Ricky Stuart’s time coaching the Raiders has been in most people’s eyes an unquestionable success. After bottoming out in 2014, the side improved markedly through 2015 and 2016. A aborted run in 2017 and an injured superstar have left some (ok, me) wondering what Stuart can extract from this side in 2018. Is Ricky Stuart an elite coach? Can he take this side to the finals? I think 2018 will be the test of the man.
Stuart’s career coaching record has been mixed. A premiership at the Roosters and good performances by the Sharks have been littered with some less positive periods. Think of how different his coaching career would have been if he didn’t have the opportunity to coach a talent-laden Roosters side in his first crack. His winning percentage is 49 across his NRL career, but that drops to 42 when you consider his career outside of that side (and probably even less if you include a post-Fittler Roosters).
Any ‘high-level’ assessment of Stuart’s work with the Raiders faces the obstacle of separating Stuart the talent identifier from Stuart the coach. Stuart the talent identifier is the more positive story. He has brought in potentially elite talent in Josh Hodgson, Junior Paulo and Joe Tapine, as well as the less renowned but hard-working Elliot Whitehead and Aidan Sezer. His list management hasn’t been perfect. Shaun Fensom and Paul Vaughan are notable examples of players most Raiders fans felt pangs of envy watching in 2017.
His development record has been more mixed. Some players have definitely hit their peaks under his leadership. Josh Hodgson, Jordan Rapana, BJ Leilua, Blake Austin, Josh Papalii and Elliot Whitehead have maxed out their potential, at least for periods. But it’s hard to say how much of this was coaching and how much was opportunity. Nor have all of those listed have actually achieved their potential for an extended period. Jack Wighton, Nic Cotric and Joe Tapine appear to have begun to scratch the surface of their potential.
But what is one to make of the ups and downs of Raiders halves under Stuart? Is it Stuart’s failure that Austin never became more than a devastating runner? Is Aidan Sezer’s happiness to let Hodgson and Austin control the side a decision of Stuart’s or an attitudinal failure on Sezer’s behalf.
Regardless, a broad strokes approach to assessing Stuart’s reign is not helpful nor complete. Before the 2016 season these pages said the Raiders were a top six roster and that it was up to Stuart to make sure it happened. That they did. But it took a near 10 game winning streak at the back of the year to get there. In 2017 we said he must prove 2016 wasn’t a fluke. Is it Stuart’s fault the side lost 8 games by less than six points, lost three golden point games and two more they lead handily in the last 10 minutes?
What we do know is that in hindsight the Raiders were ill prepared for 2017. Their 2018 offseason seems a direct repudiation of what occurred before 2017. Rather than the ‘rest was needed’ approach of the previous year, we’ve heard little but ‘fat clubs’ and ‘personal bests’. It seems the grumpiest man in football was too satisfied after 2016 and so it seemed were many of his players. All have sought to rectify that in preparation for 2018.
Teams were prepared for the Raiders in 2017. Stuart himself noted that other teams slowed the Raiders ruck and their vaunted attack in 2017. The Raiders were often at a loss as to how to combat that. The Raiders shifted from halves sharing a side for the back end of 2016 to splitting again in 2017. This was a confounding coaching decision. The defensive effort of the end of 2016 was never present in 2017, and Stuart himself highlighted it as another area that had to improve in 2018.
Stuart’s willingness to accept the mistakes of 2017 is admirable. But it is weird that no one has really mentioned that these are mistakes that ultimately he is responsible for. Throughout the year Stuart publicly shielded his charges from external criticism, blaming almost anything else for their failures. But in the past he has almost exclusively blamed his players – in 2015 and 2016 he more than once bemoaned his lack of Origin level talent, as if he hadn’t brought it all there.
And so 2018 is here. The injury to Hodgson means the degree of difficulty for Stuart is higher than 2017. He will have to be creative in how he fills that gap. The squad announced for round one indicates that Stuart is willing to throw out past loyalties and plans to pursue success. A typical Stuart smokescreen aside, Austin starts on the bench, Sam Williams and Aidan Sezer may prove more effective than a combo involving Austin, simply due to the extra ball-playing and organisational work needed to fill Hodgson’s absence.
But Hodgson’s absence should not be an excuse. Good coaches find ways around injuries and obstacles. Brad Arthur turned a pint-sized forward pack into a competitor last year. Melbourne will roll on without Cooper Cronk this year. Teams have made the finals with less talent than the Raiders have on the park this year.
It’s a big year for Ricky Stuart the coach and the roster manager. The Raiders are good enough to win. Stuart has identified and (hopefully) rectified the errors of 2017. The absence of Hodgson makes it harder but it’s hard to say this team can’t succeed.
Is Ricky Stuart an elite coach? I think this year we find out.