As we hurtle headlong towards the business end of the NRL season, coaches at the arse-end of the ladder are no doubt jumping at shadows, fearing ‘faceless men’ are set to strike.
It’s been a suspiciously quiet year on the ‘coach X has the full support of the board’ front, with a small but motley crew of contenders surfacing on the regular among pundits.
Assuming sanity is prevailing at other finals-bound clubs, that leaves seven additional also-rans for the vultures to start circling.
One man whose future is secure is Ivan Cleary, who only has to rock up to most NRL clubs’ front office clutching his son, Nathan, for the incumbent’s desk to be quietly packed into some archive boxes.
Less than 12 months past a shock grand final appearance, Paul Green has earned himself a rebuild once JT’s disappointing farewell tour shudders to a halt on the glitter strip. On a related note, Nathan Brown has a Kalyn Ponga-sized ‘get out of jail’ card if his open-ended Knights contract suddenly develops an end date.
Garth Brennan and Dean Pay both escape scrutiny as first-years, with Pay working minor miracles considering he inherited a salary cap mess, a largely NSW Cup standard squad, and a broken Kieran Foran.
As for Parra’s Brad Arthur, coaching a bunch of talented individuals who spend 80 minutes each week screaming blue murder at officials, opponents and each other is probably greater punishment than being sacked.
Which brings us to Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart, whose name is rarely mentioned in dispatches.
Five years into Stuart’s post-David Furner rebuild, which has unearthed future Raiders hall-of-famers Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead from England’s deep north, the Raiders have only one finals campaign to their credit. For those keeping score at home, that’s 55 wins from 119 games for a win rate of 46 per cent.
In the 2018 season alone, some of the Raiders’ comic highlights have included:
The final point isn’t as flippant as it sounds. Full disclosure: I’m a Canberra Raiders fan. I’ve been dreading the 65-minute mark of games all season, because that’s when the inevitable implosion begins. Come to think of it, that’s when the implosions began in 2017 as well, and 2015, as if there’s a pattern of behaviour behind it.
The ‘Faders’ sobriquet isn’t just the NRL’s longest running joke that isn’t Paul Carige, and it’s not just funny cos it’s true. It’s an indictment of institutionalised failure that no amount of #RefsFault blame-shifting for the debacle at Shark Park or James Maloney throwing match-winning passes a metre forward can hide.
In fact, if you discount those few months of 2016 that the Raiders were making the Harlem Globetrotters blush, and that time Jason Bulgarelli let a preliminary final berth slip through his fingers in 2003, the Raiders have given fans very little joy for 25 years.
— Kris Swales (@KrisSwales) August 5, 2018
If you were born after 1987 and don’t live in Canberra, there’s no incentive to actively support the club unless you enjoy being a mobile billboard for Huawei. (An apology is due here to my Indian wife, who didn’t know rugby league existed when we met in Delhi in 2016 and has since been indoctrinated. In return, I’ll let you beat us at cricket.)
The portents for 2019 are similarly bleak. While some underperforming deadwood in Shannon Boyd, Junior Paulo and Blake Austin is being shown the door, whatever salary cap space is being freed up isn’t being carefully invested on the open market. Indeed, CEO Don Furner Jr believes the Raiders’ “halves are okay” despite proven inability to ice close games.
‘Leipana’ will be another year older and zanier, with another talented lunatic in Joseph Tapine under their collective wing. Jack Wighton might be in jail. Paul Vaughan and Tavita Pangai Jr will still be plying their trade in colours other than lime green, while Nick Cotric will no doubt feel the lure of a big-city salary sombrero.
And behind the Green Machine’s steering wheel?
A Raiders great whose peerless playing legacy has no doubt earned him another year at the last-chance saloon despite appearing clueless about how to stop the rot.
And the only public figure who the national capital’s ‘faceless men’ seem destined not to knife.