Remember when the Canberra Raiders had momentum? They were everyone’s second team and Jack Wighton was the future of rugby league?
I don’t know Ricky Stuart, not well. I know him a bit. He’s a mate of mates, so we’ll say g’day and shake hands when our paths meet, as you do.
I like the bloke. Good bloke. If you met him and had a yarn, you’d say the same thing.
In Canberra, they love the bloke. He’s more popular than Mooseheads. One day I reckon they’ll whack a statue up of him, cast him in bronze.
Except he won’t be in footy mode, flinging a mighty torpedo pass or punt, or furiously pointing, mouth guard in hand.
He’ll be coach Rick, middle-aged Rick, crow’s feet cast in bronze, hunched over, riding the pine with his people, in solidarity on the sideline, freezing his sculptured ring off forever.
Or maybe he won’t.
Or maybe he will. Another ten years or so, he leads them into a premiership or three, or four!
Read it here first: Ricky Stuart to be frozen in carbonite like Han Solo.
Anyway, now he’s now coach until the end of 2023, at least.
It helps that he’s got the Green Machine humming into fourth place, on the second line of betting, kept safe with the Rabbits, a not out-of-all-bounds-of-possibility chance of the club’s first premiership since 1994. That helps, of course.
Were the Raiders 11-and-12 like the Broncos or just really very bad like Titans, Dragons, Warriors and Cows, there might not be as much love.
Well, there would still be love. There’ll always be love. But there would be misgivings, rumblings, murmurs and musings in pubs, clubs and mahogany boardrooms. Love the bloke. But if he was gonna, Stick, he woulda.
It’s immaterial. Because he was gonna, and he has donna. No premiership – and he’ll mark himself against one.
But he’s brought together a crack squadron of fit and fast bad boys who play attractive rugby league. They can run through you or around. The Poms have a crack. John Bateman! How about him? Funkiest hot-footed Pom since Ellery Hanley in ’88.
Most importantly, Canberra’s added a none-shall-pass defensive attitude not seen at Bruce since the second-row was Gary Coyne and Dean Lance.
And thus this machine of green has something of a sniff of knocking over the Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park, the toughest away game in rugby league.
The Storm have lost there three times in 2019 – two golden-point lotteries (against the Sea Eagles and Roosters) and by four points to the Raiders in Round 22.
And this week Canberra trot out their best 17, Hudson Young not withstanding, and we’ll talk more of him shortly.
For now, I would address those who still – for ingrained reasons of their own – believe that Ricky Stuart cannot coach.
As they say of haters, they’re gonna.
It’s been going on for years, this malarkey. I wrote this at the end of 2016. It was true then and it’s true now – Ricky Stuart can coach. To assert otherwise is the mien of a veritable nincompoop.
I asked Shaun Fensom about it one day at the start of season ’16. I asked him flat out: can Ricky Stuart coach?
And he looked at me like I was an idiot. And I had to point out, Shaun, I know. And I know you know. And you aren’t sure I know. But I can assure you I know.
And so Shaun said words to the effect of “anyone who says Ricky Stuart can’t coach doesn’t know what in the name of sweet Sinbad the Sailor they’re talking about.”
Throw in a couple swear words you get the gist.
Players love the Stick, too. A couple of other guys that day – young blokes, older blokes – declared that Stuart has the balance right between being their mate and their boss.
A footy coach is like a stern, fun uncle. He wants what’s best for you and for the family (the club, the team). And he’ll give you a metaphorical toe up the arse or pat on the back as required.
And he’ll back you to the hilt if you’re battling.
Stuart did it for Jack Wighton. He’d seen the same footage the coppers had, of Wighton out on the tear, past midnight when nothing good happens, all those many schooners deep.
He saw a dude in his 20s, pissed, stupid, loose. He was one once. His entire professional life he’s been surrounded by 20-something dudes. He knows these people.
And thus he’s backing Hudson Young, the twice-convicted 21-year-old eye massage man, who’s riding his own pine for the Raiders’ next eight games of rugby league.
He’s declared that he believes Young didn’t gouge the young Warrior.
He went off at something Ben Ikin said on NRL 360 that Stuart felt insinuated something about his integrity.
It wouldn’t have taken much. Ikin said it wasn’t much. A bit of a chuckle. It was a build-up of things.
Young had been hammered by all the pundits. It seems to have built up in Stuart’s mind, and his protective, fatherly instincts have kicked in.
Stuart doesn’t think of the players like his kids. They’re not his kids. You only have your kids, and that’s that. But they are like nephews, ones you’re mates with. The amount of time these guys spend together, they develop deep fraternal bonds.
Young blokes do anyway, outside of footy too. All the “my brother’s keeper” stuff resonates with 20-something dudes.
Sam Thaiday has a tattoo that says “One brother bleeds, all brothers bleed”. And Sammy would tear into melees in State of Origin just as Andrew Fifita would. It’s on! Help your mate. Your brother.
Ricky Stuart has lived his entire professional life in that sort of environment. When you back your team – your family – whatever stink they’re in, you just back them. And that’s it. Unreservedly. With every fibre of your being.
And then when the kid gets eight weeks, you make the story about yourself.
Wayne Bennett’s been doing it for years.
And that’s why they love him, too.