Rugby League

Saturday Serve

Canberra Raiders must hold nerve and say no too

Will the Canberra Raiders be able to say no too?

That's the next challenge facing coach Ricky Stuart and his recruitment staff as they look to rebuild the Raiders roster into a premiership contender.

Because while there's been more rejections at the Raiders in the past week than in a full series of television dating show The Bachelor, the Raiders need to be more careful than ever about who they give their roses to, so to speak, and try to recruit next.

In the past fortnight, Melbourne's Kevin Proctor and Penrith's Josh Mansour have turned down big offers from the Raiders to remain at their clubs. Bulldogs hooker Michael Ennis also appears certain to ignore Canberra's advances, likely to sign with the Cronulla Sharks.

The worst was to come, when Wests Tigers fullback James Tedesco reneged on a three-year $1.9 million agreement with Canberra. It was reportedly $150,000-a-season more than he will receive to stay at the Tigers,

The Raiders are not only angry about the Tedesco fiasco because it leaves them without a replacement fullback for outgoing star Anthony Milford and it has sent their recruitment process back to square one, but Tedesco's backflip has publicly embarrassed and damaged them.


It has added to a stigma that NRL players simply don't want to live and play in Canberra.

So Canberra is labelled boring, too cold, lacking corporate support, no free-to-air television exposure and coached by a man who's lost his lustre and winning edge. It is not only too far from the nearest beach haven, but painted in the media as the NRL's last resort.

Raiders administration must partly blame itself for this poor external perception of Canberra. It has used many of these same excuses over the past decade in what has become an almost defeatist attitude to recruiting marquee players.

Stuart rubbishes claims players won't come: the first question the Raiders ask of any potential recruit is 'do you want to live in Canberra?'

Fail to tick that box, there's no point proceeding to question two.

In fact, Stuart refrained from flying to Melbourne to meet Proctor early in negotiations when the Sydney Roosters, St George Illawarra Dragons and Storm were all interested in the Kiwi international. First, he needed to be convinced Proctor was genuine about moving to Canberra and not just bumping up his market-value.

So Proctor came to Canberra, toured facilities, had brunch at Kingston's trendy Me & Mrs Jones cafe with Raiders officials, before Stuart then flew to Melbourne to seal the deal.

Proctor shook Stuart's hand and said he'd be coming in 2015. The next day, as the Raiders were preparing the media release to announce the signing, Proctor had a change of heart too and said he was choosing "happiness over money" by staying in Melbourne.

So right now it leaves the Raiders looking like the NRL's most desperate and dateless, with a bucketload of cash and no one willing to take it.

But you can be sure there are plenty of other NRL players (and their managers) lining up to get a piece of the action in Canberra. For every player that has said no to the Raiders, there would be multiple more Canberra has already rejected.

Herein lies the challenge: will the Raiders hold their nerve and continue to say no? Or will the player resumes they tossed in the bin last week, be dragged out and given a second glance?

Stuart insists he won't panic and whether his strategy is right or wrong, at least he made his intentions clear when he said this week "we will continue to push forward with an aggressive recruitment program".

The Raiders are at a crossroads in their recruitment strategy. In recent weeks they have performed a backflip of its own.

For years the Raiders have prided themselves as a junior development club. But frustrated by a lack of support for junior concessions in the NRL's salary cap, the Raiders threatened to cut back investment in junior development and focus their finances on poaching established players from NRL rivals.

The past few weeks reveal how fraught that plan can be. Chasing established stars should be a consistent goal, but not at the exclusion of strong junior development.

It's understandable Raiders fans are frustrated, it's been 20 years since the last premiership and there's no genuine signs of a next.

But if Raiders fans can take heart from the failed recruitment drive to date, it's that the Raiders haven't been targeting reserve grade fodder. The Raiders don't need a lot of players, just a couple of really good ones.

Proctor represents New Zealand and, at 25, is nearing his prime. Ennis is a State of Origin hooker, while Mansour is on the cusp of Blues selection. Tedesco is rated one of the game's great prospects.

The Raiders showed interest in English prop James Graham and Manly back-rower Glenn Stewart too, but pursued neither of them vigorously beyond preliminary talks.

The Raiders are pursuing quality and that's tough to attract.

They also recognise they may have to pay over market-value for a marquee man. But that could pay off if it's the right player.  

We'll probably never know how much of a sliding doors moment it was when Proctor changed his mind about coming to Canberra.

Had he signed, would it have tempted Mansour to come too? Would Tedesco have followed through with his agreement? Would those signings have caused Ennis to reconsider his position to remain in Sydney, seeing a strong and youthful squad being assembled in the nation's capital.

One yes could make a big difference.