Change coming to Canberra. Again.
Jeremy Hickmans, the Raiders fitness supremo has agreed to join Wayne Bennett’s back office. It’s not entirely surprising. Hickmans has been part of Bennett’s crew since the early 2000s. He’s was with him at the Broncos back in the day and followed him all the way through the Dragons, Knights and the Bunnies. So when the old man came knocking, it seems Hickmans was once again ready to put the band back together.
It’s part of a raft of unexpected change at Raiders HQ. In addition to Hickmans’ departure, list manager Kelly Egans and the club agreed to part ways recently. Assistant coach Andrew McFadden is also on his way out, having accepted an opportunity with the Warriors. Suddenly Sticky and Don Furner (and kicking coach and player well-being manager Andrew Bishop) are the only constant in a changing environment. That organisational change has also mirrored on-field change, and the moorings feel a bit less stable than they used to.
Normally when something like this happens people tend to draw conclusions about the organisation. But that doesn’t feel appropriate here. The breakup with Egans was four months into the job, and the reports seemed to suggest a personal matter that required him to leave. McFadden’s move to becomes the Warriors recruitment manager seems like a promotion. At the very least it is a vastly different role to an Assistant Coach at the Raiders. And Hickmans, as we noted before, is joining up with someone he’s worked with for decades. There are explanations that aren’t “chaos reigns”. Maybe it’s just bad timing.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth noting. As anyone who’s ever had a job knows, when the people in charge are changing all the time it can create the worst kind of opacity and lack of leadership. Canberra has had a lot of organisational change in the last two years. In the case of Hickmans and Egan it will be the second time in 12 months those jobs have switched hands. One of those transitions was due to the tragic death of Peter Mulholland, but Hickmans was at the club because Nigel Ashley-Jones left in 2021 after the side abruptly failed to adapt to Peter V’Landys’ idiocy.
There’s an opportunity here though. With this troika of people leaving, there’s a chance to inject new thinking and energy into the organisation. Most eyes will turn to successful clubs and wonder if the Raiders can pillage their backhouses. The problem with that is that imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it’s not a guaranteed way of getting ahead. In political economy there’s a theory of late economic development that basically says you don’t catch up to the rich countries by doing what they do. You have make a step-change to catch up, find a way to do things differently so you can jump to their level, rather than trying to follow the same path. New backhouse staff can’t just be the offshoots of the Panthers or the Storm. Canberra needs new thinking.
This applies to their coaching too. For two years they’ve been chasing the game. Fitness has been part of it, but it’s felt like they’ve been a step behind Peter V’Landys whims. In 2021 it was an inability to adjust to the fitness requirements, and a lack of connection through the middle. Halfway through that season they moved Josh Hodgson to 13 and thrived (well, relatively). This season the devolution of the set-restart rules by 40 per cent of what they used to be. They started with Elliott Whitehead as a key decision maker in the middle, striving to model what would have worked in 2021. The game evolved again, and Canberra had to scramble with a response. The only change to the coaching staff since 2019 has been the addition of Mick Crawley. He had been with the club before, and his only innovation was abandoned weeks into the season. New thinking is needed to find the way to get ahead in their thinking so next year doesn’t start slowly again.
Canberra have an opportunity to make that big change. It’s hard to know what that looks like specifically, but that’s the thing about change. Often you don’t know it’s happening until its done. Finding what will return the Milk to the finals and beyond requires greater ambition, both on and off the field, than they’ve shown in the last few years. There’s no longer a grand final pedigree to try and recapture. Those days have passed, as Nick Campton’s beautiful piece put so eloquently. Now is a time for change. Ambition. Finding a way to get ahead of the top, not chase them. The Raiders don’t have the luxury. They must embrace the change that faces them.
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