Packer overwhelmed by Dragons response
The redemption of Russell Packer has been given an early boost with Dragons fans warmly welcoming the former Kiwi international into the fold as he works towards ending an NRL exile of close to three years.
Packer's past – particularly the violent altercation that saw him spend 12 months in jail – will never escape him but as he embarks on what he has dubbed his "second career" the support of the St George Illawarra faithful comes as a timely boost.
Shortly after our interview begins on the field after the Dragons' win over Wynnum Manly in a trial on Saturday night a fan sidles up and simply says, 'Welcome aboard!' before wandering off back into the night.
When his name was read out by the ground announcer at Redlands Junior Rugby League it received the loudest applause of the night and on the eve of the match he was the man who fans swarmed to at a 'meet and greet' at Wynnum Leagues Club.
Fans will forgive almost anything given the lure of winning more football games over the course of the season and Packer is thankful that early on his road to redemption is lined by well wishers in red and white.
"We had a bit of a gathering up at the Wynnum club the other night and it's been quite overwhelming," Packer told NRL.com.
"All the Red V members and Dragons fans have been really receptive to me being at the club after a long journey.
"I think everyone's excited and we're all looking to the future. Hopefully we can do some good things this year."
An NRL debutant at 18 years of age and a Test front-rower just a week after turning 22, Packer is now 26 and fully aware that the opportunity to contribute positively on and off the field is available to him.
The season-ending knee injury to Mose Masoe has depleted the Dragons' stocks of big men before the season has even begun and if Packer can follow up an encouraging trial performance with a big showing against the South Sydney forward pack in Saturday night's Charity Shield a Round 1 return is well within reach.
"I've really kind of had one career before all that stuff happened and my state of mind and attitude towards the game is definitely a lot different now," Packer said.
"I'd definitely say that I probably enjoy things a bit more now and take everything in a lot more and live every day. I'm just grateful.
"Honestly I'm just looking to the Charity Shield. You never know what's around the corner so you've just got to go day by day, week by week and prepare well and try to do my best and work my way into the team for Round 1."
Dragons captain Gareth Widdop played alongside Packer for the first time last weekend and praised the way he has turned his life around.
"He's quite a strong sort of character and he's a good acquisition to our team," Widdop said.
"Obviously he's had a tough past but he's worked hard and I'm glad for him and his family that he's back on the field and doing what he loves.
"He was good [against Wynnum] and it's great to see him back playing."
He may not yet understand the history of the Dragons to the extent of the fans who have welcomed him with open arms but even Packer knows there is something special about the Charity Shield.
St George Illawarra have triumphed just three times in the past 10 Charity Shield clashes with the Rabbitohs and Packer says he is learning more and more about the great rivalries the Dragons are engaged in.
"It's something that is talked about at the club, all the rivalries with Cronulla and Souths with the Charity Shield," said Packer.
"A lot's made of it and talked about around the club so as a new player coming in you've got to appreciate the history of the club that you're coming to and I'm really excited.
"We should field a really strong team and have a decent hit-out so I'm pretty excited to lace up the boots next weekend too."