Raiders skipper Terry Campese and his long contract has thrown up a problem for the Canberra club. Photo: Rohan Thompson
Decisions have a way of coming back to haunt you in rugby league. In the case of the Canberra Raiders, it can sometimes seem like a recurring nightmare.
Like basing the colour of your jerseys on a lime green couch in your office? Like joining Super League? Like recruiting a busted Matt Orford on a three-year contract at the age of 32 … did anyone else just get a shiver up their spine?
Sacked Canberra junior Josh Dugan could well be the latest decision to haunt the Raiders when he returns to Canberra Stadium with the St George Illawarra Dragons for the first time on Saturday night.
That’s not to say the decision to sack Dugan after round 1 last year was wrong. I would have flicked him faster than he’d flipped the bird while drinking alcohol on a suburban rooftop, all while his teammates were training.
But in rugby league, like most arenas, success is dictated by such decisions. In the case of Dugan and Blake Ferguson last year, the Raiders decided that setting an example of discipline and culture was more important than retaining two supremely talented footballers.
The results have probably showed on the scoreboard over the past two years, because neither player has adequately been replaced on the field.
But in footy, you make decisions, stick to your convictions and own them.
Terry Campese is a decision the Raiders now need to own.
In 2009, the Raiders extended Campese’s contract by another five seasons, giving him an unprecedented six-year deal in the NRL.
Examine that deal more closely. Campese was a loyal Queanbeyan kid who grew up supporting the Raiders, debuted at 19, but only played 21 games of NRL in his first four years of top grade.
It was only another Raiders decision, to sack Todd Carney in 2008, that really catapulted Campese into the limelight at Canberra.
Campese assumed the playmaking, was in his prime, tore the opposition to shreds and led the Raiders on an end-of-season charge that carried him into the 2008 Australian World Cup squad.
The following year, picked more for Origin on the back of his dominant 2008 season, Campese signed his long deal on the eve of his one and only appearance for the NSW Blues.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but since the 2010 finals when he went down with his first knee injury, Campese has played only 44 matches in four seasons. Still, Campese has never given up.
So again the Raiders are again faced with tough decisions, Campese’s future is just one.
While other clubs have seemingly had a road map to success, the Raiders at times appear like they got their directions by rolling down the car window and asking the nearest passer-by. If they have a plan, they are reluctant to discuss it with transparency.
Since 2004, their only real consistency has been flip-flopping between finals and failures every second year.
This will be the first time in a decade the Raiders have failed to make the finals for two consecutive seasons. Worse than that, they are staring at the club’s first wooden spoon since its inaugural season in 1982.
Changes need to be made, and they certainly will be to the playing roster for 2015.
As protective as coach Ricky Stuart is of the Raiders administration that appointed him, led by chief executive Don Furner, Stuart does have some case to argue that he’s paying for some decisions of the past.
Stuart has barely used some of the top 25 NRL squad he inherited this year, trusting more in his own decisions to bring up junior players from his second tier – the likes of Shannon Boyd, Brenko Lee, and Jordan Rapana among them.
The Raiders have reluctantly lost young star Anthony Milford, but are likely to shed more. Sam Mataora has already been shopped to Newcastle, while former Australian representative Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Reece Robinson, Sami Sauiluma and Jake Foster are off contract and unlikely to be re-signed.
The Raiders have recruited Sisa Waqa, Iosia Soliola, Josh Hodgson from the English Super League while there is confidence Dragons forward Joel Thompson will return to Canberra next season, too.
Then there’s Campese. You sense Stuart has known the enormity of this decision for a long time. He has stuck by Campese this year, continuing to pick him when others called for him to be dropped.
When there were negotiations mid-season about whether Campese should be released to Hull FC in the Super League, the Raiders baulked. A big part of it was no doubt the size of the payout requested by Campese’s manager, but another must surely have been the uncertainty ahead.
What is the plan to replace Campese? Firstly as a playmaker. Secondly as a skipper.
Campese has said he will play whatever grade his form warrants, but if he’s to play NSW Cup then who steps up?
For all those anointing Mitch Cornish as a potential savior, the kid is 21 and the Raiders still consider the Junior Kangaroos half a bit of a project player. Jack Wighton is an incredible talent, but the poor kid looked spooked in the role earlier this season, much more comfortable when he returning as a running centre.
The Raiders started the season trying to turn their only other established halfback, Josh McCrone, into a hooker.
There is a leadership void to fill at the Raiders too. It seems almost untenable that Campese could retain his captaincy next year if he is to serve any time in NSW Cup. The current stand-in skipper, Brett White, is retiring.
A subplot to this story is that Stuart was once a Raiders player, too. He and champion Brad Clyde, two of the Raiders’ greatest ever, were cut by the Raiders in 1998, Stuart finishing his final two years at the Canterbury Bulldogs.
That decision took Stuart a long time to get over, it was 14 years before he could even walk into a Raiders change-room again.
Sometimes decisions in the game aren’t always black and white. A lot can come back to haunt you.