s life. According to the Herald on Sunday, the trio dragged the woman from her car, kicked her repeatedly in the stomach and left her “bruised and bleeding in a dark car park”.
Along with one of the other young men, Metcalf received an 18-month prison sentence. The third copped a slightly reduced sentence as he tried to stop the attack.
Metcalf would serve time in Wellington’s Rimutaka Prison but, thanks to a campaign led by his agent – and former Kiwis coach – Frank Endacott, the young star would only spend a third of his sentence locked up.
By early 2005, he was out again, but his future as an athlete was virtually over. Metcalf would never get beyond reserve-grade footy for the Warriors.
Since 2011, Metcalf has pulled a Watson/Murdoch and gone to ground. That year, he gave an interview with the Sunday News where he addressed the subject of his own redemption.
“I’m not proud of my past and I never will be,” Metcalf told the publication.
“I can’t do anything about that now, but what I can do something about, and what I’ve been trying to do ever since, is to rebuild my life and get it back on track.”
You only hope he has. But you can also wonder what he thought when he saw Packer running out onto the paddock at Canberra last Friday, too.