The Sounds of Silence

BY DAN

If you ever wanted to see the Raider Raise work in reverse, you got a good example recently when news emerged that Ricky Stuart’s name was bandied around for the vacant Wests Tigers and Canterbury Bulldogs head coach jobs.

It was a weird thought experiment. The idea that Sticky has coached other teams is similar to seeing him in a Dogs jersey at the end of his career. I know it happened, but part of my brain just rejects it from my reality. In a weird corner of my mind if you play the Ricky Stuart film reel it goes Raiders Raiders Raiders *15 years of static* then more Raiders. So the idea that mid contract, he’d be either chased for, or be chasing, a spot at the Tigers, or Bulldogs, felt strange.

Of course, Sticky isn’t going anywhere. He even did us all a favour and came out and said it was Canberra or bust for him, which makes sense until you realise he’s *only* 55. The Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying:

I have no interest in coaching anywhere else. I started at the Raiders as a player and I’ll finish here as a coach

Here

So why are we having this discussion? Well the thing is Sticky is on the market, theoretically at least. He’s off contract at end 2023 and, if historical precedent is anything to go by, he’s gearing up for a new deal. In 2015 he extended his deal ending 2016 to 2018. In 2017, despite the club being in the middle of a disappointing season, his contract was pushed out from 2018 to 2020. Then mid 2019 he broke the pattern and signed on for an extra three years, moving out his Raiders horizon from 2020 to 2023. It’s about that time.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how this comes up. Sticky wants a new deal, and so his manager makes sure his name comes up in discussions at other places. Sticky’s mates in the NRL media helpfully remind the Raiders’ organisation that Stuart is a commodity worth keeping, and the Milk make sure he is signed on for another two years or so.

And so here we are. I am but one man, but I’ve seen little public comment from the club on the likelihood of an extension to Stuart. There’s been no strategic leak to the Canberra Times, no quotes from Don Furner about negotiating with Stuart and hoping to resolve something soon. Witness how quick Furner came out and said they would be doing everything they could to keep Joe Tapine. That’s not to say it’s not happening. Partly the lack of noise could be driven by the fact that no one thinks he’s leaving so no journalist has asked the question. Partly it could be it’s quietly being done behind closed doors like the professional organisation it is.

So I’m not suggesting the Raiders are not interested, but I am wondering if there’s internal debate for the first time since Stuart came aboard. Perhaps the organisational wing is as confounded with the last 18 months of footy as everyone else. When this happened in 2017 and 2018 it was perhaps evidence of a team that had gone further in 2016 than it was ready for. Growing pains if you will. 2021 and 2022 sit either as the collapse of a good team, or an transition out of one window to (hopefully) the next. I’m sure the club is trying to work out which it is.

The thing is the answer is probably both, and that’s the unique challenge that the club faces with Stuart. He’s unequivocally been the best coach the Raiders have had in the NRL-era. Three preliminary finals, a grand final, and a team that outside the building period (2014-2015) has always felt like it *should* be a finals team. Stuart, with the late great Peter Mulholland, built a two-stream sustainable roster with the talent to go to a grand final, as well as to remain competitive into the future. Canberra are in a relatively good place, regardless of who coaches them.

But there is, as they say, the rub. Each year that goes by creates another feeling of missed opportunity. Partly this is to Stuart’s credit. He’s a victim of his own success, in that what he’s achieved has just got people expecting things they never would have in other eras. Before his reign when the Raiders played in the second week of the finals it felt like a miracle. When they played in the second week of 2020 it felt like a minimum, and therefore missing the finals in the two subsequent years has been frustrating.

But it’s as the season has wore on it’s felt like again there’s a ceiling on the potential of this side. In 2020 when Jack Wighton, Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine had career years it drove them to the preliminary final. Now even with great performances in the pack (from Tapine, but also Horsburgh and Hudson Young) there’s a vague hope of squeezing into the finals. The squad, the development thereof, and the strategy and execution of the side suggest that this isn’t the side it once was. Attributing blame and claims for failure and successes is part of the challenge. Are we overvaluing the roster? Or is this roster underachieving?

I still think the Milk will extend Stuart for another two years, which would make him the longest tenured Raiders coach. But is interesting that for the first time in a while it doesn’t feel like a fait accompli. In all likelihood the Canberra Raiders will keep their favourite son in charge, but this time it appears they’re thinking about it.

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