Update: NRL.com is reporting that Sticky has signed an extension to the end of 2023.
The future of Ricky Stuart became a discussion point this week when rumours emerged of a likely extension of his time in Canberra. If he sees out a likely two-year extension, it would make him the longest tenured coach in team history. Quite an achievement, but is it the right decision?
It seems silly to argue otherwise. Stuart’s contract ends in 2020, and it avoids a distraction for next year if his future is guaranteed beyond it. The on the field product produced by Stuart is as good as any since the golden era (1987-1995). We should all be grateful right?
It’s a remarkable turnaround. Before this season many (including us) considered that Sticky’s position was shaky at best. A series of gutting losses in 2018 compounded a disappointing 2017. Raiders fans had heard the coach’s excuses so much that “I’ve got 17 blokes hurting back there” became a meme. Or part of a meme. You know what I mean. It was getting old. The team had maxed out in the “here for a good time, not a long time” 2016 season.
Now Sticky’s claim to an extension could rest at pointing at the ladder for 2019. At writing, the only teams above the Raiders are perennial contenders the Storm, and the reigning premier Roosters. Not a bad resume to start.
But the best points for an extension at this stage go beyond wins. Before the season we saw the move of Jack Wighton to the halves as one that, if a failure, could be the precipitating event for Stuart’s sacking. Essentially, Stuart was taking someone quietly emerging as an elite fullback, moving him to a more difficult position that player had already struggled at, with little to no backup plan should it all fail. It could have all fallen apart.
Instead, Wighton has thrived, and while also adding another dimension to the Raiders attack (and robustness to their edge defence), it has also provided a counterpoint to the biggest criticism of Stuart – that he can’t develop halves. Wighton is evidence that Stuart can take a lump of clay and mould a half, rather than just succeed with the finished product. Wighton’s game has been put together brick-by-brick over the past few years, and his success at six has been no exception. Stuart has been a huge part of that.
That’s not the only developmental work the Green Machine have done in 2019. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has gone from never playing at the Warriors to being one of the form fullbacks in the NRL. Bailey Simonsson has come into rugby league from union sevens and has played an integral part of the side’s ability to sustain injuries to Jordan Rapana, BJ Leilua and Nic Cotric. Hudson Young started the season out of the preferred 17, but in the meantime has provided critical cover for Joe Tapine and John Bateman at different times. Corey Horsburgh’s talent has seemingly been harnessed. All of these are examples of the raiders turning promise into reality. In the middle of all this, Aidan Sezer is quietly having the best period of play in his time in Canberra – perhaps too late. At least some of the credit for the success of all these developmental opportunities must be given to Stuart.
Update: Reader Anne points out that we left consideration of Stuart’s community work out of the conversation. We have no defence of this. Stuart does a huge amount of charity work through his foundation and is an important part of the Canberra community. It is undoubtedly big part of his appeal and should also be considered.
Stuart has a compelling case to stay around, but there are questions that must be asked by the Raiders administration before they rubber stamp a new deal. The timing of this rumour is no error. I’ve no doubt that Stuart’s management is keen to get a deal done while the Raiders are on the up, rather than a more nuanced conversation that would happen if the Raiders season were to end with relative disappointment.
Stuart’s overall record is hardly without question – his 49 per cent winning record for the Raiders is better than all Raiders coaches since Mal Meninga, but it pales in comparison to the excellent (Bellamy 69, Bennett 62), the good (Michael Maguire 60 per cent), and the out-of-work (Anthony Griffin 54 per cent). These career records tend to iron out any of the year-to-year variance. So questions must be asked as to whether 2019 represents a change to an upward trajectory, or just a good year among the mediocre.
Firstly, how much of 2019’s success is influenced by other parts of the organisation? This roster is not Stuart’s creation alone and Peter Mulholland played a massive role in bringing players like Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Hudson Young to the Raiders. Is the remarkable defensive about-face because of the work of John Bateman, Jack Wighton and Andrew McFadden? A rebuttal to both these queries is that it shouldn’t be a mark against Stuart that he surrounds himself with smart football minds. In fact, if these other parts are as integral to the success of the Raiders it actually puts less risk in extending Stuart.
A second, more reasonable line of inquiry is whether Stuart is building something sustainable. In 2016 the Raiders seemed to be on the precipice of a sustained period of contending. Nothing came of that. Before this year it was Stuart’s only trip to the finals in his Canberra reign. He’s had more seasons that didn’t end in the playoffs (4) than any Raiders coach since Don Furner. It’s reasonable to wonder if this year is a second outlier. Further, if the Raiders get to September and are bundled out, will this count as a success? It all depends on whether this side is capable of returning and improving in 2020. The Raiders must look beyond whether they think what has been achieved in 2019 is replicable under Stuart’s leadership.
It’s hard to tell you now that 2019 can be pushed over into 2020. Let’s just say I’ve been burnt a few times by the false dawns of supposed second-comings. One good year cannot be the sole determinant, and every “Jack Wighton to six” has to be considered with “Aidan Sezer to nine.” Teams that have built sustained success (Storm/Roosters/Broncos) have all done so with coaches that were successful from the start of their reign. Can Stuart break the mild?
This side feels less reliant on key players with more talent spread across the park. It’s younger, and most players (outside of Jordan Rapana) have contract stability – though the same could have been said of the 2016 model. Crucially, they’ve presented a far more robust defence, a key characteristic of premiership winning teams. The roster, the style of play, and the personnel suggests sustainable success is within reach. Stuart has created an style of play that can replicate success in the seasons to come and has shown an adaptability of his preferred approach that suggests he is capable of adjusting should circumstances change in 2020.
Extending Stuart seems the right decision to make given the relative success of 2019. The risks of 2019 being an outlier are real; but enough evidence exists to suggest that Stuart has begun to address his own weaknesses. Only time will tell if this is right.