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Pressure Points: If Ricky picked up his first wooden spoon, would his position at the Raiders be at risk?

7th December, 2023
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7th December, 2023
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Alright, let’s cut to the chase. Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, an old media adage, goes as follows: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

Ricky Stuart is going nowhere at the Raiders unless he wants to. At the age of 56 with close to 500 games of first grade in the hot seat – half of them with Canberra – we can safely declare his a job for life.

In the normal world, coaches are judged on performances and results – note, they are not the same – with the upshot that one of two things has to be happening to avoid pressure.

Either the team has to be winning, because winning solves everything, or they have to be giving the impression that they are going somewhere.

The second part is a little more nebulous and subjective, but in general, fans are willing to persist and forgive if the team are playing well but being unlucky, have a lot of young players that they can believe in, are smashed by injuries, get dudded by refs or are, at least, putting on a show with their style of play.

Sticky doesn’t live in the normal world, he lives in Canberra, so these things don’t really apply to him. Fans will persist with Ricky Stuart because he is Ricky Stuart and has so many runs on the board, hero as player and coach, and they’ll believe that he can turn it around because it’s him.

Moreover, after a decade in charge, it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing the job. Trent Robinson, Craig Bellamy and Ivan Cleary inhabit this same rarefied air where they could lose every single game in 2024 and likely not get sacked.

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Canberra won’t lose every match, either, but they’re currently third favourites for the wooden spoon in 2024 and, as much as one can decide these things before a ball has been kicked, it’s easy to understand why.

They’ve lost Jack Wighton, at least nominally their best player, and haven’t replaced him at all. That’s purposeful, of course, with a crop of youngsters coming through that are going to need gametime if they are to do anything.

If we refer back to the list of reasons that fans forgive defeats, blooding young players is certainly one of them and, if Ethan Strange or Kaeo Weekes (or both, given the ongoing issues at fullback) then plenty of slack will follow from supporters.

However, Ricky’s confidence in young players has been thin of late, especially in key positions.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

He already had what many thought was the next big thing in Xavier Savage, but lost faith in him after a few bad showings and ended up repurposing a centre, Seb Kris, and a winger, Jordan Rapana, at fullback.

Strange got one game last year and was never seen again after Melbourne put 48 points on Canberra. If he or Weekes, who Manly didn’t trust to play fullback despite having multiple injuries in the position, don’t start well, then what happens next?

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There’s a much wider question that might begin to arise should Stuart’s 2024 not go well.

There is a clear generational change in the works, both at Canberra and in the NRL coaching ranks, and it might present the board with a question or two about where they fit into the new world.

On the roster front, the club are in the midst of a major turnover of the 2019 Grand Final team, with Wighton, Josh Hodgson and Jarrod Croker already gone and Rapana, Elliott Whitehead and Josh Papali’i in the twilight of their careers.

Fans know that, and will probably accept a team that doesn’t make finals if it brings through the next great Canberra side.

In the coaches’ box, however things might be different. It seems strange to mention the physical box with Stuart as he is the only coach who doesn’t always use his, and that perhaps tells a story.

Since the Six Again era began in 2020, 11 of the 16 NRL clubs have changed their coaches, and while some those who are not there are now elsewhere within the league, there has been a revolution in what coaching means.

Newcomers like Andrew Webster, Craig Fitzgibbon and Jason Demetriou have joined the likes of Cleary and Robinson as highly ideological, tactically consistent coaches – the sort where you can be very confident in their style of play and the patterns they will use week to week.

Stuart, Bellamy and Wayne Bennett are the holdouts of the type of coach who predominated before, where individual gameplans were mixed with a more man-management heavy style that trusted the players to get the job done.

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Sticky is unlike the other two in that he has plenty of scope within him to move with the times, being eight years younger than Bellamy and 15 years younger than Bennett, but has shown little inclination to do so.

When they were his age, those two adapted to include their assistants more, allowing the coaching staff in general to be more modern while maintaining what they did best.

(Photo by George Wood/Getty Images for RLWC)

Ricky did that to some extent with Michael Maguire last year – though Madge is a coach much in the same mould – and would do well to bring in assistance from someone like a Jason Demetriou, who did that for Bennett at Souths, to offer that perspective.

It’s not as if Sticky doesn’t know this. His career longevity has been based around knowing what he doesn’t know and soliciting the right advice.

 The decision to add Maguire last year was a masterstroke and it was no surprise that the Raiders won so many tight games.

If anything, it went too well and now he has to find another voice to add to the conversation with Madge taking the NSW job.

Maguire’s replacement will be Justin Giteau, the NSW Cup boss from 2023, who has attacking chops in the second grade, and is a career coach who never played first grade. That was once a death sentence, but in the modern NRL, tends to act more as a recommendation.

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What the Raiders were best at last year was bringing everyone down to their level. They negated every opponent’s strength as best they could, with the effect that most of their wins were grinding, quite boring games – not that Sticky would give a stuff about that.

(Photo by Jeremy Ng/Getty Images)

The issue might be that his style as it has been of late wins no friends – see our rules of coaching above – and really doesn’t require much to go wrong for tight wins to become tight defeats.

In 2023, Canberra snuck in on the last weekend despite losing – and that was in a year where Souths and Parramatta completely imploded, Manly lost players to injury and the Cowboys never got going.

Raiders fans are generally more concerned about the defence, which was as bad as the famously tackle-shy Titans in terms of tries conceded, but plenty of that was due to other teams running up the score when Canberra’s style didn’t work.

Look at less volatile metrics, like line breaks or run metres conceded and they’re about where they should have been given the league position.

What might be more concerning is that their attack was almost totally dependent on Jamal Fogarty’s boot or one of Wighton or Matt Timoko doing something exceptional.

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Wighton is now gone, so that avenue is out, and while Fogarty is an exceptional short kicker, that method in general is highly unsustainable. You can’t expect 20% of your tries to come from kicks, and your centre can’t do everything.

Canberra were already 14th of 17 for tries scored, joint last for line breaks and dead last for passes thrown. Up the guts, let Jamal kick it worked for a bit last year, but if he were to go down injured or simply get fewer good bounces, it would be a recipe for disaster.

At a time when more and more teams approach attack with a highly systematised approach, the Raiders will stand out like a sore thumb if they stick to the same plan as 2023. When it’s the plan that’s the problem, the fingers get pointed at the coach, whoever that is.

It has already been speculated in these pages that no coach will be sacked in 2024, and it’s a convincing argument given the way the 17 teams are set.

Canberra haven’t finished last since their inaugural year in 1982, and the lowest they have finished under Sticky was his first year, 2014, when they recorded just eight wins.

If they ran worse than that in 2024, there will be murmurings this time next year.

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