Packer: We refuse to take easy option
Watching the Wests Tigers in 2018 has been a mix of riveting, fascinating, stressful and exhausting.
Three consecutive matches decided by two points, each on the line right up to the death. Two of them fantastic upset wins over Telstra Premiership heavyweights, one a narrow golden-point loss that was only sealed against them by an unfortunate officiating error.
Facing the teams that finished first, second and third last season [with the now-struggling fourth-placed finishers, the Parramatta Eels, waiting on Monday], they have emerged with two wins which could readily become three this week.
It hasn't always been pretty - as anyone who watched the opening 40 minutes against Brisbane last weekend will attest - but rarely has it been anything other than enthralling, not to mention impressive.
The Tigers have conceded two tries in three games.
Watching them scramble and scramble in defence and continually shut teams down on their own line, you wonder how they can possibly keep it up – but they've done it for 248 minutes and Russell Packer credits their performances to a combination of attitude, desire and a refusal to take the easy option.
"It isn't easy playing like that but if you want to be in a good team you can't take the easy option," Packer said.
"[Defence] was one of the things we worked on over the pre-season and I guess it's come through over the first three rounds but we just need to be better at the end of the games.
"We had the opportunity to win it [against Brisbane] but it's a good building block for our squad – you'd rather be working on your attack than working on your defence after three rounds.
"That's the position we're in and it's a challenge we've got to keep meeting in terms of showing up for each other. The most pleasing thing is the attitude everyone has and a willingness to cover each other and show up for each other."
A lot has gone into the club's defensive overhaul, from gruelling pre-season sessions under new trainer Ron Palmer to the leadership instilled by a couple of existing players along with some battle-hardened recruits like Packer, Benji Marshall, Ben Matulino and Robbie Rochow.
But it is co-captain Packer who has arguably set the tone up front with some stinging charges and tackles.
His 57 tackles against Brisbane – a number inflated by two first-half injuries to two outside backs, eight minutes of extra time, and the side's lowly 46% possession rate – is an uncharacteristic number for a player whose game has always been built on impact rather than weight of statistics.
For context, it's the most tackles Packer has made in his 154-game career – 10 clear of the 47 he completed against the St George Illawarra Dragons in 2010 while playing for the Warriors. Only four times has he completed more than 40 tackles in a game and all came in 2010-11.
"It was more just how the game panned out, to be honest," Packer said of his tireless round three efforts.
"We had a few HIAs and subs that happened in the first half and Ivan (Cleary) wanted me to play out that first half. That was more the circumstances of the game as opposed to a conscious effort to play longer," Packer said.
The absence of hard-working lock Elijah Taylor to a hamstring injury may have contributed as well.
"I don't really want to be making that many tackles to be honest with you – we need Elijah back, he loves making 50 a game!" Packer laughed.
"But I go about my business in a manner that I think's good for the team. If people around me think that's a good example to follow that's the goal I look for. I'm not a preacher, I just believe in showing up and working hard and people see you doing that and hopefully follow.
"I feel like as a club we're making a lot of strides in terms of our culture and tangibly you can see that with our defence and probably going into this year prior to playing games, that was a big goal, to play hard for each other, to be in games when they matter."
Packer also believed the team's attack would steadily improve, which would ease pressure on the defensive side of things.
"We're still building. Regardless of the [positive] results it's a long-term strategy," he said.