RUGBY league experts say prop forwards don’t hit their straps until their late 20s, but Warriors teenager Russell Packer is determined to buck the trend.
With five NRL games to his name at just 19 years of age, the Levin Lions junior has his sights set on filling the bench position left vacant by the departure of Kiwi legend and 300-gamer Ruben Wiki. And he’s treading the path cleared by fellow youngster and Kiwi international Sam Rapira.
“Sam’s played over a dozen or so games for the Kiwis and he’s only 21, so he’s a young guy that I really look up to,” says the 2008 Toyota Cup star, who switched to rugby league from rugby union at age 15.
“Sam’s very humble and came from the same situation I did. We both switched to league from our rugby teams and played in the Bartercard Cup and the Junior Kiwis. So he’s obviously someone I aspire to be like – to achieve so much in such a short career is amazing. He’s a hard-worker and his is a path that I really want to follow.”
The likeable workhorse was scouted by Kiwi legend David Lomax shortly after making the switch from the ‘dark side’, going on to represent the New Zealand Under-16s before being picked up by the Warriors.
“I want to establish myself as a full-time first-grade player and there’s not a better environment to learn from with Steve Price, Ruben Wiki and Sam,” says Packer, who tips the scales at 110 kilograms and stands 190cm tall.
“I want to knuckle down and have a really big year and don’t want to spend too much time in the Toyota Cup.”
You were impressive in the Toyota Cup last season; how have you found being in the fulltime squad?
I love being in the fulltime squad now for good. I’ve been in and out in the few years since I’ve been here, but this is the first time I’ve been exclusively with the fulltime squad and it’s been awesome to get amongst it for the whole pre-season. I really feel like part of the team.
After playing five NRL matches last season, what are your goals this year?
I’m still eligible for the under-20s, but I don’t really want to feature too much in it. The NRL was a big eye-opener for me last year, especially in my position in the middle because I’m in there with all of the bigger guys – I think it’s harder for forwards than backs. But it’s something I want to do a lot more of now.
With Ruben moving on there’s a position vacant and if the Warriors keep playing two props on the bench like they have the past few years, I’d love to slot in to that No.17.
I’ll be pushing for it. But there’s a lot of competition. I just want to keep working hard and stake my claim for that permanent position.
You’re only 19 and still growing; what’s your ultimate playing weight?
When I played NRL last year I was playing at 106 kilograms, but I wasn’t really comfortable with that – I didn’t feel powerful enough or that I was doing enough damage. I’m 6ft 3in [188cm] so I’d love to be playing at around 110 kilograms. That’s enough to be powerful without affecting my mobility.
Who do you aspire to be like?
I loved Shane Webcke before I even started playing rugby league. I used to love watching him just keep going and going… I had a real appreciation for him. And Steve Price, of course. He’s nearly 35 and he’s still the best prop in the game. He just keeps working and that’s the sort of player I want to be. I’m just tapping in to him as much as I can. And then there’s Ruben Wiki.
What’s the strongest part of your game?
I see myself as an endurance player. I pride myself on consistency and just working hard for as long as I can and I want to be able to play at least 40 minutes a game at NRL level – especially with the number of interchanges these days. I was playing 50-55 minutes in Toyota Cup so that’s my long-term goal. Keeping control of the ball and just going forward is what I do best. I hate playing off the bench – I want to establish myself as an endurance man because I haven’t got that explosive speed to make a really big impact.
What part of your game do you want to improve?
You always want to perfect your offload, but footwork is something I’ve really been working on with John Ackland (assistant coach). It’s not one of my strengths and while I know I’m not going to have the footwork of a guy like Steve Price, I want to have the best footwork I possibly can so I can get more metres for my team and be more effective.
Why did you make the jump from rugby to league?
I played rugby until I was 15 because where I grew up it’s got a real strong hold. There’s only one league club in the area and I went over to have a look at a pre-season session with the Levin Lions. I started playing with them and my rugby coach got wind of it and said I couldn’t play rugby Saturdays and league Sundays. And out of all my mates who were doing it I was the only one who said: ‘Sorry, mate, but I like league a lot better’.
Why is league better?
It’s just so much more exciting to watch and play. I don’t even watch rugby any more. It’s not to say it’s not a good game… but I just don’t have any interest in it any more.
Apart from football, how else have you earned money?
[Laughs] I’ve actually never worked in Auckland. I’m only 19 now and since I’ve been here I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the Super Elite Group where I’ve been kept busy training in different squads and doing promotions. So that’s kept me busy and hopefully I won’t need a real job for a long time yet!
What do the Warriors mean to you?
They signed me for another four years last year and that’s a sign for me that they believe in me and want me to hang around, so I’d do anything for the club. I love the Warriors and I think there are good times ahead for them, if you look at the amount of young talent at the club.