It’s been a tough time to be Ricky Stuart.
The press conference after Thursday’s loss gave good insight into Stuart’s stress levels. The Canberra Raiders are cratering at the moment. He wants to win, he wants the team to want to win. But things are not going well, and for the first time since the 2018 round four loss against Manly Stuart let the players have it.
On that night he said
Why should I make changes when they deliver that crap…They should be all owning up to themselves saying ‘I want to play to get myself out of (the team)’ because what they dished up tonight … they should be embarrassed to put a Raiders jumper on.Reference
It was similar after Thursday’s game. This time the coach said
The way we started that second half was pathetic and there’s some individuals who just didn’t start the way they needed to and get us back onto the front foot. It’s just not on and I’m sick of it. As individuals, they’re got to have a good look at themselves because it was not NRL standard, nowhere near the standards we want to set as a football team.Reference
Sticky went on to defend his decision to play Xavier Savage by blaming literally everyone else for pressuring him into playing the young talent before he was ready.
That’s why Xavier Savage is not playing first grade because he is still learning the game. So many of you people want X-factor. So many people want Xavier out there. That is why Xavier hasn’t been playing because he is still learning the awareness of the game. But I’m only a dumb coach. Everybody else wants X-factor. Well we haven’t got X-factor at the moment.Reference
It’s one thing to blast the team like that. But Stuart put it on an individual, one who is learning his trade, while admitting anything but his coaching plans led him to risk the confidence and health of said player. This was poor for a range of reasons, not in the least throwing a unique talent under the bus while claiming to be protecting him, a few months before rival teams will come knocking on his door. It seemed evidence of a man that was frustrated and speaking without getting his words in order first. Needless to say I’m certain if Stuart could have this discussion again he’d phrase that differently.
But more than anything it was indicative of his tendency to avoid accountability for the situation he has created, either through his own reflection, or from the media’s. Here was Stuart arguing that everyone had demanded an X-factor. I wasn’t aware Stuart was trolling social media. Or that if
the Peanut King Paul Kent on NRL360 demanded a change, he was obligated to provide it. It was a stunning attempt at deflection of blame.
It’s fair to say that while coaches are often under severe scrutiny for the underperformance of their team (see for example, Madge McGuire), Ricky Stuart has seemed to escape that in the large part (except from clowns like us). This is despite a football side going from grand finalist and preliminary finalist to basket base in less than 18 months. In Stuart’s defence the side has aged and changed in that time. Stuart is on his 4th (or 5th depending on how you see Sam Williams) starting halfback since that time. He’s lost multiple starting centres. He’s lost two captains and a starting hooker, and a transformative second rower. The correlation of the downslide with the transition of the side from contender to cause of my random sighing is impossible to ignore.
Stuart, however, has unquestionably played his role in this. Aidan Sezer was treated as dispensable, made a goddamn hooker on a whim, moved on for George Williams who Stuart could only maintain a functional relationship with for 12 months. John Bateman’s contract situation couldn’t be resolved, and he left angry. Nic Cotric was let go over something like 50 grand. The relationship with Josh Hodgson was ruptured. Hudson Young has been dropped for the second time in two years in what I, admittedly speculating, think is a relationship rather than form or injury issue. Ryan Sutton, Joe Tapine, Josh Papalii have all had frustrations with selections and rotation be expressed via proxies.
While each of these is probably a “both sides are wrong” situation, it’s a lot of noise with a single common denominator. Stuart has a habit of putting the blame, or letting the media put the blame, on individuals rather than him. The Savage example is stark right now, but you can see other examples over the years. Various players have been fingered as single-source causes of Canberra’s malaise at certain points. Anonymous leaks hurt the reputations of a host of players over 2021 for a variety of reasons. Stuart always had his defenders in the public media. His players didn’t.
Stuart has combined questionable man management with slow moving tactical adjustments. As we’ve noted in the past, if the work isn’t done in the pre-season, then it’s rare it gets done. Outside of the game plan instilled for 2019 (and arguably 2020), Canberra have spent most seasons chasing the game, always a step behind. During the height of V’Landysball it took near 10 rounds for Stuart to employ a more pacey approach in his middle forward rotation.
This season the side has vacillated between playing a ball-playing middle as a key decision maker and then reverting to a more traditional bash, barge and shift approach. The ball-handling has suffered in part because of an attack not yet implemented. This may take time, and no doubt injuries to key spine members have held that back, but it still feels that this team lacks an offensive identity.
Stuart had seen the chaos caused by key injuries and added to it by his own shifting of roles for key players. Adam Elliott has played on the edge and the middle. Corey Harawira-Naera started to season playing minutes in the middle as well as his edge position. Hudson Young, the future of the Raiders at the edge has been dropped. His form hasn’t been phenomenal but there are plenty who have played worse. Elliott Whitehead, who has looked ineffective outside of playing the ball-playing middle forward position, is getting more minutes on the edge, as though the pre-season plan has been abandoned. Seb Kris has played wing despite being best suited to the edge. Matt Frawley has played as a starting 9, and an unused utility – a luxury the Milk can ill afford. Emerging players like Adrian Trevilyan, James Schiller and Xavier Savage have all been used, seemingly before they were ready, at least according to Stuart’s own commentary. It’s confusing to say the least.
All of this makes it hard to hear his criticism of the side after Thursday’s game. There is blame to be shared around for this situation, and all guns are currently pointed everywhere but at Stuart. See this from Stuart’s mate Paul Crawley in the Daily Telegraph.
There’s no doubt in my mind this was tactical: smart coaches note that you can’t blow up every week, so you need to make sure you pick your moments to do so. This was definitely a moment the club needed to hear that message of accountability. But it’s impact is undermined by the lack of accountability shown by the coach, in this season and over the last few.
This isn’t about Stuart being fired or not. Anyone who understands Canberra’s coaching approach will know that Sticky is not leaving other than on his own volition. The last time he started to feel the heat as the Milk collapsed in 2018 the club extended his contract, the best part of a season and a half before it expired. So it’s as likely that Raiders HQ will get him a present as it will admonish him. If only there was a middle ground.
If Canberra are to turn this season around it seems unlikely it will occur unless all boats are sailing together. If Stuart continues to blame the players, as a unit, or as individuals, he risks losing their trust after it has been repeatedly tested over the last 18 months. And if their vacillating efforts this season are anything to go by, the Green Machine have some work to do before they’re all on the same trajectory.