When the Raiders announced that they were moving fullback Jack Wighton to the halves it predictably set off a round of takes. We were not immune. This is potentially the last throw of the dice of the Stuart regime. It’s a lot of pressure on Wighton – his success may mean more than just a position and a season. It could determine the fate of Stuart’s career.
We briefly touched on this in our previous post, but what struck us about this move is that it is conceivably Ricky Stuart’s version of a Hail Mary. After five years in charge and only one venture into the finals to show, questions have begun to be asked of Stuart’s tenure, not in the least in these pages. Stuart has been a positive for the Raiders, taking an ageing and noncompetitive squad and turning it into a high-potential, low-output outfit. The momentary sparks this side has provided have been overwhelmingly undermined by the comical losses.
This offseason has been the first of his tenure in which he effectively has admitted he may have got things wrong. Firstly there was the admission that the forward pack was too big. Paulo and Boyd walked for more money, and the Raiders reaction has been to embrace small-ball. There’s been no attempt to replace them with like.
Secondly, the radio silence that met Blake Austin’s departure was an admission of the failure to develop him beyond what he arrived as in 2015. Stuart thought he could turn him and Sezer into the halves the Raiders’ needed. Instead Austin became famous for skills he developed before he became to Canberra, and never really developed those needed to be a proper half. In the end all Stuart did was unleash a brilliant, sometimes infuriating player that took all the Raiders flaws and reflected them back upon themselves. Dynamic attack? Hell yeah! Porous, comical, edge defence? You know it. Every ‘characteristic’ of the Raiders over the last few was visible and magnified in Austin.
With his departure and Ata Hingano’s injury, Stuart was put in a position where his most obvious halves option was Sam Williams alongside Aidan Sezer. Stuart saw this pair plenty in 2018 and seemed to decide this was insufficient. But with the Raiders already at the cap (despite the protestations of Mr Moses, Norman and Johnson) there has been very little wiggle-room to address this.
Enter Jackie Boi.
Wighton to six is an admission that there are no other options. While he has demonstrated many of the ball-playing ability one would want form a five-eighth, his last foray into the space was a disaster. He then became the fullback and e all know and love; culminating in a 2018 that stacked up with the best in the game.
Regardless, Stuart is making his move. If Wighton flames out again, the Raiders could be back at square one, a side destined for the middle of the table with a coach with no other options to change that. In a sense it’s worth applauding. Faced with no good option Stuart is willing to push his chips into the middle of table and face the consequences.
Ultimately whether this Hail Mary comes off will be determined by a mix of Stuart’s coaching and strategic ability, his teammates and Wighton’s exceptional talent. It’s curious mix of variables that will be hard to deliver. He is backing his ability to turn Jack from a ball playing fullback to a class five-eighth. He’s asking Wighton to repay the faith that he has shown him both on the field and off.
Stuart doesn’t have good form developing halves. Here’s a list of noted halves who’s careers atrophied under Stuart: Austin, Cornish, Finch, Kimmorley, Sezer, Lachlan Lewis, Sandow, Firman, Wing, Soward, Green. There’s plenty more if you’re feeling argumentative. Time and time again the man who was a genius with the ball has been unable to impart that wisdom on another generation.
Stuart will have to work out a way. His future may depend on it.
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