Another week, another loss and more off-field drama. The natural ebb and flow of sports teams mean that good times tend to be followed by bad.
But the seminal collapse of the Canberra Raiders, last year’s semi-finalists and the previous year’s finalists, is something to behold.
With none too many of the other sides having made significant improvements over the off-season, this is a case of Canberra regressing. This almost certainly owes to off-field ruminations, most notably the events surrounding George Williams.
From the glimpses of information that we have ascertained the story goes something like this: having been denied leave to return to England – in spite of Brisbane allowing compatriot Herbie Farnworth to do so – he went to the club at the start of the year expressing feelings of homesickness and unease.
At some intervening point he then asked to be released at the end of 2021, two years into a three-year contract. It’s unknown if this was agreed to in principle. Then, last week, he asked for some days off on compassionate grounds for either himself, his pregnant girlfriend or both.
With this, Canberra opted to release him from his contract effective immediately, and we end up with the current impasse playing out before us.
It’s important to place all these recent events in context. The Raiders premised their recent rise on smart, somewhat left-field recruitment from beyond the east coast. There was young recruitment from Aotearoa-New Zealand, the scouting of bush players and the infamous signings from England.
This saved them a pretty penny. They faced less competition from other clubs for slightly more obscure players and thus were in a position to agree lower wages. The cheaper cost of living compared to the bigger cities also allowed them contractual leeway.
But it was also done to bring in the right calibre of player. Sydney and Canberra offer, shall we say, different lifestyles. Signing for the Raiders signalled a willingness to predominantly focus energies on on-field matters, resisting the distractions offered by a (previously) global city.
It was working – until COVID-19. But his departure and indeed that of John Bateman before him was not because he was a second-rate Brit unable to hack it in the world’s premier rugby league competition. Bateman was a Dally M second-rower, while Williams’s performances last year were befitting of a semi-final side and representative of an England international and multiple grand final winner.
These weren’t normal incidents of homesickness either. With some of the tightest border restrictions in the world, Australia is to all intents and purposes hermetically sealed off from people of the outside world for at least another year – entirely unpredictable at the start of these players’ tenures.
There are some depressingly egregious comments and innuendo doing the rounds that require clarification. This isn’t about money. It’s not a ploy for a better contract. His return to England would result in a significant pay cut. It’s not an attempt to find a move to Sydney – that would only exacerbate the situation.
Claiming he should simply tough it out with tenuous analogies to war-time deployment or the ten-pound Poms or even the insistence that he ‘man up’ are as tone-deaf and inappropriate as they are unhelpful. Society moves forward and progresses to leave such unhelpful attitudes and experiences in the past.
In a Twitter response to some of the commentary on NRL 360 he received ‘likes’ from several of his teammates, including foreign players of both English and Kiwi persuasion, seemingly understanding of his predicament. He also received verbal support from former co-captain Josh Hodgson.
This isn’t a ‘whinging Poms’ matter either, returning to the warm embrace of Yorkshire and Lancashire away from the big league. Just as many Australians have had issues adjusting to life in Europe and felt the need to come home – Trent Merrin left Leeds amicably, while Israel Folau is the talk of Southport after returning mid-contract from his stint in Perpignan.
We are currently witnessing a slow-motion car crash of Canberra’s title aspirations this year, possible for many years to come. We have become privy to the acrimonious breakdown in relations between players and staff, borne out for us by attention-seeking media that I myself am guilty of indulging (and with this, contributing to). And it’s a bloody shame.