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Rugby league player Russell Packer jailed as Australia confronts alcohol, violence

By Tim Hume, CNN
updated 10:40 PM EST, Wed January 8, 2014
Rugby league player Russell Packer, pictured here in black playing for New Zealand in 2011, has been sentenced to jail for a late night assault in Sydney.
Rugby league player Russell Packer, pictured here in black playing for New Zealand in 2011, has been sentenced to jail for a late night assault in Sydney.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rugby league player Russell Packer was jailed for a late night assault in Sydney
  • His mentor believes the "harsh" sentence reflects public concern over drunken street violence
  • An 18-year-old is in a coma after being punched in Sydney on New Year's Eye
  • Many public figures are calling for an overhaul of Australia's relationship with alcohol

(CNN) -- A professional rugby league player has been jailed for two years for a drunken assault in Sydney, amid national soul-searching over the prevalence of alcohol-fueled violence in Australian society.

Russell Packer, a former New Zealand representative who plays for the Newcastle Knights in Australia's National Rugby League, attacked the victim during a night out drinking in Sydney's CBD in November, stomping on the man's face as he lay motionless.

The severity of Monday's sentence apparently came as a surprise, with Australia media reporting that Packer's lawyer, Murugan Thangaraj, told the judge that he had no idea jail time was being considered. Packer's long-time mentor, former player David Lomax, speculated to Fairfax Media that the 24-year-old's "harsh" sentence may have been a reaction to public concern over recent high-profile street assaults.

The most recent victim, 18-year-old Daniel Christie, was critically injured after being punched in the face in Sydney's King Cross nightlife district on New Year's Eve. The assault, which left him in a coma with a fractured skull, occurred close to the spot where another 18-year-old, Thomas Kelly, was killed with a single punch in July 2012.

Kelly's death drew public attention to the potential damage wreaked by "king hits" -- a term widely used in Australian media for single, devastating punches -- and prompted the New South Wales state government to move to introduce a new "one punch" law, that will remove the legal requirement to prove assailants know a blow will kill in order to secure a conviction.

(In Australia), you would be forgiven for thinking you can't be successful in life, you can't be successful with the opposite sex, you can't be a successful sportsperson, unless you drink
Steve Hambleton, president of the Australian Medical Association

The recent assault on Christie has sparked calls from doctors, politicians and victims' families for a concerted effort to tackle the problem of street violence, including an overhaul of Australian society's relationship with alcohol -- and its close association with sporting culture.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has weighed into the debate, urging police and the courts "to absolutely throw the book at people who perpetrate this kind of gratuitous, unprovoked violence" during an interview with an Australian radio station. He said the trend reflected the "rise of the disturbed individual."

Steve Hambleton, the president of the Australian Medical Association, told CNN that changing habits of alcohol consumption was essential to tackling street violence.

"Australia seriously needs to think about its culture, that alcohol is connected next to nearly every gathering that occurs," he said.

"You would be forgiven for thinking you can't be successful in life, you can't be successful with the opposite sex, you can't be a successful sportsperson unless you drink."

He said the current regime for the responsible service of alcohol had "failed," with "too many intoxicated people being served alcohol."

Potential solutions included introducing early closing times, restricting the number of alcohol licenses and implementing "no re-entry" policies in hotspots for violence, as well examining the relationship between alcohol and sport. "All our youth are exposed to enormous amounts of alcohol advertising through sport," he said.

The acting leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale, called for a Senate inquiry into the promotion and advertising of alcohol.

"We need to have a close look at how the promotion of alcohol is contributing to a culture of drinking in this country that is unhealthy and dangerous," said Di Natale, a former drug and alcohol clinician.

"Perversely linking healthy pursuits like cricket and football with alcohol through sponsorship and alcohol advertising is the dark side of Australian sport."

Christie's family said even the widespread term "king hit" should be abandoned. "We don't agree with the popular term 'king hit,'" read a statement from the family. "We have heard it referred to as a coward punch, which seems more appropriate."

New South Wales Police Minister Michael Gallacher said there was "no silver bullet for alcohol-fueled violence," but that initiatives rolled out in recent years had seen assaults in Kings Cross drop 33% last summer.

"We will continue to work with NSW Police to curb alcohol-related violence, but individuals also need to take responsibility for their actions," he said.

Packer has launched an appeal of his sentence, which will be heard on February 11. His lawyer, Thangaraj, did not return calls to CNN.

Another National Rugby League player, Reni Maitua, is currently facing assault charges after a night out in Kings Cross in November.

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