The Roar
The Roar

Advertisement

Sticky question: Has Ricky Stuart taken the Raiders as far as he can?

11th September, 2023
Advertisement
Autoplay in... 6 (Cancel)
Up Next No more videos! Playlist is empty -
Replay
Cancel
Next
Editor
11th September, 2023
49
2315 Reads

Close your eyes and imagine Canberra Raiders attacking. What does it look like? What are the patterns? Where is the ball going?

If that was a bit difficult, then join the club. This is a team without a set style, built as much on their ability to negate their opposition as much as to impose their own game.

It’s their super strength, because Canberra have the measure of basically everyone they play, but as another season ends, it might be time to question whether it is also their Achilles heel.

Ricky Stuart has excelled at developing all facets of the Raiders as a club. They are made in his own image, ever combative and confident, with a chip on both shoulders but a clear idea of what they are about as a group.

That has been covered in great depth in these pages before, and the ability of Sticky to get his team up for the occasion and to fight for each other is beyond reproach.

But if you look at this year’s top eight – and, indeed, the next four teams that didn’t make the finals – it’s clear to see that we now live in the age of tactical ideology, and Canberra don’t seem to have one.

On the field, the lack of a distinct play style might be what holds them back. It might be that Ricky, and his assistant Michael Maguire, are stuck fighting the last war.

Advertisement

These days, everyone – well, everyone good –  has an attacking philosophy, honed over months in preseason then enacted in-season to the best of their abilities. There are distinct patterns of play designed to create sustainable, repeatable scoring opportunities.

Everyone, that is, except Canberra. The Raiders are perhaps the best in the comp at adapting to their opposition and bringing everyone down to their level, but they don’t come to the game with any set methods of their own.

There’s a few pet plays and a general mindset to go hard in the middle and generate second phase, but nothing beyond that to hang your tactical hat on.

It’s why they are one of the worst teams to watch, as every game becomes a dour struggle to the bottom, and invariably, the Raiders come out on top.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 10: Joseph Tapine of the Raiders is tackled by the Knights defence during the NRL Elimination Final match between Newcastle Knights and Canberra Raiders at McDonald Jones Stadium on September 10, 2023 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Joseph Tapine is tackled. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

It’s why they nick wins against good teams but also look terrible in nicking wins against bad teams. Ricky, of course, will be happy that they won both, as is absolutely his right.

The problem might be that the 2023 edition of the NRL look a lot, lot different to what it did when Sticky coached his first game 21 years ago. It looks very different to 2014, when he took over in Canberra, and really, to 2019, when the Raiders made the Grand Final.

The dual inputs of big data and the six again have massively altered what sides try to do, in the same way that has been seen across all sports in the last decade.

Advertisement

The data aspect ultimately returns to the concept of sustainability and having a clear, repeatable way of scoring points. 

You know that the Warriors are going to aim to get Dallin Watene-Zelezniak in the corner. You know that the Broncos will play out the back to Reece Walsh. You know what Isaah Yeo does at the Panthers.

Now, simply stopping your opponent isn’t enough. Intensity isn’t enough. You have to have a plan of your own to score points eventually, and Canberra remain deficient in that regard. They lack ideology.

Sunday’s game showed this. Newcastle scored five tries: two came off Ponga swinging towards Dom Young on the left and a third came from a similar injection on the right, which ended up with Greg Marzhew at the corner. If you’ve seen the Knights play, nothing of what they did would have come as a surprise.

Canberra also scored five, but they had two off quick turnovers, one off a close range dart that was horrendously defended, one a stock-standard backline move and one an improvised second phase move that involved two offloads.

They all count however they’re scored, of course, but it’s not that sustainable to rely on three of your five tries being from opposition mistakes.

When the game was on the line in extra time, they took a whole set of set-up plays before Jamal Fogarty kicked to a corner. Newcastle, or really anyone else from 13th upwards, would have had stock ideas to go to, well-greased attacking machinery. It look like Canberra were making it up as they went along, which might have worked previously, but seems a little rudderless in 2023.

Advertisement

This has been their lot all year. Something in the region of 20% – exact numbers are a little hard to come by across providers) of their tries have come from kicks, which is an incredible tally, but it does speak to a lack of options in the four tackles come prior to Fogarty putting boot to ball.

Their fullback has been Seb Kris or Jordan Rapana, both runners, and their five eighth Jack Wighton, also a run-first player who will almost certainly see his career out as a centre. 

Their hookers are both dishers in Zac Woolford and Danny Levi, plus a pure runner in Tom Starling, the likes of whom no other team carries. It’s all a little 2019.

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Their reaction to a lack of spark late in the year was to bring in Matt Frawley, a perfectly serviceable organising 7, leaving the attack with essentially two halfbacks but no creators.

Fogarty managed 16 try assists over the year, but just ten line break assists, right at the bottom for halfbacks, and neither he nor Wighton were in the top 40 in the NRL for line engagements, a category in which the Raiders as a whole were dead last.

Line breaks come from collective action as a whole, large movements in concert that get players into holes in the line. You unsettle the width of the defence, force them to make decisions and ultimately, draw mistakes.

Knowing what you might do with it and moving along pre-ordained patterns is a huge part of that, but Canberra remain behind in that regard. Canberra’s plan, too, often, is to bash their opponent into submission rather than to make them think.

Advertisement

Dane Gagai has 22 line break assists and Bradman Best has 17, not because they are creative geniuses but because they are at the end of patterns designed to move the defence about and isolate weak points.

The worrying thing for Stuart has to be that the game is only moving in one direction. It’s not that his team are directionless completely, but they are now in the minority in operating the way that they do.

The way they play has proved wildly successful in delivering finals football to Canberra, with the team playing into September in four of the last five years and going back to 2015, they have finished top ten or higher. They either rmake finals or just miss out narrowly.

Stuart’s focus on intensity over ideology helps his side to defeat all the bad teams and occasionally upset good ones, but it doesn’t deliver set-and-forget good footy of the sort that helps the Panthers, Roosters, Storm and, until this year at least, Souths to consistently perform.

To go to the next level, the attack has to have an extra level of sophistication that isn’t currently there, especially in the data arms race of the NRL when every other team is getting better.

On top of that, there’s questions about the mentality side and how effective that is long term. As has been evidenced on several occasions this year, Sticky’s set-piece attitude to certain games has boiled over into bad performances rather than good.

Though his side have turned their siege mentality into wins away at Brisbane, the Roosters and Souths, it has also contributed to some crushing defeats.

Advertisement

The urge to turn up for Jarrod Croker’s 300th game left the team looking emotionally exhausted by half time against the Warriors, and the less said about the ‘weak-gutted dog’ rematch with Penrith the better. Canberra’s heads have gone completely at times. 

With one of the oldest squads in the league, it’s hard to know how many times Stuart can dip into that well of emotion. If you have a solid structure and consistent game plan, it’s a lot easier to take feeling out of it and fall back on the processes.

The playing group is organised by the coach and the preference for older players is not an accident. That’s what Ricky wants. The mentality is very much concocted with a purpose too.

But if the Raiders are going to go to the next level, it’s going to take more than us-against-the-world with the old boy’s club. 

Tellingly, this year’s exit was met with roughly the same messaging as last year.

“It wasn’t what any of you guys expected, it wasn’t what anybody expected outside our club,” said Stuart in the presser on Sunday in Newcastle.

“That’s the Raiders DNA what you’ve seen there tonight… that’s why we are a top-eight team and unlucky not to be in the top-four – but not according to so many people.”

Advertisement

In 2022, at Parramatta, he also backed his team to have done better under different circumstances.

“We would have made the top four,” he said. “(The) second half of the season showed that. We were only three, four wins outside of the top four. So, we would have made the top four, but we didn’t.”

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 27: Raiders coach Ricky Stuart is interviewed ahead of the round 24 NRL match between the Canberra Raiders and the Manly Sea Eagles at GIO Stadium on August 27, 2022 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

In those two years, the Raiders have played 24 games against other top eight teams and won just ten. They’ve played 26 games against teams that didn’t make the finals in that year, and have won 18.

Obviously, it’s harder to beat better teams, but those numbers do somewhat expose that what this Raiders do is very effective against bad teams but not effective against good ones. 

The draw was incredibly kind to Canberra this year, with only 11 games of their 24 games against teams that made the eight. For comparison, Souths and Manly played 13 and Parramatta and the Cowboys 12. 

It’s been a bit of a rails run, and while they aren’t the only side to depart this weekend after being fortunate with the draw – *cough* Cronulla *cough* – it should be factored in.

Advertisement

What is increasingly evident is that their style of attack is plenty good enough to defeat poor sides and not good enough to defeat good ones. 

This was the ultimate undoing of Anthony Griffin at the Dragons, and while Sticky isn’t anywhere near that level, it’s worth considering. 

The NRL has changed a hell of a lot in a short amount of time, and it’s clear that the coaches who are thriving now are those who approach the game with a clear on-field imprint, imposing their style on the opposition, especially with the ball.

Ricky Stuart has been an incredible coach and has proven time and again that he can adapt and change with the times. If the Raiders are to avoid falling away in 2024, he’ll need to do that again.

close