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Opinion

Haters take note: Ricky Stuart is an indisputably awesome coach

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2nd October, 2019
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There are two bronze statues at GIO Stadium in Canberra.

One is of the clubs greatest ever player and rugby league immortal, Mal Meninga. The other is of former Raiders captain and star, Laurie Daley.

There now must be a third.

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart needs to be immortalised in bronze for his incredible service to the Canberra Raiders. While there is no question he was a superb player – and one of the best Raiders ever – it is as their coach that Stuart has truly earned the honour.

Our prodigal son returned to us at our lowest ebb as a club. The very club that brutally stripped the captaincy from him in 1996. The same club that cruelly cast him away in 1998 after eleven seasons of loyal service.

In spite of that history, Stuart returned to us in our hour of need and has dragged the club back to relevance.

He is now so close – and yet so far – from his second premiership as a coach.

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart

Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart isn’t happy. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The coming match is the biggest challenge he has ever faced as a coach.

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This Sunday the Raiders play against the Sydney Roosters in the decider.

The Chooks are a formidable outfit. All killer, no filler. I predicted them to be the 2019 premiers before a ball was kicked this season and I’ve seen no reason to change my views. I’ve also found myself admiring the Bondi Boys and their club.

No side has gone back to back since the Broncos of 1992-1993 but I think the Chooks are very likely to break that duck.

The Raiders are right up against it. However, this season they have established that they are no one’s bitch.

And that can be put down to Stuart’s stewardship of the team.

It has been 25 long years since my club last visited this stage. Back in those days I used to organise a group of ten or more of us to go sit on the old hill lawn for home games. We’d have to get there early to be assured of getting a chunk of grass to sit on, so big were the crowds back in the day.

We’d then watch in awe at Ricky’s skills. His passing – long and short – was superb. Further, his kicking game was the very best. He could chip to perfection. His long, raking field position kicks would have yielded hundreds of 40/20s if that rule had existed in his day. He could land his huge bombs on a dime.

One of his key skills was his ability to have his teammates actually believe that he could put the ball exactly where he said he would put it, and that it would be there when they arrived. The likes of Brett Mullins and Laurie Daley reaped the benefits of that belief on many occasions.

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Ricky Stuart in his playing days

Ricky Stuart in his playing days (Photo by Getty Images)

At the representative level he formed a great combination with Dean Pay which involved putting a hard, flat pass directly on the now Bulldogs coach’s chest, in heavy traffic, to put him through the line. He could also organise a defensive line like no one else.

In 1993 he was at his peak. He was brilliant. Maybe too brilliant. When he broke his ankle in Round 21 of that year the Raiders were on top of the ladder. Without him the side – which still contained Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher, Laurie Daley and Brad Clyde – were rudderless and lost three games straight to be bundled out.

By 1996 I was the lone ranger on the hill lawn. The Super League war – mixed with the rise of the ACT Brumbies – killed off so much interest among my friends. But it didn’t kill mine. I ended up just going by myself. I remained devoted to the Raiders.

I stayed to witness the Raiders’ decline and malaise. I stayed through all the dark years of mediocrity and ineptitude. I witnessed the false dawns and I devoted myself to many messiahs who inevitably proved to be just mortal men who weren’t able to single handedly drag us back to credibility and relevance, or whose poor character meant that they stopped playing for my club.

For mine the beginning of the rot really happened in August 1998 when then Raiders CEO Kevin Neil cut Ricky Stuart and Brad Clyde from the team.

The Raiders celebrate a NSWRL premiership

The Raiders. (Photo by Getty Images)

As I told Kevin Neil and Robert Finch at the time, not showing loyalty to those two elite players who had done so much for the club told every junior, established player and potential recruit that there was no loyalty in the nation’s capital.

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The Raiders’ ability to attract and retain players suffered horribly from that point. After Laurie Daley, Ben Kennedy, Brett Mullins and David Furner left the club in 2000, the Raiders quickly disappeared from relevance. They now had no star power to attract new players.

We were making up the numbers. From that point we seemed to qualify for the finals in alternate years but were always making up the numbers.

In 2008 our under 20s side – featuring a young Jarrod Croker – won the Toyota Cup and we were filled with hope to partially offset the despair of Todd Carney’s sacking.

2010 and 2012 were both filled with optimism as we made the second week of the finals on the back of some great late season form. However, in both cases that optimism was smashed by the cruel reality that we just weren’t quite good enough…

Then in 2013 the wheels fell right off the wagon. At the beginning of the year the Raiders fought off the Eels – and Ricky Stuart ironically – to retain the then 20-year-old wunderkind forward Josh Papalii. But that was the only thing that went right.

Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan effectively walked out on the club early in the season and the results weren’t good.

And then they got worse. Much worse.

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I was riding the sideline for ABC Grandstand for the Raiders’ Round 21 clash against the Melbourne Storm when we suffered our biggest ever defeat, 68-4. The Raiders let in 12 tries. The gutted players then had to stay on the ground while a trophy presentation was made to the Storm side. It was horrible.

The Green Machine lost the last six straight games to finish a very poor 13th. In among that run David Furner – a beloved son of the club and an awesome guy – became the first ever Raiders coach to be sacked.

It was the club’s lowest ebb. The roster was poor and demoralised, the marquee player had a bad knee and now the club was searching for a new coach.

Who in the world would want that poisoned chalice?

Who would have the guts and courage to take on that task?

Enter the Prodigal Son. Enter Ricky Stuart.

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His return to the club in 2014 was met with great hope by the long-suffering supporters. Yet there were still many detractors.

Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart

Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Stuart the player was prickly, arrogant and ultra-competitive. It was a large part of what made him such a good player.

As a coach he hasn’t been able to always hide those characteristics. That has always got a lot of hackles up. As Cameron Smith has found out, the longer you stick around, the more detractors you are likely to get.

This is Stuart’s fourth decade of involvement with top level rugby league and there are an awful lot of haters of him out there.

While his record shows that as a coach he has won an NRL premiership, ten matches as Kangaroos coach, and a series as the coach of NSW, the haters say he can’t coach. That he’s a myth…

The most common thing I hear is that his only success was the Roosters premiership in 2002 – and that was down to Brad Fittler and Graham Murray.

While he got a very ordinary roster at the Sharks to the 2008 preliminary final, he has never been given credit for that feat. Much was made, too, of his short stint at the perennial underachievers that are the Parramatta Eels.

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But here’s the thing: this Raiders side that takes the field on Sunday evening is totally Stuart’s Green Machine. He has built this team from the ground up. Of the 26 players used in first grade this season, only four of them were at the club before Stuart arrived in 2014. Apart from Croker, Jack Wighton, Papalii and Sam Williams, Stuart has created this side.

In his first year at the helm he lost gun junior Anthony Milford and was knocked back by Kevin Proctor, Jared Warea-Hargreaves, Josh Mansour and James Tedesco. He had to get very creative to build a competitive side.

Don Furner Sr and Wayne Bennett sourced players from Queensland in the 1980s to build their roster. Tim Sheens looked to New Zealand to rebuild after the salary cap scandal of 1991.

Ricky Stuart went to England and found Josh Hodgson, Elliot Whitehead, Ryan Sutton and John Bateman. Along the way he picked up Kiwis Joseph Tapine, Jordan Rapana, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Bailey Simonsson.

He resurrected Sia Soliola and Dunamis Lui. He has brought through juniors like Nic Cotric, Corey Horsburgh and Emre Guler.

He recruited Joey Leilua, Aidan Sezer and Saliva Havili. Sure, Stuart has had great assistance from the likes of Peter Mulholland and Andrew McFadden to do it. He has surrounded himself with experts and he takes their advice. But make no mistake: he is steering the ship.

Aidan Sezer Canberra Raiders NRL Rugby League 2016

The Raiders under Ricky Stuart are a real chance of winning the competition. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

He has made a team that is a force to be reckoned with. They are more than the sum of their parts.

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It is very clear from this feat that not only can he coach but he is in fact extremely good at it.

While I loved Ricky the player, I never thought he was that good of a bloke back in the 1990s. However, age and fatherhood has mellowed Stuart.

Regardless of what you might think, he is a very likeable, kind and considerate man. Yet he lives constantly under a siege mentality. That he ever smiles is amazing considering the hate and derision that is heaped upon him – as well as the glee with which his disappointments and frustrations are received by his many detractors.

Sure, he gets grouchy at the media when they ask him questions about perceived weaknesses in his side. But that is because he loves his team. He has poured his heart and soul into it – and them. Those are his boys and if you have a go at them then Ricky will go your throat.

John Bateman of the Raiders

John Bateman (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

And you know when you are on Stuart’s team that he has your back. He might give you an earful in private, but he’ll defend you to the hilt in public.

And it is that love and dedication that has bonded this team into a band of brothers.

Win or lose, this Raiders side is one to be proud of. They have brought real respect back to the jumper and the club. They may even usher in a new golden era of success, like the one Stuart played in.

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And if they do it will be down to Stuart and his brilliant coaching.

And all you haters can go please yourselves.