Russell Packer will play his first NRL game in 995 days when he starts for St George-Illawarra in their season-opener against Melbourne on Monday.
Packer hasn’t played since spending one year in jail for assaulting a man in Sydney described by the magistrate as “cowardly and deplorable”.
The 26-year-old will now put a nightmare two years behind him when he runs out as the Dragons’ starting prop, although coach Paul McGregor has warned fans not to expect him to immediately set the competition alight against the Storm’s all-international front-row pair of Jesse Bromwich and Jordan McLean.
“Bromwich is probably the No.1 front-rower in the world, with his last couple of seasons. For Russ, it’s just about preparing well each week and playing the best he can,” he said on Sunday.
“Don’t expect too much. He’s been out of the game for some time. My words to Russ is to just take your time. It’s going to take a little while, and we expect that.”
Packer won’t be the only one with a point to prove against the competition heavyweights, with former Storm utility Kurt Mann to make his Dragons debut against his old club at fullback.
McGregor said Mann earned the spot ahead of NSW State of Origin fullback Josh Dugan because of his superior ball-playing skills, as well as an ability to nullify the Storm’s gang-tackling early in the set.
“Obviously he’s a different fullback than Josh. Josh is 104-plus kilo runner of the ball where Kurt gives you that half-type player out the back at fullback,” he said.
“He also finds the ground very well at the back of the field, he’s a very good dummy-half runner, and he’s quite quick. He bounces off defenders quite well.
“Melbourne’s big go is to hold you up, get numbers in the tackle, and squash you on those early plays. So Kurt’s valuable to us to get our sets started at the back.”
McGregor also re-iterated a desire to keep off-contract playmaker Benji Marshall after reports emerged on the weekend of a possible homecoming to the Wests Tigers.
“We want Benji to stay here. There’s no doubting that. He knows that. I’ve had good conversations with Benji, and that’s as far as I need to talk about it,” he said.
A total six new faces have been named by McGregor for the clash, including late buy Tim Lafai.
For the Storm, rep star Billy Slater is likely to overcome a shoulder problem to play his first game since last June.
STATS THAT MATTER
* The Dragons have lost their past 13 games in Melbourne, beginning with a 70-10 thumping at the MCG in 2000. Overall they have won eight of 31 games against the Storm, their worst record against any opponent.
* Melbourne won seven of 11 matches played at AAMI park last year, the least amount of wins they’ve had in Melbourne since 2002.
* Melbourne has won its opening match in the past 11 seasons – the only team in history to achieve the feat.