That's what his critics argue, anyway. But he does. He has. And he can.
Tune into talkback, tool about on Twitter, delve into the darkest dungeons of those internet fan forums and the Accepted Wisdom, the meme, whatever, is this: Ricky Stuart can’t coach. Ricky Stuart is a rubbish coach. How does he keep getting gigs? Does he have photos of someone? Ha-ha, blah-de-blah-blah. As Taylor Swift tells us: haters gonna hate.
Indeed such is the Accepted Group Think that if Stuart appeared on The Footy Show and declared that the Canberra Raiders’ playing strip is predominantly lime green, internet heroes would rail with one voice: Idiot! What the hell would he know? And they’d pile on in, furiously agreeing with one another, these keyboard war-mongers, these pelicans, these done-nothin’ numpties.
And you could ignore it. And you usually do. But when the blokes at golf, beer men, league fans, Manly supporters, otherwise good people, so readily parrot the Accepted Group Think that Ricky Stuart can’t coach, then you’ve just got to call bullshit upon it. So: Ricky Stuart can’t coach? It’s bullshit.
(Okay, disclosure: mates of mine are mates of Stuart’s. Met the man once, shared a beer at a golf day. We both played in the local rugby comp. He’s a couple of years older. His wife grew up around the corner from my childhood home. It’s a Canberra thing, degrees of separation. Make of it what you will.)
Right. Some facts: Stuart coached the Roosters to three straight grand finals and one premiership (2002-04). In 2008 Stuart’s Sharks finished top of the ladder. The Sharks! Top of the ladder! It hadn’t happened for 20 years. Stuart coached the NSW Blues to a series win (2005) and in 2012 was one dud call from beating the greatest Queensland Origin team ever.
Yet Stuart’s detractors – and they are legion, loud and largely anonymous – never count his successes in the blind fugue of their fear and loathing. They see a wooden spoon. They see a spat with Phil Gould and the Sharks board. They see him clearing out the Eels’ roster then clearing out himself. They see an angry man in a (coach’s) box.
But that’s pro coaching. That’s what happens. In terms of careers the NRL stands for Not Really Long. And Stuart’s outlived most of them. So why does Stuart (and Brian Smith, say) cop it when less successful coaches (John Cartwright, Neil Henry) do not? If Stuart can’t coach, why would scores of Learned Men on boards – check out the big brains on Bob Fulton, Bob McCarthy and Nick Politis – continue to give him gigs? He’s coached Australia. He’s coached the Blues, who went within Jarryd Hayne’s pixellated left toe-nail of beating perhaps the greatest Queensland Origin team (meaning the greatest rugby league team) of all time. Of all time, damn your eyes, video ref man.
Two years after his tenure, the 2014 Blues – known by very few as the “Team That Ricky Built” because it’s Ricky Stuart and he can’t coach – beat these Queensland Maroons of the Century. Credit for Stuart came from Laurie Daley, staff and players. Didn’t wobble froth from raised schooners in pubs.
But this is a sports journalism magazine and you’re a considered and dear reader, dear reader. So courtesy of stats guru David “Middo” Middleton of League Information Services, here’s some further fun facts:
• Stuart’s overall winning percentage (48%) is about the same as “Supercoach” Tim Sheens’ (51%);
• In Stuart’s second season with the Roosters and Sharks, his winning percentage was 70%;
• Sixteen players coached by Stuart have gone on to play State of Origin. Des Hasler has 13, Craig Bellamy 17. (Bennett has 57 but, you know, Wayne, Broncos, great globs of money, all that).
• In Stuart’s nine games in charge, NSW won four, lost five. Laurie Daley has three wins, three losses. Craig Bellamy has two wins, seven losses;
• Stuart’s Blues scored more points (184) than they gave up (165). Daley’s teams have scored 56 points, conceded 88. And Laurie’s revered as a Great Coach and Top Bloke. And Ricky Stuart can’t coach.
First year as coach of the Roosters in 2002 Stuart won the premiership. His teams contested three straight grand finals. Yet this, according to haters-who-gonna-hate, was The Team That Gus and Nick Built, that sported Fittler, Ricketson, Fitzgibbon, Morley, Hodges, Wing, Fletcher, Mullins, Crocker. In Stuart’s second season in charge of Cronulla, in 2008, the Sharks finished 19-7 in the regular season and equal top of the comp, first time in 20 years. The Sharks! They played aggressive, competitive, hard-arse rugby league. When they went out in a preliminary final – beaten 28-0 by Melbourne Storm who trotted out Slater, Cronk, Smith and, ahem, Israel Folau and Greg Inglis – they reckoned it was because Ricky Stuart couldn’t coach. Again.
Phil Gould, at the height of a classic media spat in 2009 (Google it), described Ricky Stuart as “the most pig-headed and ungrateful person I’ve met in football”. Stuart returned serve, wondering, “Is this the Phil Gould who undermined me when I won a comp at the Roosters?” (The pair would make up. Men do.)
In 2009, Cronulla ran equal last (with the Roosters). Bunch of injuries. Dud season. It happens. Then a slow burn: second-last (’10), third-last (’11), seventh (’12). There followed clashes with the board. “If you’ve got monkeys running the zoo, it’s always going to be a mess,” wrote Stuart. He left. Sharks finished fifth in ’13. Were tipped for bigger things. Credit for Stuart? Ha.
Off to Parramatta. Cleaned out the roster. Told blokes to enjoy the season but they weren’t in the club’s future. Blokes were miffed. Hayne Plane pouted as Hayne Plane can. The Eels finished with the spoon. Stuart got an offer from Canberra that would set up his family. He took it. Next season Parramatta missed the finals only on for-and-against. This season they’ve knocked off the premiers. Full credit: Brad Arthur. The Team That Ricky Built? As they say: Yeah, nah. Because Ricky Stuart can’t coach.
Yes he can. Because they all can. Every coach in the NRL has the same stuff. Same GPS tracking, same videos of the same games, same software with the same data from the same stats providers. Same wrestling blokes, same ice baths. Largely same game plan, too, from the looks of it, given the sameness of games.
There’s an argument that the best coach is the best recruiter. Wayne Bennett could tell you that. Bennett makes blokes feel good, cares like another daddy. But in three years with Newcastle they finished 12th, 7th and 12th, even with all the hardheads and rep players Bennett bought with Nathan Tinkler’s gold.
Fact: the most important attribute of a coach is having the best players. Bennett would tell you that, too. Roosters man Trent Robinson was coach of the year when the Roosters won the comp in 2013 in the same year Wests Tigers coach, Mick Potter, was punted. But put Potter in charge of Sonny Bill Williams, Anthony Minichiello and the Origin halves, and see how he goes. Michael Maguire’s the same at Souths. Put any coach – hell, any punter – in charge of Greg Inglis, Sam Burgess, Issac Luke, Adam Reynolds, surround them with motivated fit blokes smart enough to stick to the plan and chances are you’ll be Top 2 with a bullet.
Consider more magic from Middo:
• Coach of the Century Jack Gibson’s winning percentage is 62%. His winning percentage with the Sharks (’85-’87) is 43%.
• Wayne Bennett’s overall winning percentage is 62%. His winning percentage in three seasons with Newcastle was 44%;
• Craig Bellamy’s overall winning percentage is 67%. Since 2006, when coaching Melbourne Storm without two of Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater or Cameron Smith, his winning percentage is 25%.
“You’re a step ahead with the best roster,” says Raiders CEO Don Furner. “Then you have to man-manage. And Ricky can certainly man-manage.”
Ask mega-tackling lock Shaun Fensom about some folks’ perception that Stuart can’t coach and he’ll invite them down to training. “Mate, they wouldn’t know what they’re talking about,” says Fensom. “They’re not here getting taught by him. It’s a lacklustre opinion if you haven’t had the experience, know what I mean?”
I do, Shaun. I do. But literally thousands don’t. How about the perception Stuart can’t talk to players, doesn’t get on with them? “I’ll put that to bed right now, mate. His communication skills are outstanding. He’s easy to get along with. When he’s coaching us on the training paddock he’s clear, there’s no confusion at all and he’s very open and approachable. I don’t see how people can get that perception if they haven’t been here on the training paddock, being coached by him.”
Stuart’s ability to talk with everyone from rookie players to corporate suits was one of many reasons the Raiders head-hunted him, according to Furner. “He’s an experienced coach, been in the game a long time. He’s learned under some great coaches, played with some great players in great teams. He knows what it takes to be successful, and that’s players. And he’s out there trying to get them.
“He’s a winner; when he played, and as a coach. He gets on with rookie players, senior players, board members, sponsors. He has roots here. He has a profile – sometimes he wishes he didn’t. And he’s tough. He’s come in at a tough time and he’s got toughness in him to battle it out for 52 weeks a year. It’s hard, coaching.”
As white-bread suburban Canberra kids, we were a bit ... well, not scared of the Queanbeyan boys. But they were tough. Other side of the border. “Struggle Town”. Their footy players ran straight and didn’t seem to care. Their cricketers sledged like they hated you. When our Woden Valley High played Karabar High, some of their players turned up in full-blown Toranas. Some had beards. This was Year 10. The in-goal at one end was hard-packed gravel, the ground shredded perhaps by those very Toranas. But when the ball was bouncing about in-goal it was the Queanbeyan kids diving for it, coming up all smiles and grazed, bleeding limbs. They were hard critters.
A heap of footy players came out of the town: Glenn Lazarus, David Furner, Matt Giteau, Brent Kite, Terry Campese. The latter’s uncle, David Campese, developed his evasive skills on David Campese Field. And of course there was Ricky Stuart. He played league for Queanbeyan United and rugby for his school, the famous St Edmund’s College. The brothers had seen Giteau, Furner and George Gregan. They’d seen Carlton legend Alex Jesaulenko. But ask any of them and they’ll tell you: Stuart was the greatest schoolboy footballer they’d ever seen.
Aged 20 he toured Argentina with the Wallabies, this pup from the poor cousin province, ACT. He returned and was poached by the Canberra Raiders. And from there, well ... if Andrew Johns is the greatest halfback there’s ever been, Stuart sits on the next rung in the post-War pantheon with Sterling, Langer, Holman, Smith, Mortimer, Raudonikis. Of today’s players he’s the equivalent of Cronk, if not Johnathan Thurston.
Stuart brought things to rugby league that even Wally Lewis couldn’t do: half-field spiral passes both sides of his body, the man could fling a wombat across Queanbeyan. Massive, thundering torpedo punts that sent tired forwards jogging long, hard yards backwards. His bombs rained upon fullbacks like abominations from space. He was experimenting, tooling about with different kicks, when Andrew Johns was in primary school. He was super-smart tactically. And he was ornery, Queanbeyan-tough. And competitive to the point of madness.
It’s part of the reason he can’t cop “negative” comments today. He’s sort of a hater. And not in a bad way, per se. But he dislikes scrutiny on his coaching because it’s coming from people who’ve never coached. Plus, if you’re dissing his coaching you’re dissing, to an extent, the man himself. Like many driven, successful people, Stuart in a lot of ways is a coach. Like Russell Crowe is an actor. George Brandis is a politician. Ricky Stuart is a coach.
Of course there’s more to him. As Shrek said of the onion, we have layers. Stuart is a father of three teenagers and husband of Kaylie, a one-time Charity Queen of Canberra. Stuart’s mates will tell you he’s more interested in them than talking footy. But footy is what he knows, like a monk knows a gong.
I first met the man at his golf day at Royal Canberra, the fund-raiser for his Ricky Stuart Foundation. I’d heard he didn’t want to talk to Inside Sport and was half-expecting Cranky Ricky. But he was personable and friendly, and apologetic about not wanting to be quoted in the piece. If you met him, you’d tell people: nice fella, good bloke.
That evening in front of a thousand Canberra suits he was welcomed on stage as “the real Ricky”, the father and local whose foundation is building respite homes for kids with autism, like his little girl Emma. He makes a fine speech, and chokes up as he thanks people, hurries off stage. All these people here, the love in the room, his little girl. Too much.
According to a mate, Stuart didn’t want to be quoted in this piece for fear it’d provide ammunition for his detractors, as everything he says seems to. As Darryl Brohman quips on stage, “Ricky, your image stinks!” It’s a reference to the look of Stuart on TV, in the coach’s box. An angry man, and “bad” loser.
For good or ill, the man has a profile. Stuart is a story. Always has been. He’s a Wallaby and Kangaroo tourist. He’s won premierships, Origins, Tests, everything, as coach and player. He’s a hyper-competitive and compelling influence on this greatest game of all, rugby league. Like Toovey and Bellamy in the box, he is good TV.
But know this, Keyboard Warrior: he doesn’t give a rat’s arse about your opinion.
So competitive is the NRL that “completing sets” by not “dropping the ball” is usually the most telling stat in any given game. The salary cap means that whatever combination of 17 well-drilled professional muscle-heads you trot out often has a fair-to-even chance of knocking over the other mob’s well-drilled pro muscle-heads. Simplistic, for sure. But there’s great gleaming gobs of truth in it.
A quality squad needs three or four rep players, hot kids, professional old heads, and a bench full of big-bodied belters. Teach them to hit, kick, chase and wrestle, keep them on the paddock and off the piss, and that’s it – you’re a coach.
Furner says Stuart’s vision for the club is to sprinkle rep and senior players around the nucleus of quality juniors. “When he came through, and it was the same for Laurie Daley and Bradley Clyde, running out with Gary Belcher and Mal Meninga, it made them ten feet tall. They were young kids. And we have some good young kids.
“That’s why Ricky was very keen to get Frank-Paul Nu’uausala. A young forward runs out, he wants to run out behind Frank. Sam Burgess made the Souths forwards ten foot taller. Like Mal, you feel better running out beside him. Ricky knows our development system is one of the best in the comp. But we need a sprinkling of imports.”
Club insiders will tell you Stuart’s other focus is high performance – you want your players healthy and stable. He’s big on values, culture, and the Raiders’ credibility as a club. He’s a local, has “skin” in the club. He’s big on playing to the team’s strengths. He doesn’t see the point copying what Johnathan Thurston does, because he doesn’t have that player.
Halfback Mitch Cornish says he couldn’t learn from a better man. “He’s massive with our kicking and what to do in certain parts of the field. And who to target, who we’re ‘fixing’, in footy terms. He’s very smart in that way.
“He’s also massive on attitude. You can have all the skill in the world, but it’s no good if you haven’t got that desire. He’s big on that. Training drills, they’re do or die.
“And he won’t lie to you. He’ll tell you where you’re at. If you’re not performing, he’ll let you know. And he’ll praise you if you’re doing good. He hasn’t got many faults. I love being coached by him.”
Canberra, it seems, could learn from Gus Gould’s Panthers, whose structure, junior development, one-town team mentality, and reliance on a mighty poker machine palace is sort of similar. Recruitment-wise Penrith made some fine buys: Wallace, Soward, Idris, Peachey. Couple of crackerjack juniors who’ve found their feet: Moylan, Mansour, Cartwright, Watene-Zelezniak. They missed out on Thurston as Canberra missed Tedesco. But their good kids – learning from the likes of Clint Newton – became top players quickly.
Like all teams, Canberra needs their spine to shine. And next year, year after that, maybe they will. Fullback Jack Wighton, 22, is a talent, and like Moylan should play Origin. Five-eighth Blake Austin, 24, is talented, hint of X-factor. Cornish is 22 and couldn’t learn from a better seven. Ditto Sam Williams, 24. Aidan Sezer is 23 and coming next year.
At hooker there’s an interesting one: Josh Hodgson of England. Old mate who ran through the (soon-to-be-demolished-anyway) door in the Kiwi students’ digs. Captain of Hull KR, played for England. With apologies to messrs Woolford and Tongue, the Raiders haven’t had a dominant rake since Steve Walters. The standard of Poms in the NRL is getting better. Hodgson, 25, has looked pretty good. Another England international coming next year, Elliott Whitehead, is described by one Super League pundit as “a big, strong, wide-running back-rower with good hands. Put him on the opposite side of the field to big Sia Soliola and listen to the sweet music.”
Outside backs? Edrick Lee and Sisa Waqa will score leaping tries. Last season Canberra’s back three were smaller men. Now they’re oxen who can cart the pill out of danger. As can Josh Papalii, a fit little brute, a Bond henchman. He’s a belter, Papalii. As is Shaun “Fringe Origin” Fensom. His $1.90 betting line for tackles is 44.5 per game. Man’s a machine, a Dallas Johnson, a Gary Coyne.
The rest of the forward pack is typically monstrous: David Shillington, Shannon Boyd, Paul Vaughan, Jarrad Kennedy. Big humans. Girth and height. They’re like a squad of bouncers.
So, this is the team that Ricky’s built. And they look okay without being the ’56 Dragons. And unless they can “Do a Penrith” and shock the rugby league world, they’re probably a season or two from being a Top-4 force in this National Rugby League. Their kids are good, perhaps very good, and will improve playing alongside senior men in a strong culture. But they’re still two superstars from the top.
“We’ll be very disappointed if we don’t make the eight,” says Furner. “We’ve been written off for 15 years. We’ve missed the eight about half the time. We’re tipped every year for bottom three. It doesn’t worry us that the bookies’ money doesn’t come for us. It’s better, it’s a driving force to earn respect.”
It’s all Stuart wants.
“He’s a passionate person,” says Fensom. “He was a passionate player and he’s a passionate coach. He’s huge on doing things for your mates. He gets behind all the boys, 100 per cent behind the team. He’s big on mateship; going out and performing for your mate. And that’s the culture we want to bring to Canberra; doing your best for your mate, and each other.
“As a player he was a tactical genius. And he brings that to coaching.
"He’s a very smart man.”