Coach of the Canberra Raiders is hardly the highest status gig in the National Rugby League. The spot is usually reserved for up-and-comers or members of the glory days. As such, these coaches tend to get more time than other clubs to build the clubs in the image they want. In effect they become Kings, reigning without the pressure that coaches feel at other clubs.
Ricky Stuart is about to enter his third year as coach of the Canberra Raiders. In the first two he set about systematically rebuilding the once proud side in his image. This was considered such a success by the Raiders that they gave him a contract extension at the end of last year. He has built a side that should be ready to push deep into the NRL finals. But if they don’t will Stuart’s kingdom come crashing down?
When the Stuart reign begun in time for the 2014 season, even the most optimistic fan of the side didn’t think finals were a realistic possibility.
There was a chasm in the squad between the ageing holdovers from the brief moments of recent Raiders success and the younger players just starting to find their place in the first grade squad. As the season wore on, it became increasingly clear that several of the older players were no longer of first grade standard. To build something that could again threaten the established sides of the NRL, the existing structure would have to be torn down first.
Terry Campese was the beginning of this clean out. Brett White retired, David Shillington ended the season on the injured list, and Josh McCrone went from every-week-starter to playing the majority of his games as an interchange utility after a brief spell at dummy-half. Reece Robinson, Shaun Berrigan and others left. This process was not always driven by push factors. Star youngster Anthony Milford walked out the door at the end of 2014, leaving a disastrous lack of talent in the halves. James Tedesco, Josh Hoffman, Kevin Proctor and Michael Ennis were all pursued to no success. The side ended the season near the bottom of the ladder, and even that didn’t display just how bleak things looked.
In 2015 the rebuild begun in earnest. More players were moved on. McCrone left the club for good. Back up hooker Glenn Buttriss now spends most of his times in NSW Cup. Dane Tilse left the club, as did Shillington, Joel Edwards and Bill Tupou.
Stuart brought in Blake Austin to partner the young left-footer Mitchell Cornish and veteran Sam Williams in the halves. A position was finally found for Jack Wighton at fullback.
hwThe young hooker from England, Josh Hodgson, was unleashed on the National Rugby League in much the same way he had unleashed on that door in Auckland at the end of 2014. Sia Soliola and Frank-Paul Nuuausala were brought in to provide leadership to the extremely talented, but young forward pack. BJ Leilua joined mid-season, and immediately impressed when he had enough breath to move.
That the project was incomplete was obvious throughout the 2015 season. Austin was a boon at six but in his first full season at the spot showed that he still to develop his playmaking ability. Cornish had been let go, and Sam Williams had proved underwhelming as a long-term solution as Austin’s partner. Jack Wighton was still learning how and when to insert himself into the attack from the back. Josh Hodgson was amazing, but fitness limited his time on the field to roughly 60 minutes a match. Forwards Paul Vaughan, Josh Papali and Shannon Boyd showed they could be the core of a dominant force in years to come, but as a whole the pack struggled for consistency. It was clear that this was a young side – the number of losses by less than a try indicated the struggle with inexperience. But it was indisputable that 2015 brought with the first rays of sunlight to shine on the nation’s capital in some time. For the first time in years, the potential for a premiership winning side had returned.
This most recent off-season saw what should be the final pieces of the puzzle. Aidan Sezer’s talent should be enough to cement the spine for many years to come, not to mention Hodgson’s recent contract extension. The addition of Joseph Tapine and Elliot Whitehead added more talent to a pack brimming with it. Adam Clydesdale, shoulder willing, provides the depth in the utility bench position that Stuart seems to crave. Even BJ Leilua has stopped eating hamburgers long enough to live up to his potential.
This team is still young. Due to an injury to Austin, the halves will have barely played with each other before the seasons starts. The side is full of potential, but Stuart’s strength has previously been taking established sides and making sure they delivered. His reputation as a developmental coach is spotty.
But Ricky has built the side he wanted. He has a halfback that is capable of the consistent organising, threatening ball-running and accurate kicking that Stuart craves in his sevens. He has a young forward pack full of potential future representatives. And in the backs, he has depth, power and pace. Combine this with a favourable draw and the Canberra rugby league community is aiming high – those claiming the top four is a possibility appear optimistic, but no longer are such claims considered frivolous. Rival coaches have singled out the Raiders as the big movers for 2016 – expectations are naturally high in Canberra for the first time in years. It all points to success in 2016.
The patience extended during the past two years may not be as plentiful as the community seeks to reap the rewards of the rebuild. There are now no excuses. Stuart now has his kingdom. The search for the holy grail begins here.