Ricky Stuart’s brief foray as the main character of the NRL story has culminated in a one game suspension and twenty-thousand dollar fine.
I can’t remember the last suspension of a coach that didn’t involve systematic cheating, so at least we’re breaking ground here. It’s fair enough too. It’s clear Stuart shouldn’t have said what he said, in the forum he said it. He’s admitted as much in the fall-out. I have no doubt Stuart regrets what he did, and it seems he’ll cop the punishment on the chin, which is the right way to approach it. If it was me I would have felt like a right idiot Sunday morning, regardless of my intentions or reasons. He still didn’t apologise to Jaemon Salmon, which will earn him few friends, but at this stage Sticky’s friends are either in Canberra or at the NRL360 desk. It probably doesn’t require saying, but the post-match press conference shouldn’t devolve into pointless and irascible score settling. It would put the media out of a job.
The only people that look sillier in all this mess are Stuart’s mates in the media. We’ve complained in the past at the lack of interest in much of them in holding Stuart to account in any way (here, here, here and here). We noted when this all happened that they would come out and say idiotic things about free speech and Sticky actually being a good bloke. They did (not sharing here, find it yourself), in the process showed their whole arse to the world as they missed the entire point. But that’s the game they play; say something controversial so every one talks about you. It drives eyeballs, clicks, and all the awful things that make up a media cycle these days.
If the response of his media mates was predictable, so was the general public’s anger with Stuart. There’s little nuance in most discourse, but there was even less over the last few days, as many a person lined-up to settle scores both real and imagined. I guess it was a bootable offence. Most of those lining up holds views that stem from Stuart’s cantankerous nature and tendency to avoid public scrutiny – given we’ve complained about those things, we could hardly argue. Those who sought a defence pointed to his charity work – particularly his unwavering support of autistic kids, and the way he builds lifelong bonds with some players. Turns out everyone has a pretty valid point.
This is the end in the official process, but this will stay with Stuart for the rest of his career and possibly as long as rugby league exists. ‘Weak-gutted dog’ is now a part of rugby league lingo, just like Geoff Toovey’s “there’s got to be an investigation” is, and a litany of other comical moments. It’ll be yelled from the stands for time immemorial. At some point some won’t even know why they yell it, just that it’s funny.
The impact of this shouldn’t be too substantial for the Milk, though that’s not exactly comforting. Without him Canberra will have the same not-quite solutions to the same endemic problems. Their attack will remain just as much as a work in progress as it’s been all season. They will take the same game plan, relying on stopping the opposition from scoring long enough to manufacture points through talent and opportunism rather than strategy and structure. By this time of the season the style of play and the game plans are substantially baked-in to the system.
Just as Canberra are unlikely to find their cohesion with just four rounds to go, they are also unlikely to become an unruly mess just because Stuart isn’t there (he said, tempting-fate-ingly). In fact I could almost write the half time speech that Stuart would give if he was allowed to play this weekend. Matt Russell would pop up on your TV two minutes after half time and tell you the same thing he always does, that the Raiders need to do more of the same, complete their sets and defend their way to victory, and we’ll hope they’ll do that. I wish just once the message was that the Milk needed to keep their foot on the opposition’s throat.
I presume Brett White will stand in for Stuart. Andrew McFadden has head-coaching experience, but he’s moving on this off-season. White, from what I can tell, is the next most likely to be a first-grade coach, and it serves the long-term interests of the Raiders that White is given an opportunity to feel what it’s like to have the reigns to himself. I doubt much will change, but it would be interesting to see what a fresh voice does. Does it invigorate the team? What happens if it does? Maybe it all goes a little too well and the discourse takes a new turn and another week of spin. Ha, I can’t work out if that’s optimist or cynic in me.
It’s been a helluva start to a crucial week for the Raiders. It’s been the first time they’ve been so central to the rugby league chatter since the chaos of Stuart’s 2021 falling out with Josh Hodgson and George Williams. While that felt like it had roots into the squad that would impact the possibilities of success, this has remained a far more superficial, and the baking light of the rugby league world’s focus hasn’t felt so intense. There’s no change to the 17 caused by this. No dramatic change to strategy, or Canberra’s finals chances. Other teams have managed with coaches forced away by Covid. This is just a weirder way to get to that point.
Maybe the weirdest way.
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