Once they moved beyond the immediate disappointment of losing, most Canberra Raiders fans‘ reaction to he end of the season last week was relief. Relief because it had been a heinous year. A year in which the Raiders were a premiership chance, a wooden spoon outsider and the manifestation of mediocrity. It was a year in which strengths became weaknesses, the old guard gave way to the new, and a million things went wrong.
The key to turning around this ship is working out why it wrecked in the first place. No point doing the same thing over and over again; people’s sanity is already stretched given the world. There are a range of reasons things went wrong that need to be addressed. Canberra’s attacking fluidity and structure is one. Finding cohesion and connection to match an appropriate strategy for Vlandoball is another. A requisite level of fitness will matter, as well as the proper use of rotations to support Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine’s excellent work in the middle. These are all things that will take the offseason to fix.
One thing that can be fixed without much effort is the coaching hierarchy at Canberra constantly feeding their plans to the intellectual pigmies at The Daily Telegraph. The public airing of grievances by the Raiders coaches seemed to play a key part in the collapse of the playing group’s resilience through the middle part of the season. Josh Hodgson, Hudson Young, Joe Tapine, Josh Papalii, Jarrod Croker, and George Williams all felt the wrath of ‘anonymous’ leaks that went to Stuart’s good mates
Mr Pointless Paul Crawley and the Peanut King Paul Kent.
At each point information or criticism of performance that was discussed between coach and player somehow found it’s way into this specific media. The validity or otherwise of this criticism isn’t the point. Putting this information into the public discourse coincided with a collapse in Canberra’s performance in a way that hadn’t been seen in the Sticky era. The side went from an elite defensive force capable of handling the best attacks, to a team that capitulated when things got tough. Of course this was more than just a feeling across the club – there’s a lot of inputs that go into performance – but players second guessing everything they did for fear of it being a cheap discussion point on national television cannot have helped.
It wasn’t helped, as your favourite blogger’s (equal) favourite professional rugby league writer George Clarke pointed out (George is part of an elite crew with Nick Campton of the Tele and Jack Snape of the ABC that are must reads), by the fact that while all these players names were publicly dragged through the mud, Jack Wighton was defended to the hilt, even while he enjoyed his worst season since…2015? Even in the collapse against the Roosters, as Jack wandered around disinterested as wide as he could on the left wing, he was spared the rod so to speak. This seems an amazing way to breed division; some senior players are more equal than others after all.
One may suggest this was a matter of last resort. That these senior players had possibly been ignoring the lessons handed out behind closed doors, so Stuart was forced to go nuclear. I can see the argument in some cases more than others, but for it to be such necessary in so many cases should have suggested to Stuart the issue was more endemic than just individual circumstances. Don’t get me wrong – criticism is important, and players need to be dealt with differently because they’re motivated by different things. But this approach seems to be more likely to build distrust between the playing group and the coaching staff, and I’d be worried if it continued.
Unfortunately, the season had barely reached its ending credits when the game begun again, with the Raiders signalling via the Daily Telegraph a whole host of changes, such as the ending time in Canberra of Dunamis Lui, Sia Soliola, Siliva Havili, Jarrod Croker, Josh Hodgson, in a loosely titled idea of a ‘clean out’. You can add this to the departures of Adam Cook, Kai O’Donnell, Curtis Scott, Caleb Aekins, and seemingly Ryan James if one reads Instagram messages in the right spirit to see. It’s becoming quite the list. The message of the article – that Canberra are done with you so find a new home – wasn’t itself an issue. In these pages we’ve speculated that all these players’ times at the Milk were running on empty for various reasons. Rather here was what seemed to be the team communicating with their players via the specific media yet again.
For those keen to see changes to the fitness, attacking structure and approach to rotations that need to be fixed before 2022 this should be a worry. Yet again the discussion is about roster change as a solution, rather than working out what went wrong tactically and structurally. It’s not clear Stuart has heeded the lesson of the destruction this approach wrought on his squad in 2021. It’s the canary in the gold mine. How are we to expect Stuart will make the necessary adjustments on the field when the flawed approach he’s taken off the field remains his modus operandi?
It makes me worried as to whether Stuart is willing to take accountability for his role in Canberra’s 2021. It may be that he actually believes his rhetoric of the Milk being just a ‘bounce of the ball’ away form being competitive. No doubt the Green Machine had their share of bad luck and injury this season, but there’s a mountain of work to get through if they expect 2022 to be anything other than a re-run of this season. Not acknowledging work is necessary, and instead hoping all that’s needed is to move on some players to free up cap space that won’t be used on a star player from another team, feels like the worst kind of denial.
Of course there’s an argument that this kind of news is just about keeping the Raiders fan base informed about the club’s plans. I am sympathetic to this, and roster speculation has been a hallmark of these pages in recent years, so it’s hypocritical of me to suggest there’s no space for this kind of discussion. But if I was a squad member, the message, combined with the chosen messenger, would be enough to make me wonder if the club had my best interests at heart. How could I expect to be honest and accountable about how I might do things better when the club continues to do things that clearly created irritation for the side during the season? That might be the difference between the resilience that drove the 2019-2020, and the chaos that characterised 2021. It also might even be counterproductive in attracting the players Sticky is hoping will be a magic bullet to fix the future.
Perhaps if the hierarchy focused on that instead of chatting to Paul Crawley they wouldn’t be in this position. Here’s hoping that in the break that comes over the next few weeks and following the season there’s time for reflection on better ways to approach this.