Ricky Stuart heading towards uncharted territory with Canberra Raiders
The prodigal son … Ricky Stuart returned to the Raiders in 2014 and it’s been a rollercoaster ride. (AAP: Alan Porritt)
He started coaching before everyone currently leading a team, except Wayne Bennett, and his time in the game is only going to grow after the Raiders last year locked him up through 2020.
He has never spent more than five years at a club as a coach, but by the end of his current contract he will have been a Raider for the best part of two decades, after 10 years playing in green.
A local legend in charge of a talented playing group that was hand-picked almost entirely during his tenure — there are no excuses left now.
Judging rugby league coaches is an inexact science at the best of times, but Stuart is afforded a unique status in the game as a legendary player-turned-coach, despite relatively limited success as the latter.
Starting with a title for the Roosters in 2002 immediately gave him ‘gun’ status, but it appears shaking a good reputation can be just as hard as shaking a bad one, because since then, he has only sporadically appeared on that same level.
Those Roosters sides went 1/3 in grand finals over three years — mirroring his eventual record in State of Origin series — and remains the only team with which Stuart has a winning record.
He jumped ship to Cronulla and finished third in his second season in 2008, but the dawn was obviously false and he was out after losing seasons in ’09 and ’10. That run also put him at the helm as Australia failed to win the World Cup in 2008 for the first time since 1972.
He returned in 2013 at Parramatta and it was not pretty — five wins, axing half the team, a wooden spoon — and still he was head-hunted for the role back in Canberra.
In his first season, the Raiders were the second-worst team in the competition. Not necessarily Stuart’s fault — he inherited a mess from the Furner regime.
Tenth the next year was an improvement, but it was a leap to second on the ladder and being just one play away from the 2016 grand final that really impressed.
The run was built on a mad-cap style that was embodied by his giant forward pack and explosive, if flawed, outside backs like Jordan Rapana, Joey Leilua and Jack Wighton.
Unfortunately, hitching a team’s wagon to unpredictable players leads to unpredictable results. So, in 2017, the Raiders (predictably) took a tumble out of the finals race.
A players’ coach
For those playing along at home, that amounts to two finals berths and four finishes in the bottom three from his past nine seasons at the helm of a club, and an overall average finish of ninth.
But the ‘island of misfit toys’ approach — in which Stuart puts faith in players who may have rarely experienced that level of trust — with all the ups and downs that accompany it, is part of what has helped him make Canberra home for a second time.
Full-back Jack Wighton was adamant Stuart had earned his elevated standing in the game, but said the simple fact he had been in the game for longer than many of his players had been alive gave him an advantage.
“Everyone knows who he is … but it’s not just that,” Wighton said.
“The way he works is what gives us the respect for him. He puts a lot of time into us boys and helps us out. That’s where we get our respect, not just off his rep.”
Sometimes having a microphone nearby does not end well for Ricky Stuart. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
Players talk about his “passion” and “drive”, for which he cops justified flak every time he fires off one of those infamous tirades, but that willingness to go in to bat for his squad has built a “mutual respect”.
“You listen to every word he says because you know he’s very experienced and he’s had a lot of success as a player and as a coach,” playmaker Aidan Sezer said.
“I guess as a young footballer you take everything into account and you listen to him.”
Now, two years removed from the success of 2016, this is crunch time for Stuart.