Okay, hands up. Who of you has ever been of the conviction that Ricky Stuart can’t coach?
Come on, now. Be honest…
Have you ever opined with all the certitude you can muster over keyboard, practice putting green, or magnificent seventh schooner, something along the lines of “Ricky Stuart can’t coach”?
Perhaps you thought it self-evident.
Back-to-back wooden spoons at the Sharks and Eels. An angry, seething creature in the coach’s box.
Didn’t Parra and Cronulla come good once he’d gone? Didn’t Australia lose to New Zealand in the World Cup final?
Hell, even the Blues won Origin once he’d left.
He came to Canberra in 2014 and the Raiders finished second-last. Next year they were tenth.
And what of all those players – James Tedesco, Anthony Milford, Michael Ennis, Kevin Proctor – who didn’t want to be there? That, surely, confirmed the perception that Stuart was too angry, too intense, too freakin’ frightening, man, to be a coach in this National Rugby League.
“LOL,” you tapped into Twitter. “He can’t coach! He must have pictures of someone, haha. [Devil emoticon.]” And: [Send].
And if you’re now nodding along and remembering that you once believed – perhaps even still believe – those things, for they seemed self-evident, then, well, there’s only one way to tell you but… you were completely wrong.
Completely wrong then. And completely wrong now.
Because the ‘Ricky Stuart can’t coach’ thing, the accepted group think, the meme, whatever?
And not just because he’s got the Raiders humming into the finals with a bullet, the people’s favourite, the hottest team on the planet right now, a deep squad of hard-heads and speed-men and tricky types who’ve all bought into The Way of the Rick. No.
And not just because Canberra is my team, these plucky, long-suffering Bad News Bears whom some fat cat in a suit wanted to wither on the vine, and who now have their best chance of Green Machine glory since ’94.
And not even because it’s fun to stick it up nay-sayers like old mate and say, ho-ho, you got that one quite wrong didn’t you, fatty-chops? What have you got to say about that?
(Though admittedly that is quite enjoyable.)
Instead, it’s simple. Ricky Stuart can’t coach? It was bullshit then. And it’s bullshit now.
Because if you’re an NRL coach, you can coach. You haven’t been plucked from the hill at Leichhardt.
NRL coaches, they’ve all got the same stuff. They use the same sports science, the same wrestling coaches, skills men, ice baths, all that.
They look at the same video, access the same stats and study the graphs from those GPS things in the back of the jumpers.
And thus they come to the same conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses of Team X they play this week. And thus they formulate roughly the same gameplan. That’s why there’s a same-ness about ‘the look’ of games.
So the point of difference?
As Bill Clinton once said of campaigning – ‘It’s the players, stupid!’
The best coach, one club CEO told me, is the best recruiter. The best coach has to see a bloke – let’s say, oh, to pluck a few at random, Jordan Rapana, Joey Leilua, Blake Austin, Jack Wighton, Shannon Boyd, Josh Hodgson – a year or two before his prime. Before even the player knows he could be something good.
And then he has to cultivate that player. Get his head on right (no easy task, given the fractious nature of 20-something warrior man) and get him on message. Then get him fit, train his weaknesses, exploit his strengths. And keep him off the piss.
And there you go – you’re an NRL coach.
If there’s one thing Stuart’s Raiders team is doing, it’s playing to its strengths. They don’t have Johnathan Thurston or Cameron Smith or Sam Burgess rampaging up guts. But they do have players with various different skill-sets.
And they’re letting these people run free.
And that, people, is all on Ricky Stuart.
And if you still think he can’t coach, you and old mate from One Nation need to have a yarn about empirical evidence.
You might say, well, he’s ‘mellowed’ or whatever. And he probably has. He’ll be 50 in January.
But, thing is, Stuart’s been involved in first-grade rugby league since 1988. He’s won four premierships as player and coach. He’s coached 326 first grade games. He’s coached NSW. He’s coached Australia.
If you want to ask Stuart about the capital of Nicaragua or the state of Australia’s current fiscal policy, you’re probably best asking others. But ask him how to play rugby league? I mean, he’d know just about everything. Everything!
Stuart’s problem, as Darryl Brohman said to a room full of Canberra suits a couple years ago, is that “his image stinks”.
He’s one of those – like Mitchell Pearce or Shane Watson, – who’s a target, a lightning rod, for those latter-day, negative, shouty people, ‘the haters’.
And he knows it. It’s why he doesn’t speak to media outside of legislated post-match sessions. As he quipped to a mutual mate, there’d be people who’d howl him down as a fool if he declared Canberra’s footy jumper is predominantly lime green.
Another thing is that coaches are given too much credit for victory and too much blame for defeat.
End of 2013, Trent Robinson was the oracle, this ‘young’ footy coach who’d moulded the premiers. Coach of the year, blah-de-blah.
Of course, he’s done plenty right to get the side into the final and to win it. But fact is, he won the comp because he had a bunch of key players at their peak, and they all came good at the same time. And there were lots of them.
Pearce, James Maloney, Anthony Minichiello, Micky Jennings. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was on the wing. And their pack of forwards – with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Moa thundering about like vikings – were all meat-eating madmen. The Roosters of ’13 were shit-hot. And Robinson was ‘Coach of the Year’.
And this year he’s not.
Look at Michael Maguire, end of 2014. He was this brilliant coach, there were feature profiles about him. He wrote a book about the Rabbitohs’ year, that’s how good it was.
And this year? What do you think? Can he coach or not? If he was a great coach then, is he a great one now?
Look even at the acknowledged ‘Supercoaches’, Wayne Bennett and Jack Gibson. Bennett treats his players like favourite nephews, and obviously knows how to win games of rugby league.
But his squads have always been full of really, really good players. That’s been the main criteria. Hell, I could’ve coached the ’92 Broncos, and I was a 22-year-old rugby-playing piss-pot.
The Dragons in 2010? Again, look at the squad: Jeremy Smith, Beau Scott, Jamie Soward, Matt Cooper, Mark Gasnier, Brett Morris, Ben Hornby, Jason Nightingale, Ben Creagh, Darius Boyd. All at their peak, all fit, all at the same time.
Bennett then went to the Knights, dragged along Darius, Smith and Scott, and a couple other old hard-arses. Willie Mason! And in three years there, even with all Nathan Tinkler’s gold, the Knights finished seventh, 12th and seventh.
Big Jack! The immortal Coach of the Century! Ahead of his time, full of wry quips and quotes and home-truths. Success everywhere – except with a young team of Sharks.
Gibson had three years with Cronulla (1985-87) and they didn’t finish better than eighth. His winning percentage was 43 per cent.
And the board gave big Jack the big ‘Pearce off’. Away to television land he went, never to coach a footy club again.
Know what? The ‘Supercoach’ thing, the whole idea, the concept? It’s a myth.
Ricky Stuart is no myth. And he’s still in there swinging, after all you naysayers have flung at him. An ornery man, for sure. You could even call him tetchy.
But if you want a competitor, someone to scrap until they’ve bled their last, someone who’s more competitive than the US dollar, and someone who knows how to get the very best from a talented young team of league men?
Well, hands up who wants Rick?