The tumult that followed the Knights loss has given way to a maelstrom of chaos. The Raiders are on the bottom of the ladder. They look nowhere near scoring twenty points, let alone winning games. There is a storm around this team and respite requires victory. What is waiting them is the league’s form side, and a Coach that might have no answers. Is Coach Stuart capable of lifting them out of this latest nadir?
When asked after the Panthers game if something would change, either personnel or strategy, Ricky Stuart simply said he had no other players. It’s hard to tell if he left out the strategy aspect of this by accident, because he was implicitly acknowledging that would have to change, or if he simply refused to admit that tactical innovation was required. One would think you couldn’t watch what Canberra has served up through two trial games and five regular season games and think there was anything but change needed. Stuart did acknowledge change was needed but wouldn’t tell us what it was, seemingly to protect esteem of his players.
But personnel change won’t alone fix this. These problems are structural, in-built into the team both in the strategies they use to play, and the mindset of the side. Shifting players around won’t solve the core problems. Players need a successful system to operate in, and a team-culture to support it. At the moment none of these things exist.
It seems a good portion of this is mental. The noise around the team has become such that discipline issues seem to get worse each week. Errors are contributing to self-proclaimed and fulfilled prophecies. When Jordan Rapana mishandled the kick-off to start the second-half against the Panthers, it wasn’t so much the air came out of the game, but rather the team entered the vacuum of space, blood seeping out of their eyes like Event Horizon. Three tries in moments, an almost perfect mirror of the week before, and the game was over and we’d all reached the “mutter” rather than “cheer” portion of the game.
The mental strength of this team, or lack thereof, has rolled like a snowball depending on the trajectory of the side throughout Stuart’s regime. When things are going good there seems an inherent belief that good times will continue. Plans are stuck to. Efforts made. Comebacks are launched and expected. But then when things are bad the snowball takes on wheel-spikes and doesn’t just roll but damages. This has been a hallmark of the side for years now.
This tempestuous, this inability to stand against the prevailing winds, would make Rudyard Kipling scowl (mind you so did people of colour. Fuck that guy). It also reflects that of their coach who’s inability to keep a lid on his emotions, both during games and with the press, is beyond legendary. It provides a background for the errors, the inability to not give away a penalty when all that is needed is a clean defensive set. The collective mindset of this team in never settled, never clear.
Periodically it does feel fixed, only to return with a new season, or a new problem. That this rollercoaster of emotions comes back every season is an indictment of Coach Stuart. No matter who is at 7, or 9, or any other position of leadership that may be able to corral and control these unique characters, there remains a clear inability to maintain a resoluteness in the face of the adversity. No one would ever accuse Stuart’s teams of not trying. But equally no one would ever accuse them of cool-heads or intelligent play. Sometimes they’ve used that to their own benefit (my god that 2019 team was perfectly dumb enough to succeed) but for the most part it’s been an area of their game that has never been addressed.
Perhaps the discipline aspect is just an attitude adjustment and can be fixed on the fly, but the offensive approach requires a wholesale replacement. What was built in the off-season is the most conservative and timid offensive plans in Canberra history. This is attack straight out of 1986. They focus on the middle – admittedly a smart decision given the weaponry they have there. But they do so with no creativity at 9 (outside of the forty minutes Zac Woolford has played in first grade this year), minimal ball play from 13, and no other plan. When they do shift even the most basic structures run by every team in the competition are approached with the fluency of a learner trying to parallel park.
This offensive mess has been embedded so deep in the Raiders psyche that they seem paralysed and tentative whenever their is an opportunity or necessity to move beyond that. Witness the weakness on the Penrith right-edge defence last week. Canberra made a break there early (that ended with an error *sigh*), and even with a numerical advantage by way of sin-binning found it impossible to spread the ball to target it again. An entire red-zone set passed with no right centre for the Panthers, and the Milk barely tested that spot again. Or perhaps think of the ongoing brilliance of Matt Timoko, whose attack hasn’t been so much a revelation but rather a confirmation of a known and usable weapon. Timoko does so much work in yardage, and in return gets one or two opportunities a game to isolate his opposite one-on-one and utilise his skills.
Like the discipline issue, the responsibility and accountability of this lies entirely with the head coach. While one can see how a side may take on the emotional turbulence of their coach, it’s more confusing that one of the greatest minds to ever take the football field can’t concoct something more innovative than crash balls and hope. But since the decision was made before the 2019 season to prioritise defence over attack, this side has slowly declined, and narrowed, their attack. Now all that’s left is something that would make a junior side
The challenge here is two-fold. Does Stuart recognise that these problems exist? It’s hard to know given his answers on Friday night. He’s had to solve similar problems most recent seasons and yet we nearly always end up in the same spot come round one of the next season. Last season the problems with attack were solved when Zac Woolford and Jamal Fogarty worked their way in the side and our hearts. Round one this year Woolford was watching from Cup footy. That, coupled with the fact that these issues rear their head every season, calls into question whether Stuart sees them as endemic or circumstantial.
If he does realise they exist, can he solve them? He’s done it before and that may be the strongest argument that he can fix it. He did it last year. He turned the side around for that period of 2019 and 2020. One might argue 2016 is another example of Stuart getting it right. But for every year the solutions were found is another where the fix remained painfully out of reach.
But ultimately whether Stuart is the right man for the job is the wrong question. Long time Raiders’ fans will know that this job is his until he doesn’t want it. Most coaches seats would be made of lava after a promising squad squandering a season start like this one has. But his position is different. The eye of the media rarely turns towards Canberra, and god forbid it does there’s a praetorian guard there to offer his perspective. Stuart also has organisational support, from the board, the CEO, and in the form of his employment status – he’s contracted through the 2025 season and you better believe it’ll take more than a weekend-ruining loss to push him out.
In a sense it’s a good thing. Organisational stability can provide an important ballast when on-field chaos comes to hang. Just look at what happens at the Tigers, or the Dragons, for what the proclivity of fixing it with a pen can lead you. But at some point stability gives way to stagnation. People paid more than me and you need to know when that is. I don’t think that’s now but it’s closer than it felt six weeks ago.
Anyone familiar with the way the Raiders operate will know that Stuart will be given time to fix the mess, and the only way he wouldn’t is if he stepped away. Anyone who watched him speak after the loss on Friday will know there is way too much fight in Stuart to walk away now.
I just hope he has the answers.
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When I saw what was dished up during the trials I was horrified and I had that sinking feeling that our year could be finished by SOO1, but I was continually accused of not being a true supporter by pointing out the attacking deficiencies that were apparent…. Our attack is confined within the 30 metre channel or two passes from the ruck & our wingers are very rarely involved in attacking plays unless if is a last ditch kick for the corner. Our preferred attack is crash plays from 5 mtrs out, one off the ruck. Rinse & repeat.
Look we can right the ship with a win against the Broncos, the bye and a home match against the injury plagued Dolphins, but our season is now on a tightrope and Ricky has to change his attacking plans & do it fast.
Here we go again
Same as last year
Ricky found the problem and Raiders did OK.Why aren’t you a coach? DO YOU KNOW WHAT GOES ON IN TRAINING LEAVE THE BOYS AND ALONE
THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING OF TJE SEASON. Green hearts will prevail
Good article laying everything out in a reasonable and logical way.
I think the coach has created the problem that didn’t exist.
The team finished about right last year 8th /
That’s mid-way…bttr than some…not as consistent or with the attacking brilliance of others
It was worse to hear Ricky Stuart say he had no more players or something like that when Player Selection
Players out of position
ignoring the bloody obvious and continuing with failing tactics
we all support the BOYS
that’s why we’re here on the site!
It’d be GR8 to see Brad Schneider again !
Especially when HB is out (ie in Newcastle)
to see Seb Kris at centre where he excelled
to see Woolford start AND finish a game
to see James Schiller on the wing…
There’s no crime in “resting” top players that aren’t performing
In dropping tactics that aren’t working
Players should have the confidence and permission to play whats in front of them
ENJOY the game
THERES GOOD TALENT
Let’s hope Ricky can fix it…cause he sure as
Had a hand in Sunday
damn it …it was Friday
Ricky was the coach /
his fingerprints were all over it
dumb PREDICTABLE attack,
overly hyped players terrified of making a mistake/ so making lots
Fri(ght) night @ GIO
Ricky WAS the coach