There are few personalities in Rugby League as polarising as Ricky Stuart. Loved and respected by some, loathed, detested and written off by others. His coaching career to date has been similarly polarising. Great success at the beginning, followed by less than stellar results at a number of clubs. Throughout it all there have always been people in Stuart’s corner, people who rated him as a “very good coach”. As the Raiders go into the 2015 season, after a decade of failure, those supporters are becoming harder and harder to find. The reckoning is coming. This year is the year Stuart has to repay the faith.
Stuart’s coaching career began on a high. At the forefront was defence. He pioneered the gang tackle and his squad executed his tactics with german precision. There was no doubt he was a tactically sound coach, capable of getting the best out of his men. In his first year he took a good Sydney Roosters side to the grand final. The side won the premiership. He had made a good side great. Two more consecutive grand finals followed. It is hard to think of another coaching career that started on such a high and in hindsight it was inevitable that at some point he would come crashing back to earth.
What nobody would have expected was how stunningly hard the crash would be. The rot set in as the Sydney roosters squad that had taken him to such great heights began to disband. Old stalwarts began to retire, younger players took big money offers at other clubs. It is how the salary cap is meant to work. Still within a matter of years the Roosters went from the dominant team in the comp to also-rans, battling for the spoon. Eventually, unable to right the ship, he was fired. There is no shame in that. Even the great Wayne Bennett was “let go” by Brisbane. Coach long enough and you get fired, it comes with the territory.
A desperate Cronulla picked him up. Here was a good coach, who only a few years ago was coaching grand final teams. For a while it seemed like it was a great match. After an unsuccessful first year he took a limited Cronulla side to 4th. Things were looking up for Cronulla and for their coach. Sadly for Stuart, it all began to implode the year after. In 2009 the Sharks bounced from scandal to scandal: financial problems, allegations of inappropriate group sex, players testing positive for drugs, racist remarks from the captain and Tony Zappia being Tony Zappia. It couldn’t have been much worse.
Throughout the scandals, Stuart’s coaching was still defence focussed. However, it had begun to look dated and stale. Bellamy and Hasler had taken the innovations pioneered by Stuart and adapted and improved on them. On the park the Sharks no longer looked competent. They lost 10 consecutive games. They could still defend, but that was about it. In 2010 Stuart jumped. With the chaos surrounding the club, that was fair enough.
After his failure at Cronulla, Stuart took a few years off NRL coaching. He coached NSW. NSW did well but coming up against a historic QLD side, they lost.
In 2013, he wound up back in the NRL as a head coach. This time in charge of Parramatta (the guy obviously likes a challenge). What ensued was chaotic to say the least. Terrible on field performances lead to a public “clean out” where unwanted players were publically shamed, which lead to even worse on field performances. Throughout it the Parramatta board was in a constant state of crisis. It was a mess. A complete and utter mess. So when the Canberra Raiders offered Stuart a lifeline he once again jumped.
Despite the chaos, it seemed that many still thought Stuart was a good coach. At both Parramatta and Cronulla the chaos had run deep. How could anyone be successful in those environments? There were plenty of readymade excuses for why Stuart had failed. So while poaching a coach whose side was running dead last was unorthodox to say the least, it illustrated the faith some people still had in him.
This time though it looked like it was really make or break. It felt different. The chaos at Parramatta had focussed attention on Stuart’s coaching credentials and there was a growing sentiment that he couldn’t cut it. Articles were written and fans vented. The truth is it was hard to argue with them, 10 years of mediocre results gave backbone to what would otherwise have been water off a ducks back. This time, maybe the haters were right? Maybe Stuart was a charlatan? What now seemed clear was that if Stuart’s “bad luck” continued, his three years at the Raiders would be his last as an NRL coach.
Which brings me to Stuart’s first year in charge of the Raiders. Results were again poor. Once again though, Stuart was taking over a club that had issues. Once again there was drama. The captain was cut, players were signed from other clubs only to renege on their deals. Add to the squad he started with was weak and not of his making. There were more than enough excuses there if you wanted to find them. Stuart’s first year at the raiders didn’t produce a definitive answer either way. Some fans and journalists called for his head. Others still passionately supported him. The only thing that became clear was the importance of next year.
Next year is upon us. After the off-season where does Stuart stand? What is the likely outcome of the Stuart saga, can Stuart save his career?
Over the off-season he has rung in the changes. The dead wood is gone. It has been replaced by a handpicked group of young guns and veterans from outside the club. On paper the squad looks decent. Good even. The distractions are gone. The Raiders’ board is stable. The club has a new young captain, a player who will captain the raiders for many years to come. From the outside, it looks like harmony has been restored.
As a fan, I am cautiously optimistic. It looks like Stuart has built a squad that will be successful, that will be competitive. Of course, as a Raiders supporter, I’m not expecting miracles this year, just a competitive squad. A squad that will be in the fight for the 8. While I think they will likely finish outside it (12th), I expect them to be there or there abouts. I think the Raiders will have a decent, heck maybe even good year. And boy does Stuart need a decent year, because truth be told, he can’t afford anymore “bad luck”.
The reckoning is upon him, the time has come for him to pay back those that have shown so much faith in him over all these years.