Former Saints wing Howard ready for next rugby chapter after overcoming tough times

"It seems like forever now," says Howard Packman, reflecting on his departure from Saints as he speaks on the eve of his next chapter in rugby.

Howard Packman came through the ranks at Saints
Howard Packman came through the ranks at Saints

It was five years ago this month that news emerged that Packman's time at Franklin's Gardens was coming to an end.

His summer switch to Bedford Blues was confirmed, bringing the curtain down on his stay at the club he had called home since he was a boy.

And since then, it's fair to say that the journey on and off the field has been an extremely difficult one.

Howard Packman in action for North Otago in the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship Meads Cup

The toughest part of it all came in March last year when Howard's father, Saints legend Frank Packman, passed away suddenly.

It came at a time when Howard had already been struggling following injuries on the field and another shocking event off it.

"It's a tough one because dad passing away rounded off one of the worst years of my life," Packman explained.

"After lockdown and when we found out Doncaster (who Packman signed for in November 2019) would be playing some rugby, I was training with Sam Olver and I felt really good.

Howard Packman during his time at Doncaster Knights in the Championship

"We came back from holiday and me, Sam and Hutch (Saints centre Rory Hutchinson) went out to watch the Premiership final. I got punched from behind for no reason whatsoever and it was pretty bad."

When asked to elaborate on the incident, Packman explained: "We went to Sam's house in Stamford. Everyone was just watching rugby, we went out about 9.30pm on a Saturday and we were just catching up.

"We went to grab a couple more beers to go back to the house and chat, and someone came up behind me, unprovoked.

"I don't remember much about it but Sam and Rory said it was a one-punch knockout and whoever it was kicked me on the floor for a while.

"I'd love to find out who it was because there was CCTV but not of the incident. I walked off out of shot and then you see the guy run up behind me and I'm not sure why it was me that was targeted.

"The others said they got involved and they had to get me out off the floor while they were getting kicked as well.

"I was left with severe concussion and couldn't get rid of the headaches for about four months.

"When I got back to training, I realised I had some nerve damage in my neck and it was really bad.

"It kept me out for a long time and my physio after all of that happened, he told me he'd never seen someone have such bad luck over an eight-month period.

"These things are there to test us and you have to get over them."

But Packman's biggest personal test was yet to arrive.

"I got over that a little bit and then dad passed away suddenly," he said. "We didn't know it was going to come.

"He was very cautious about his health, always went for regular check-ups.

"He went out one day with my two younger brothers and fancied a walk while they were on the bike paths, and halfway round apparently he had a heart attack.

"It's one of the hardest things you've got to go through and I feel even worse for my siblings because they're a bit younger than me.

"They've taken things in their stride and I'm super proud of them.

"When you lose someone like that, who is such a huge inspiration and a huge person in life to everyone, everyone looks up to him, and when he went it was honestly s***.

"I did have hundreds of people messaging me and I didn't get back to a lot of them because at the time it was just a blur.

"I had team-mates from all over the world message me and it was nice to get all of those and understand how much he was respected in rugby and outside of it."

Frank Packman was just 57 when he passed away on March 30, 2021.

He made his Saints debut in 1983 and the winger would go on to cross the whitewash 178 times in his 323 appearances in black, green and gold, putting him fifth in the club's all-time try-scoring records.

Packman Jr had very much hoped to follow in his father's footsteps at Saints, and there were plenty of signs of early promise as the lightning-quick wing scored tries for fun for the Wanderers.

But ultimately, it didn't work out for him at the Gardens.

"It was a difficult last year for me there," Packman said.

"The year before promised so much but I didn't really get a look in at the start of the (2016/17) season after a decent pre-season.

"I spoke to Alan Dickens and he told me my chance would come and I was doing really well.

"I scored something like 11 tries in three games for the Wanderers during that season and felt surely it would happen for me but no one spoke to me.

"It shouldn't have happened, but I sort of threw my toys out of the pram and was sulking a bit, I didn't really like anyone at the club, but it was more about me feeling I should have had some game time.

"I fell out with Jim (Mallinder) and Alan unfortunately for a while and left not on great terms but that's part and parcel of rugby.

"When I went to Bedford, Jordan Onojaife came on loan there and we used to talk all the time in the car about it, saying I should have stayed another year because if I'd managed to get through that year when they were transitioning coaches out, you don't know who could take a liking to you.

"It could have been a bit different but you've got to make your own luck in some ways."

Packman can be forgiven for wondering what might have been had he been around when Chris Boyd took over a year after he had departed.

Boyd has promoted plenty of Academy players who now form the foundation of the team.

But for Packman, his career took a different, far from planned path.

After his spell at Bedford, he was represented the likes of Ealing Trailfinders, Doncaster and he has won the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship Meads Cup in New Zealand with North Otago, scoring in the final.

Packman lost his love for rugby after the punch incident and the passing of his dad.

But he has been able to rediscover it thanks a national sevens side who came calling thanks to the fact his father was born in Germany.

"I was just fed up after all that happened and never thought I could get it (the love for rugby) back," Packman explained.

"My body was really bad, my head was all over the place and at some points last season for Blackheath I just didn't want to carry on playing. I'd turn up and it was like I wasn't really there.

"I was having a few beers the night before and I didn't really want to play for that first year.

"But through this opportunity with Germany it's changed my mindset on things.

"You need time to get over things and it took me longer than I thought I would.

"I felt really proud today and it's something dad would have wanted.

"I want to make people proud, do my best for Germany and show my brothers that are playing that if they want to do it, they can."

Packman speaks now on the eve of his first tournament with Germany, an invitational competition in France.

And though he laughs as he admits he doesn't actually speak any German, it's clear how much it will mean to him to represent the country where his dad spent the first eight years of his life.

"Playing for Germany was something I'd looked at a long time ago and they got in touch with me through Mouritz Botha when he was coaching," Packman said.

"I thought I was able to play but the rules meant I was capped from the England 7s stuff so it didn't happen, but a rule has come out that has allowed me to transfer over.

"I'm now super excited to get into a professional environment and help this German team.

"Dad was born in Germany, my grandmother is German. Grandad met grandma while working for the Army and my dad lived there for eight years.

"I don't actually know any German, even though my dad did try to teach me.

"Luckily for me, the whole team is fluent in English. They'll always tell me the jokes and they're all really nice guys here.

"We've got this invitational tournament now and it's a warm up for World Cup qualifiers.

"We're trying to get on to the World Series and into the World Cup in South Africa in September."

Packman has also entered the world of work, something he has really started to enjoy after finding a job he is passionate about.

The 26-year-old said: "I tried recruitment when I first got to London from Doncaster in June last year.

"It was such a quick decision because I just wanted to move away and stop rugby.

"I lasted for 12 days in recruitment and then had a couple of months off.

"I spoke to my mum and godfather and they said I am really good with kids and maybe there was something I could do down that route.

"I'm working as a special needs teaching assistant and it's great.

"I think they like me at the school and they keep telling me I need to sign permanently but I need to be able to play sevens around the world.

"I've got a plan for the future and everything at the moment is just for experience but I'm loving this role and it's very rewarding."

Packman has met up with another former Saint, Tom Stephenson, a few times in London.

And both are now getting back on track after their struggles off the field.

Stephenson's story has been important in lifting the lid on mental battles rugby players past and present face.

And Packman said: "I've seen Tom a few times when in London and he looks great and seems like he's enjoying himself. If it can't happen it rugby, it can happen another way.

"There are loads of people who are going through things and it's tough so it's really good when you see people getting better."

Thankfully, that also seems to be the case for Packman, though he does chuckle when asked whether he still possesses the pace that helped him catch the eye during his Saints days.

"A little bit has gone, I might have slowed up a bit in the past couple of years," he said.

"If Germany find out about that, they might put me in the forwards!"