In early January, just as Ricky Stuart got done admonishing two senior players for their behaviour over summer, another behavioural matter emerged for the Milk. Four members of the SG Ball team were involved in an incident in Civic, and they tried to cover it up from Raiders’ officials. In addition to incidents with Curtis Scott and Tom Starling in the last year, and Jack Wighton and Josh Papalii before that, a question began to get bandied about: do the Canberra Raiders have a culture problem?
A good starting point is to think about what we consider a club “culture”, and what we consider a “good” club culture. It’s sometimes a nebulous concept. For the purposes of precision we won’t be talking about the on-field culture; it seems unequivocal to us that Stuart has established a clarity is on-field expectations that has lead to cooperation and accountability from the playing group. More complicated is what an off-field culture looks like.
Since his return to Canberra, Sticky has made a great effort to establish his idea of a culture for the club. This has had three obvious public manifestations. Firstly, he has sought to create a sense of identity for the club by seeking to connect this side with squads of the past. Secondly, he has sought to connect them to the community in which they’re based. The third is to set behaviour expectations and respond to any transgressions.
The first part is underrated in its importance. Connecting societies and organisations to the stories that support their structure is a common approach to building a sense of collective identity and purpose. Many football teams have made a lot of effort to do this (see Broncos and Knights old boys’ days for example). This is not a criticism of the approach. It is a critical part of convincing the players to live up to their part of the social contract with the community. Helping the community becomes reinforced when it’s placed in the context “what the Raiders have always been about”. There is benefit not only for the community, but also to the future generations, making the mythical starting point irrelevant as it’s built to be part of culture of the place. From an outsiders perspective, it seems that Stuart has managed to create this sense of identity, and encourage and ingratiate the team with the local community. The work of Stuart’s own foundations, the array of good community-minded work by members of the team are evidence of this.
Sidebar: Indeed, a keen reader of historian Eric Hobsbawm would recognise this as similar to his argument in the Invention of Tradition. Essentially the argument flows that nations use stories to establish an identity that supports an existing power structure. It seems taking an active approach to building an identity has seeped beyond the imperial sphere and into the thinking around football clubs.
But no culture is perfect. The final part of the building of the Canberra culture is in response to transgression. It’s safe to say this has sometimes been a battle in Canberra (see Carney, Todd). If anything is to be taken from Stuart’s interviews with both Triple M, and the Daily Telegraph’s David Riccio recently, Sticky is keen to be clear about his expectations. It’s commending that he’s taken this stance, it’s just a shame four kids had to have opportunities removed to (re)enunciate them. These aren’t remarkable standards, but it is important they’re upheld.
The fact that Stuart had to assert himself so forcefully twice in the same week can be seen as an acknowledgement that there’s work to do. That he’s done so publicly as well would suggest there’s also a message for stakeholders beyond the club, such as sponsors, members and fans more generally. Given the Raiders have acknowledged they’re in the process of finding a new sponsor for post 2021, I can understand his desire to be public about this.
Promisingly this message appears to be heard loud and clear by the players (and the Raiders community more widely). Canberra are lucky they have so many level-headed leaders at the club that are willing to walk Stuart’s talk. People like Sia Soliola, Sam Williams, Josh Hodgson and Jarrod Croker are critical to reinforcing Stuart’s message and the club’s culture, and Ryan James has joined that group this season as reinforcement. It’s also pleasing to see the next generation of leaders coming through (as seen in in Joe Tapine’s recent commentary around captaining the Maori All-Stars . I guess this is growing up *guitar riff*).
It’s not a fatal issue for the club but one that Stuart will no doubt be monitoring. As I said earlier Stuart has nailed two of the three steps of implementing a functional culture. This latest test proves the need to re-assert a set of behavioural expectations. Stuart has set the bar and he’ll expect everyone to meet them.