Inevitability

BY DAN

Death. Taxes. And Ricky Stuart getting an extension for the Canberra Raiders.

These rare inevitabilities continued to play out when I met with my tax accountant word emerged Stuart had signed a new deal (update: now confirmed by the club) that would keep him in Canberra until 2025. By that time he’d be the longest-tenured coach in the Raiders’ history. It followed a pattern of extending Stuart the year before his deal is up, something Don Furner Jr and the organisation have done for every deal he’s signed since he came to town. They’re evidently happy to sacrifice flexibility to ensure certainty and avoid a lame duck situation.

That a deal was done would surprise no one. He is unquestionably Canberra’s most successful coach in the NRL era. His win percentage (50.5%) is only eclipsed by Mal Meninga (53%) and far and away better than Matt Elliott (45), Neil Henry (45) and David Furner (43). The three preliminaries Canberra have gone to in the NRL era have occurred under his watch, as well as the sole grand final. Since 1994 I have thought Canberra were going to win the whole goddamn thing precisely once, and that was, in large part, Ricky Stuart’s doing. Of the best 20 moments in my life, Ricky Stuart is probably in some way responsible for like eight of them. I owe the man a lot of happiness and I wish him nothing but success.

But it’s not the open-and-shut case that some may think. When compared to coaches with the longest tenures, Stuart’s record is less flash. Now, of course that is to be the case – being a long-tenured coach requires being a good coach, and thus we are comparing Stuart to the best of the best. But he doesn’t win as much, doesn’t make the finals as much, and last won a premiership in a time when I owned a discman. It speaks to a club happy to accept ‘competitive’ rather than hope for more.

Part of that is to do with the cards Canberra is given. The Raiders don’t have access to the big money free agents. They have to build everything they do from the ground up, meaning there’s more chances for things to go wrong. But part of that too is because Stuart has been a step slower at every juncture to adapt to the changing game. It is hard to predict what Peter V’Landys will do next (but you can bet it will be stupid), but coaches like Bellamy have been quicker to adapt than the Raiders.

Under his watch a premiership window shut so fast we’d barely become accustomed to the breeze. The Raiders missed the finals last year, as Stuart avoided scrutiny (at least publicly) for his part in potentially closing the window himself through the management of the Hodgson, Williams and Bateman relationships of 2020 and 2021. Despite the sunlight let in by the victory over the Storm it’d take a brave fan to bet we’ll get back to the finals this year, let alone beyond week one. There’s talent in the pipeline, but will Stuart shape it into a contender?

It’s hard to know if Stuart is the man for that job. Talented youngsters have become good and even great on his watch, but it’s always hard to know how much to attribute to him as a development coach. Would Jack Wighton be Jack Wighton without Stuart? Would Josh Hodgson have made my soul sing at the possibility of genius? Would Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad have run through metaphorical walls for another coach? Will Xavier Savage or Adrian Trevilyan become the saviour of the broken, the beaten, and the damned? Is Stuart the man for that job?

Arguing the ifs and buts of it is a battle between descriptive and normative thought. You can scream to high heaven about how you want the world to be, but sometimes it’s just another way. You might prefer if the Raiders sign Cam Ciraldo or Craig Bellamy. But it’s like chasing talent. Canberra generally doesn’t get to swim in those pools. The challenge is finding the next Bellamy before they become god, and that requires getting lucky because none of us know who that is until they are who they are.

The fact is Ricky Stuart will be the coach of the Canberra Raiders until he doesn’t want to be. That gives Canberra a higher floor than they’ve had with coaches before, and certainty about producing a competitive side. And evidently that is enough for the club. Until around 2025 I suspect.

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