Here we go again, Raiders fans.
The 2021 NRL season started with so much expectation for the Green Machine, but it has spiralled out of control.
On the back of a grand final appearance in 2019 and a preliminary final in 2020, the Green Machine was touted as a contender this year. But after winning three of their first four games, the club has bottomed out, losing seven of their past eight.
They are currently mired in the bottom four and appear dispirited, fractured and rudderless.
In the past six weeks, the club has endured player unrest: Joe Tapine’s partner bagging coach Ricky Stuart online; testy post-game press conferences; and the ugly departure of homesick halfback George Williams, in which several players ‘liked’ the Englishman’s stance against the club on Twitter and Instagram, indicating a possible mutiny behind closed doors.
All while onfield performances have gone from underwhelming to utterly grim.
With the Raiders’ 2021 season all but terminal, rusted-on supporters are left to lament where it all went wrong.
On the surface, several factors have contributed to the Raiders’ rapid decline.
Going into the season, there were concerns about the club’s ageing outside backs and a perceived lack of speed. This was highlighted in the 2020 preliminary final against the Melbourne Storm, where the Raiders were scorched out wide in a game that was over after 25 minutes.
Nick Cotric scored two tries for the Raiders that night, but his departure to Canterbury Bulldogs this year left much of the backline looking like Dad’s Army.
Compounding this has been the NRL’s six-again rule changes that have made the game more rapid. The emphasis on fast play-the-balls, continuously retreating defences and fatigue has swiftly changed the rugby league dynamic. The teams that have best adapted – the Penrith Panthers and the Storm – are thriving. Teams that haven’t, such as the Raiders, are floundering.
The collateral damage from this shift is that less-mobile players of certain dimensions are becoming redundant. The days of teams rolling up their sleeves and getting into the attritional grind of the game have evaporated in favour of speed.
The Raiders have the fifth oldest squad in the NRL. Ironically, the defending premiers, the Melbourne Storm, have the second oldest, but they also boast speed machines Josh Addo-Carr, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Justin Olam, and a pack of mobile, athletic forwards.
Just look at how the table-topping Panthers are travelling for proof of the NRL becoming youth dominated. Penrith has the third-youngest team in the competition and plays an electrifying brand of league. They’re a million miles from where the Raiders are.
The other major factor is coach Stuart. The Raiders icon bleeds green and is as passionate as they come. There is no doubting his commitment to the club and unwavering dedication to the Canberra community.
He is also renowned for rewarding loyal warhorses who bring experience and drive standards. It can be argued he’s too loyal – possibly a by-product of being scorned by his own premature departure from the Raiders as a player in 1998 – but every club needs personnel who have been there and done that.
However, blind loyalty can cloud judgement for when a player needs a tap on the shoulder.
Stuart’s surly press conferences of late reveal a man taking the losses to heart and, worryingly, he seems bereft of ideas.
The team’s poor attitude in defence, leaking of soft tries, inadequate forwards’ run metres, and second-half fadeouts that have seen the return of the dreaded ‘Faders’ tag, all reek of something rotten within the camp, be it a lack of fitness, lack of desire, or division between players and club.
Is it a case of entitled, troublesome players or a hardline, inflexible coach? It’s probably all of the above, and tough questions need to be asked.
But that won’t come from the majority of the mainstream NRL media.
Stuart is fairly immune to scrutiny, with certain Sydney journos happy to play cheerleader rather than apply the blowtorch in the same way the Cronulla Sharks’ John Morris felt the heat earlier this season.
Is Stuart the man to fix things at the Raiders? The jury is out.
He isn’t exactly renowned as an innovative, progressive coach – more old-school passion, fire and brimstone – and his track record, particularly at the Sydney Roosters and Sharks, indicates when that fire begins to flicker, it’s difficult to reignite.
With the Raiders famously loyal to favourite sons – they took an eon to oust underperforming coach David Furner in 2013, with former chairman John McIntyre referring to the club as the ‘family farm’ – Stuart isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.
If he is the man to turn around the Raiders, hard decisions are looming. With this season on life support, attention turns to 2022 and beyond. The club is facing a dreaded rebuild and needs to nail its recruitment strategy – not something that comes easy in the national capital.
Recruiting from Sydney has never been the club’s forte. Historically, Queensland, New Zealand and, more recently, England have been fertile recruitment patches. But most important is identifying and nurturing local and regional talent and developing players within the Raiders system.
The club’s two best players – Queenslander Josh Papalii and Jack Wighton from Orange – are testament to early talent identification, as were club greats including Laurie Daley, Bradley Clyde, Glenn Lazarus and Stuart.
Bouncing back may not come quickly as there isn’t a wealth of talent remaining on the NRL open market for next year, and it would be madness to pay overs for a short-term fix.
But whatever direction the club takes, it’s important fans remain true and weather the feast-or-famine existence of being a Raiders diehard.