Ricky Stuart and Don Furner Jr are without doubt the best people to take the Canberra Raiders into the future.
In fact, with all of the issues and malaise that has beset the team from the ACT and southern NSW since September 2019, the very worst thing that could now occur is Stuart and Furner leaving the helm.
Why? Because they are the beating heart of the club.
They love the club deeply and their primary goal is – and has always been – to have the Canberra Raiders be successful.
Of all the different parts being played by the various parties right now, only the Raiders fans can also genuinely make that claim as well. While the green faithful can certainly not be portrayed as happy campers at the moment, they still love their club.
Don Furner Jr’s father was the inaugural coach of the club and the architect of their early success. His son has grown up with the Canberra district rugby league and the Canberra Raiders running through his veins. Ricky Stuart is the Raiders prodigal son who returned to his beloved club after a long period of involuntary exile in their hour of need.
From 2014 they have together rebuilt the club into a genuine contender through their own blood, sweat and tears.
Anyone who doubts their suitability for their roles, their deep love for the club and their determination to make it successful needs to have their credentials closely examined.
The only opinions that really matter are from the Raiders faithful themselves and from the club. The other voices should mostly be ignored.
The media that covers the NRL loves nothing more than a story of disharmony and intrigue. The role they play is that of the circling vultures, seizing on any opportunity to attack and feast on stricken prey.
They in turn provide a lens through which the scandal hungry mob can satiate their voyeuristic desires to witness suffering and misery. Sections of that mob then pile on to add their mostly uninformed derision of players, coaches and officials from their cheap seats behind their keyboards.
The great majority of the media providing comment are arguably in a very tenuous position to offer much expertise at all. In my 22 years of covering the NRL in Canberra I have never, ever seen most of them at the ground or at training. Somehow so many of them are now experts though with the inside word.
One of the most disturbing things for the Raiders faithful in among all of this is the reality of leaking, because successful clubs never leak.
How often do you hear leaks coming out of the Roosters or the Storm? Never.
They know that the press is never on their side. They know that the appearance of disunity is good for no-one.
For the coaching staff it destabilises the squad and undermines their authority.
For the administration it portrays the club as problematic and causes recruitment and sponsorship issues.
The players who are thought to have leaked information have their own brands and market value badly damaged. What leading coach or successful club wants to pay top dollar for a player – no matter how good – who is seen to have broken ranks in such a manner. Who wants to buy cancer?
Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson are already not interested in you at anything other than unders, if at all.
So the current circumstances at the Raiders are good for no-one except the media vultures and the keyboard warrior trolls.
Somehow there has emerged a view that Stuart and Furner are at the root of the issue due to stories that they have lost their cool and/or acted rashly at times.
Apparently some are intimating that they are to blame for the club’s current malaise.
Stuart and Furner have been subjected to a constant stream of misfortunes and setbacks not of their making since 2019. The unending issues they’ve been subjected to would have caused all but the most relaxed person to totally misplace their excrement. Yet it is only in recent times that either have been accused losing their tempers or acting rashly.
In my opinion they’ve performed admirably under the circumstances.
The start of their troubles was in the first week of October 2019.
In the lead-up to the Raiders’ first grand final appearance in quarter of a century – a feat that was only possible because of the quality of the squad that Stuart and Furner had constructed – one of their star players decided it was the appropriate time to agitate for a contract upgrade.
The Isaac Moses-managed John Bateman, who himself was a huge part of the team’s success, chose that moment to put his own interests above the team’s need to focus on the game. You can bet that it didn’t help Ricky Stuart’s or Don Furner Jr’s moods at all.
As much as the Raiders faithful absolutely loved Bateman and didn’t want him to go, it was selfishness personified.
Following directly on the heels of Bateman came the NRL’s failure to appoint on-ground officials who knew that six again calls couldn’t be reversed. NRL HQ also failed to hire operations staff who could effectively ensure that trainers were on the field only when appropriate.
In a game won by six points, those two crucial incidents arguably cost the Raiders the premiership. Ricky Stuart and Furner had to swallow those bitter pills, and it wouldn’t have been easy when there was so much inexcusable incompetence involved.
John Bateman then followed up his ill-timed and self-interested distraction with missing the first eleven11 rounds of 2020. That was not in Ricky Stuart’s plan, and it was a big setback.
However, the biggest setback came in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to the season. All of a sudden the draw for the season that had been viewed quite favourably by the club was unavoidably redone.
The rewrite saw the Panthers and the Eels, for example, play 19 and 17 of their 23 games respectively no further than 50 kilometres from their home grounds. Conversely the Raiders only had 12 games that didn’t involve significant travel. While understandable given the circumstances, it was quite a disadvantage and one that Stuart and Furner just had to suck up.
When in Round 9, 2020, the Raiders lost captain Josh Hodgson to an ACL injury for the season Stuart must have started to think that he was cursed.
The biggest impact of COVID on the Raiders was the huge impact it had on the plans to support their English players.
The Raiders had targeted the English players in their rebuilding of the team. The inclusion of the superb Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead led to the recruitment of John Bateman, Ryan Sutton and George Williams.
A key part of what the Raiders ensured they provided to these players was support for them to see their families either by having their families come out to Australia or by having the players go back over for regular visits. This included during the season, like when Bateman was able to return and see his daughter in 2019, and his daughter was also brought out.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to any of this travel. What supported these key players to be happy at the Raiders suddenly evaporated. Bateman couldn’t just quickly go home to see his daughter anymore. George Williams and his partner couldn’t go home to see their families either. That pull for home and family was of course exacerbated for both by Wigan offering them both attractive money to return.
The setbacks have just kept coming this season. In Round 5 the Raiders lost fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad for what has turned out to be the whole season. His absence has highlighted his extreme value to the Raider’s defensive structure. With him at the back the Raiders were averaging less than 16 points conceded a game. Since his injury they’ve been conceding an average of 30 points.
I don’t think the frustration that Stuart and Furner would feel seeing their team be so affected by matters out of their control can be underestimated. Nor can the effect of the seemingly constant stream of bad luck.
And it can’t be summarily dismissed either. These are passionate human beings who put everything into their jobs, and they were constantly being dealt setbacks.
To stay calm and pragmatic at all times is of course the aim. However, it is not always possible. Anyone who says it’s possible is either a fool or a liar – or both.
After the Raiders loss to the Eels in Round 6, Stuart wielded the axe and a few players were dropped. Joe Tapine was one of those players. He returned to play off the bench in the Raiders’ Round 8 and 9 losses to the Rabbitohs and Newcastle. In between those games his wife took a social media swing at Stuart in regard to her husband being on the bench. The press loved it. Stuart and Furner didn’t. Tapine has subsequently been out injured for the last three games.
Around this time John Bateman had the nerve to throw around outraged media comment about the intrigue in an act of breathtaking hypocrisy that was lapped up by the media.
Then the revelation that George Williams’s partner was pregnant and that he was agitating for a release from the final year of his contract was the last thing Stuart and Furner needed. Williams was central to the club’s plans going forward, and this was just another kick in the guts for the two men who were trying so hard to keep the club together and meeting setbacks at every turn.
The leaked news in April that Wigan had already contracted Williams for 2021 had the Raiders management incredulous. His last-minute withdrawal from the Raiders team to face the Rabbitohs in Round 8 then caused major disruption. This was followed early last week with Williams informing Stuart he was not right to play against the Roosters.
George Williams and his partner are lovely people. It is understandable that they wanted to return home. However, the Raiders have rights too. Williams was contracted to the club, and yet it could be argued he and his manager were actively agitating for an end-of-season release.
The Raiders drew a line in the sand.
Just as Ivan Cleary has done in the past, they let a want-away player off their bus. When it became clear that Williams’s need for a release meant that he was lost to the them, the Raiders realised they needed to get back into the market ASAP, in turn allowing George and Charlotte to return to their families immediately.
Williams and his manager weren’t asking for or expecting that release to be immediate. Perhaps they still expected to be able to eat the Raiders cake until the one they’d lined up at Wigan was ready and they’d not at all anticipated a period without cake.
There was outrage that the Raiders could do such a thing, but in reality the Raiders did nothing wrong at all.
Amongst all this there is Josh Hodgson.
While the lad from Yorkshire has had involvement in these matters, you won’t ever hear criticism of him from me. From the moment he landed at the Raiders he has deeply impressed me. He is not only a superb player, he is a top-class human. I hold him in the same esteem as I do Sia Soliola and Ricky Stuart.
I would love to see Hodgson and Stuart reconnect so that he can play out his career in Canberra, and I believe that can happen and be to everyone’s benefit.
However, the reality is that a supporter supports their club. Whatever the player movements, they will stick with their club.
Ricky Stuart and Don Furner junior have been dealt the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for nearly two years under incredibly trying circumstances and have kept doing their best.
Ricky and Don bleed green. They are the Raiders and they aren’t ever likely to give up or take an offer to go to a warmer climate. They might not be perfect – and who among us is – but they are far and away the best bet the Canberra Raiders have going forward.
This is now a time for regrouping for the Raiders and Stuart and Furner are the ones to provide the stability going into the future.