No one had an inkling five years ago that in 2019 the Canberra Raiders forward pack would be almost as English as pork pies or putting a ‘brew on’ when you come home after a night on the pints.
The Green Machine starting side featured no fewer than four Englishmen in the pack for their 30-12 victory over the Cowboys in Townsville on the weekend.
The boys from Hull, Bradford and Billinge – a village in the borough of St Helens and birthplace of Ryan Sutton if you are wondering – have provided the Raiders with a winning formula of starch, direction and physical presence. It prompted hooker Josh Hodgson to remark on how calm coach Ricky Stuart seems this season.
There have been reports, although not confirmed, that Wigan and England international half George Williams will join his fellow countrymen in 2020.
Former Raiders fullback and one-time Live in Canberra campaign ambassador Clinton Schifcofske suggested in 2014 that the NRL may need to look at salary cap concessions for Canberra to attract key players to the city.
The plea came directly after the Raiders tabled high but ultimately unsuccessful offers to Kevin Proctor, Josh Mansour and Michael Ennis. The final kick in the guts came when James Tedesco performed a backflip on Canberra and reneged on a three-year contract deal.
Recruitment of marquee players was an issue for Canberra with the general thinking being that young Sydney-born-and-bred players were not going to choose the nation’s capital over the harbour city.
The solution was 17,000 kilometres away in the north of England.
The formula is simple and the execution superb. Pick the eyes out of the English Super League by recruiting players on their way up seeking development in the best rugby league competition in the world or by buying established internationals looking for another challenge. Either way Ricky seems to have the knack of getting the right Englishman to the club.
It makes sense that players of this calibre are ambitious and competitive. They come to test themselves in the strongest competition. It would be easy to stay at home and still receive good money to play in the Super League.
Australian rugby league fans view the English Super League as a lesser competition populated by mainly inferior players when compared to the NRL.
While the England team is very competitive, it’s thought the club competition lacks the intensity of the Australian equivalent. Players from the old dart have to prove they can match it with the big boys when they arrive down under.
Here’s where the bond lies with their fellow teammates. Canberra has an uneasy relationship with Sydney, particularly when it comes to the footy teams.
Having lived in the capital for 12 years I can report that feeling is real. Like their English ‘family members’, they are always striving for respect in the rugby league world.
The Raiders and their fans feel they get a rough deal at times from the Sydney-centric NRL administration. The perception is they are ignored and undervalued by the powers that be. Television coverage, NRL promotional advertising, representative team selections and refereeing decisions are all areas where Canberra fans have had cause to complain in the past.
The tide seems to be turning. Ricky Stuart hasn’t had “17 players hurtin’ out the back” at a press conference in 2019 and they have started the season with three wins from four outings.
When Canberra signed Josh Hodgson from Hull KR for the 2015 season I thought they had recruited the wrong English hooker after fellow 2014 Four Nations squad member Daryl Clark showed a heap of promise on tour.
How wrong could I have been? Hodgson is now arguably the best hooker in the NRL and the value of his skills, tactical brain and leadership to the Raiders were highlighted when he was missing with a long-term injury in 2018 and returned later in the season. Canberra just look a much better side with Hodgson at dummy half.
John Bateman has become every fan’s favourite other-team player in 2019 since he moved from the Wigan Warriors.
Growing up there was often a bloke in the footy team who was not necessarily the biggest player but was slightly crazy and a little bit aggressive. It seemed to make them stronger. That’s John Bateman and he is a joy to watch.
Elliott Whitehead, like Bateman, is versatile, handling the middle or edge roles with ease. His work often goes unnoticed but his defence, ball skills and line running in attack have made him one of Ricky’s stars.
Speaking of Mr Stuart, he gave praise for the Raiders’ latest recruit, Ryan Sutton, after the win over the Cowboys on the weekend, saying “I thought Ryan Sutton was probably one of our best. I was really impressed with Ryan’s game, he carried tough and made some really big efforts in defence when he had to.”
Sutton is the only one of the quartet who hasn’t played for his country. It seems just a matter of time if he continues on the same path.
Could the Raiders finally be free of the last-minute jitters, brain snaps and controversial referee decisions that have seen them lose so many games at the last gasp in previous seasons?
The answer may come via the resilience and grit of a bunch of adventurous Englishmen.
The community has embraced the recruits with the four English Raiders ‘Beatles Abbey Road’ photo making a popular preseason guide cover in the local Canberra press.
The Raiders posted April Fools Day story with the title of ‘We’re Coming Home’ and announcing six home games in the UK in 2020. Six is never going to happen but one match might be not so bad an idea given the strong English identity, even if it is pre or post-season.
I plan to be sitting down in front of the telly with a few Hobnobs and a cup of builder’s tea watching the Canberra Poms do their stuff on the field this season.