Telling Stick how it is


Earlier in the season Jordan Rapana told the media that he’d informed Coach Ricky Stuart that he wasn’t playing fullback. His body was aged and he could no longer stand up to the physically challenges of playing fullback. It was winger or nothing from here on out for him. Then he went and smashed Scott Drinkwater in the head and it was nothing for three weeks. Bluff called I guess.

A little after that, and just before Sticky-icky named the team that would become the round one lobster’s for the North Queensland bisque, unofficial captain Joe Tapine told the media he wouldn’t be playing lock as he’d done in the trial. He said he was a prop, that locks need a bit more creativity and ball-playing skill. Following that announcement Corey Harawira-Naera was named at lock, and Elliott Whitehead played the majority of his 80 minutes on the field at 13 with mixed success.

Wait. Who’s in charge here?

Two senior players. Two weeks in a row, seemingly telling Stuart how and when they’ll play footy? Outrageous right? Bringing back memories of the bad times in 2021 when it seemed like half the team was talking out of turn or worse. The dressing-shed was collapsing (metaphorically, I’m sure the new Raiders HQ has steadfast foundations), and it’s core manifestation for the viewing public was losses and comments like this. So should we be worried? As if oh-and-two wasn’t enough to get you stressed.

The first thing to note is that just because players have said that in public it doesn’t mean that they’re the ones that suggested it. One of the most effective bits of emotional manipulation leadership is allowing people to come to the same conclusions you’ve already drawn. Give them the same information you had, and they end at the same spot. Politicians do this to good effect (as well as nefarious) by trying to frame issues in a certain way, and allowing you to be the one that draws the conclusion. The idea is more strongly held when it feels like it was your own.

I find that hard to believe when it comes to Rapana or the Tapine situations. Given Rapana turned up at the back anyway when Seb Kris went to the bench for a Head Injury Assessment, it’s fair to say that Stuart would have still loved Jordy to be his backup fullback, regardless of what questions one might have about his decision-making. Similarly it’s hard not to think Stuart did in fact want to play Tapine at 13, which would have been a grave mistake and a massive mis-assignment of talent. But that’s just my view. And Joe’s.

So here we have senior leaders helping the coach get the best out of two difficult situations. Feels like how a squad should function. No human is omniscient. Everyone sees different things. Good coaches provide the space for team leaders to express views about how things work. That too engenders ownership of the outcomes and commitment to the cause.

It’s not the first time Stuart has delegated some decision making to the squad. During the wonderful run of 2019 it was revealed that decisions about the middle forwards that started, and came off the bench, was a something decided by the playing group themselves. When Papalii got worn down by Origin and the season more generally he became an impact forward for a few weeks.

Stuart clearly has a collaborative approach to coaching. In the past he’s empowered people like Andrew McFadden and Brett White to take heavy control of defensive structures (as it appears as he’s done now with Michael Maguire to good effect so far this season). According to Harley Smith-Shields, the Raiders have put in place Madge-led honesty sessions to hold each other to account. It’s not out of the realm of thinking that a productive relationship with the experienced players at the club can be the foundation of something successful.

It’s one of the wonderfully complex idiosyncrasies of the Stuart regime. In his interactions with the media and the rugby league community more generally he seems insecure; constantly on the defensive about his approach to the game and the circumstances in which it occurs. His epistemology of rugby league is seemingly rooted in a set of beliefs established in 1989 and never let go. He is in charge of an offence that stubbornly watches as other teams innovate while his stagnates. But his willingness to provide space and engagement of a range of sources of information suggests a malleability that he’s not often credited with. He’s as rare as they come.

So fear not friend and colleague. Sticky isn’t losing control of the dressing-room. It’s probably more accurate to say he never had ‘control’ of it in the first place. But that’s just the way he operates.

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