Canberra Raiders in unique position in NRL as they struggle to attract superstars
The Raiders have not won a premiership since 1994, the NRL’s second-longest drought. (AAP: Mick Tsikas)
Some mornings in Canberra, when the cold settles into your bones, it can be easy to let yourself think about beach life. Or even just a climate that stays above freezing overnight.
Pair that with the prospect of trotting onto a field and putting yourself through physical hell alongside and against some of the most powerful athletes in the world, and that temptation must grow even stronger.
So why would a young man choose to go to the dance with the homely Canberra Raiders when there are far more conventionally attractive options out there?
Unfortunately, many NRL players must be asking themselves that question because they haven’t really been coming to the capital for the past decade.
The Raiders’ biggest splash in the free-agent market in recent times was probably Blake Austin in 2014, but even his signing was on the back of two massive disappointments.
Unlike with the Raiders, Tedesco did not backflip when he decided to sign with the Roosters. (AAP: Brendan Esposito)
After gun youngster Anthony Milford left, James Tedesco was supposedly coming in May of that year (this depressing article is still extant on the club website) before reneging a week later.
There are very few teams in the league that have struggled or failed to attract an off-contract representative player that other teams really wanted in the past five years the way the Raiders have. And of that small group, two — Melbourne and North Queensland — have transcendent talents already on their rosters.
The other team in that group, the Eels, are the only team in the NRL with a premiership drought longer than the Raiders’ 24-year stretch.
‘We lost a little bit of our direction’
See, with titles in 1989, 1990 and 1994, the city has a proud rugby league history, but the days of Mal Meninga, Ricky Stuart (the player version), Laurie Daley, Steve Walters, Glenn Lazarus and Bradley Clyde are long gone.
Now it’s hard to see if the Raiders were to name an all-time dream team for their 40th anniversary in 2022, if anyone from the recent crop would make the cut.
Ricky Stuart’s side came within a whisker of the grand final in 2016 but have gone 34-50 in the other seasons. (AAP: Mick Tsikas)
Maybe Jarrod Croker for his years of service and captaincy, but that’s about it.
And so begins the chicken-or-egg part of our story — does a lack of results beget star-less rosters or is it the other way around?
“[Signing stars] was never a struggle back in the late 80s, it was never a struggle in the 90s,” the club’s head of recruitment, Peter Mulholland, said.
“I think perhaps we lost a little bit of our direction. A lot of things are easy when you’ve had success.”
And success appeared to be returning with a second-placed finish and preliminary final appearance in 2016, but otherwise they have a 34-50 win-loss record in the other three-and-a-half seasons.
Mining for local gems
Rookie of the year Nick Cotric was born in Canberra and always dreamt of playing for the Raiders. (AAP: Daniel Munoz)
Mullholland said the club uses coach Ricky Stuart and the area itself as major selling points in pitch meetings.
According to Mullholland, they are in the process of “re-establishing” their presence in the area and it has led to a relatively bountiful harvest of local talent.
Reigning rookie of the year and Canberra native Nick Cotric has always wanted to be in green, and captain Jarrod Croker, Jack Wighton and Shannon Boyd were all born in and around the ACT.
“A lot of people associate Canberra with a country town,” he said.
“It’s a lot easier in a lot of ways to bring players from country areas into that system. It’s a lot easier town to adapt to.”
That seems to be their bread and butter these days, but they have also employed slightly unconventional tactics to fill out the list.
The Raiders channelled Joey Leilua’s explosive brilliance perfectly in 2016, but he hasn’t been the same since. (AAP: Lukas Coch)
Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana keyed their run to the 2016 finals, along with new hooker Josh Hodgson. And those guys fall in the other two major categories for the Raiders — diamonds in the rough and Englishmen.
Going forward, they may stick with what they can see or what no-one else can, as evidenced by their replacement for the Gold Coast-bound Boyd and former/future Eel Junior Paulo.
Mulholland said the team could be proud that it “drew a line in the sand” and held its nerve.
Replacing them will be 22-year-old Wigan prop Ryan Sutton, who joins Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead as Englishmen in the first-choice side, and shows the way forward for the next three to four years.
It won’t be easy and it may not work, but the Raiders have been left with little choice but to zig when everyone else zags.