Rugby League

Canberra Raiders 2016 NRL preview: That's the way they all became Ricky's Bunch

'Here's the story, of a Raiders legend, who was reviving a non-finals team. The Green Machine, needed re-tooling, so 'Stick' rebuilt it brick by brick'

Ricky Stuart has now got 'his' squad at the Raiders. And with it comes the pressure to make the finals.
Ricky Stuart has now got 'his' squad at the Raiders. And with it comes the pressure to make the finals. Photo: Jay Cronan

It's a week before Christmas and the Canberra Raiders have unveiled Ricky Stuart as their coach until the end of the 2018 season.

Predictably, the critics couldn't question his two-year extension quick enough.

"Why not wait until a few weeks into the season and see how the team's performing?" they bleated, pointing out the Raiders hadn't made finals in his first two years in charge.

That opinion is understandable, but the cavalcade of key player re-signings that followed proved it to be the right move.

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Would Jack Wighton, Josh Papalii, Shannon Boyd, Blake Austin and Josh Hodgson have re-signed until 2018 had they not had certainty who would be coach?

Would Josh Hodgson have re-signed with the Raiders without Ricky Stuart's long-term future being secured?

Would Josh Hodgson have re-signed with the Raiders without Ricky Stuart's long-term future being secured? Photo: Rohan Thomson

It's highly unlikely but much like the 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch where two families blended together as one, this is now Ricky's Bunch.

Whether it was players who weren't required by other clubs (Blake Austin, Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Joey Leilua, Adam Clydsdale), Super League players looking for a second chance (Sam Williams, Sia Soliola, Jeff Lima), classy Poms (Josh Hodgson, Elliott Whitehead) or a Titan looking for a fresh start (Aidan Sezer), Stuart has been given time to mould a team to his liking.

But now he has the team he wants, 2016 is when it's time to hit the "go" button.

Stuart's former halves partner at the Raiders, Laurie Daley, says it's easily the best roster Stuart has enjoyed since taking over, and anything less than finals would be a disappointment.

"I think most people would agree it's the strongest squad he's had and that gives everyone plenty of optimism," Daley said.

"If they can make sure their home record, which was always a strength of ours, is a lot better than last year, they should be making the eight.

"In my opinion, they're a top-eight team and if they play well, they will play in the finals. Top eight is where they should be and when they get there, anything can happen. They'll be better as the year goes on, given they've got different combinations and different players."

'Here's the story of a bearded playmaker, who was shown the door at Concord. Til the one day Canberra came calling, that's when he joined Ricky's Bunch'

Even Blake Austin couldn't have predicted the impact he'd have in his first year at the Raiders. Having filled a number of positions at the Tigers, the fact Stuart told him from the start he'd be his No.6 was the selling point that got him to drive down the Hume Highway.

His running game netted him a club-best 14 tries last year, and he will start the season with Aidan Sezer in the halves.

Blake Austin has been the key figure in Ricky Stuart's rebuilding of the Raiders.

Blake Austin has been the key figure in Ricky Stuart's rebuilding of the Raiders. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Austin's off-the-cuff brilliance and Sezer's stability and kicking game look the perfect foils, but Daley warns they can't afford to go through the motions with Sam Williams ready to pounce.

"Sometimes it takes a while [to form a combination], but Sam Williams, I like him as well," he said. "Those two shouldn't be complacent because Sam's a good young player and is about to come into his best footy.

"They've got some depth there, so I wouldn't be saying those two are the halves. They've got three good halves and whoever plays will need to be on their toes every week as there'll be someone breathing down their neck."

'Here's the story, of a crafty Pommy, who was plodding away in Super League. Til the one day the Raiders gambled, That's when he joined Ricky's Bunch'

England hooker Josh Hodgson's recent re-signing means Canberra's "spine" - fullback Wighton, halfback Sezer, five-eighths Austin and Hodgson - will be part of Ricky's Bunch until 2018. It's a prospect that excites Austin no end.

"Jack is another year ahead as a fullback, Hodgso has a year [in the NRL] under his belt and last year was my first full season [at five-eighth], too," Austin said.

"For us all to develop as players together and help each other along the journey will be something special.

"It's not hard to see we've all got a lot of respect for 'Sticky' and can see where he wants to go as a team. We can really get on board and be a part of it."

Daley likes what he sees from Sezer, who forged a relationship with Stuart when he chose him in a NSW Emerging Blues squad.

NSW coach Laurie Daley likes what he sees in Aidan Sezer.

NSW coach Laurie Daley likes what he sees in Aidan Sezer. Photo: Phil Blatch (Central Western Daily)

"I think he's got a nice kicking game and selection of pass, it looks as though his decision making is good and all halves need to be good decision makers under pressure," he said.

Asked last week whether the re-signings felt like he had the backing of the players, Stuart said: "That's for other people to make an opinion on.

"We've got a plan and we're sticking to that, it's important we get the club back to a very competitive football team and we want to be winning games of footy," he said.

As for the fact Canberra is rated as one of the likely big improvers in 2016?

"I don't listen to a lot of public opinion. I think you know me well enough to know there's no lid to keep on anything, because we haven't done anything. We've had one trial match and we're getting ready to go now for round one."

Anything less than a finals berth would be deemed a failure by the Raiders in 2016.

Anything less than a finals berth would be deemed a failure by the Raiders in 2016. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Stuart knows he should expect more from his squad this year. He said as much when he re-signed.

"Everyone keeps telling me I've got my squad now. If we can make the same jump [as last two seasons] it would be lovely, we'd be in the top six," he said.

"I'm not afraid or shy of making goals and sharing them, especially when you know you've got the playing group. We've got a very good playing group now and we've got to make the eight to have any show of being as successful as we want to."

'The Ricky Bunch, the Ricky Bunch, that's the way they became Ricky's Bunch'