Following the Canberra Raiders’ limp performance against the Gold Coast Titans last weekend, the club’s NRL season is in freefall. The 44-6 hammering at GIO Stadium was one of the worst performances by the Green Machine in many years.
The result adds to a forgettable history of Raiders’ home losses to the Titans.
In 2016, the club’s epic fadeout in round four saw a 14-point lead evaporate late in the game as the Gold Coast snatched it 24-20. But that heartbreak was nothing compared to 2011 and the infamous Matt Orford knock-on at the scrum base with one minute remaining on the clock that allowed the Titans to score after the siren, go to golden point and win the unwinnable.
However, last weekend was just an old-fashioned hammering.
What makes the result sting was the lack of commitment and attitude by the men in lime as they missed a whopping 69 tackles. The Titans carved them up.
This is the same side that made its run to the 2019 grand final and 2020 preliminary final on the back of desire, commitment and stonewalled defence. But the 2021 version of the Green Machine is a shadow of the team that went deep into September in the past two years.
Coach Ricky Stuart was exasperated in his post-game press conference and highlighted that the club’s defence has been poor all year.
He’s right. They have conceded 30 points or more in seven games in 2021, and lost to some very average teams that currently sit in the NRL’s bottom eight.
There are some extenuating circumstances at play, mainly the loss of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad – the NRL’s number one defensive fullback based on tackle efficiency – to a season-ending neck injury. But also obvious is the fact that under the NRL’s new regime, predominantly the divisive ‘six again’ rule, the Raiders look old and slow.
But while the pace of the game seems to be getting away from this current squad, the lack of commitment and desire in defence, combined with myriad well documented off-field dramas, indicate a dressing room in distress.
And that’s on Stuart.
Perhaps now is the right time for the club to be sniffing around at other coaching options. Stuart has been at the helm of the Raiders since 2014, and the past two seasons have been obvious successes – which he deserves tremendous praise for – but with a roster rebuild imminent, this current pickle will be tough to recover from in the short term.
There is also one particularly high-profile coaching free agent in 2022: Wayne Bennett.
The seven-time premiership coach will finish up at the South Sydney Rabbitohs at the end of this year. Should the Raiders make an SOS call to him?
At 71 years of age, Bennett is still a master tactician, man-manager and motivator players love playing for, and he could be exactly what the Raiders need. And at his age, this would likely be the last opportunity to get him.
He has expressed a desire to return to Queensland at the end of this season and has been heavily linked to the second Brisbane team that is mooted to join the NRL in 2023. But if the price is right, and the Raiders are ambitious, they could make him an offer he can’t refuse.
Bennett has been something of a mercenary in his latter coaching years. After 24 seasons with the Brisbane Broncos, he had a handshake agreement to coach the Sydney Roosters in 2006 – ironically to take over from Ricky Stuart – which he reneged on.
He then remained at the Broncos until 2008 before a premiership-winning tenure at St George Illawarra Dragons, three years at the Newcastle Knights, a return to the Broncos, and then his current role at the Rabbitohs.
In summary, he is open to the right offer if the conditions suit, and just this week he maintained that “all doors are open”.
“I have no idea what the future holds for me at the moment,” Bennett said. “At the end of the footy season, I’ll look at what options are around and the possibilities for me and where I think I can make a difference.”
Bennett also has history at the Raiders, co-coaching the club, with Don Furner, to the 1987 grand final. In the past, he has expressed an openness to return to the capital, but nothing has ever eventuated.
With the Raiders desperately in need of a refresh, a coach of the calibre of Wayne Bennett for two to three years would be the perfect injection to inspire the dressing room, attract a crop of new players and hopefully get the club moving in the right direction.
The Raiders could also use his time in charge to earmark a future coach to take over from Bennett when he would likely retire aged in his mid-70s.
Stuart is under contract at the Raiders until the end of 2023 so, in reality, is unlikely to budge, but if the club is proactive and wants to take an aggressive approach to get out of its current rut and getting serious about a rebuild, it could do worse than picking up the phone to one of the greatest rugby league coaches of all time.