Saturday Serve

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Borrowing the words of Canberra coach Ricky Stuart, let's "cut to the chase and just be fair dinkum". The Raiders deserve – and could even benefit from finishing with – the NRL's wooden spoon.

The anti-doping investigation at Cronulla could let Canberra off the hook. The Raiders were rated bookies underdogs for Sunday's wooden spoon battle against the Sharks at Cronulla but that flipped on Friday morning when Sharks players accepted an offer from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority of a three-month doping ban that was too good to refuse.

Canberra are now favourites to beat Cronulla on Sunday and should do so.

But if the Raiders lose to a decimated Sharks outfit and go on to finish the season last, it would seem to highlight that things are worse at Canberra than first thought. And that could be exactly what the Raiders need.

The Raiders cannot consider finishing second last as any consolation for what has been a disappointing season. The last thing they need is people within their ranks thinking "phew, at least we didn't come stone motherless".

A whack with the wooden spoon, Canberra's first since their inaugural season in 1982, could have more effect.

Rather than the Band-Aid fixes we have seen over the past decade that have resulted in the Raiders fluctuating between finals and flops, it might force Canberra to finally develop and share with the fans its long-term vision. A plan. 

At the moment, frustrated Raiders fans are like children in the back seat of a car asking "are we there yet?".

But, after last weekend's loss to St George Illawarra, Stuart came across as the frustrated man in the driver's seat threatening to turn the car around.

Stuart urged patience and promised the Raiders "will be a force again" but there was no indication of when or how they might arrive at that destination.

Losing "two star players" last year, Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson, had put the Raiders "into this rut", Stuart said. But the over-simplistic solution was to replace them by recruiting more representative stars. Who? How? When? That wasn't discussed.

"We're in a position now where we've got to rebuild," Stuart said, his voice strained by a flu, as well as emotion. "Now every fan, every supporter, they can jam it into us and they can bag us for what it is, but until I get Origin players or internationals here around that group of blokes in there – I've got some brilliant young players coming through – it ain't going to change. That's my job. It's as simple as that."

Other teams have had excuses too this year. Newcastle has battled on after the Alex McKinnon injury and Nathan Tinkler's ownership collapse where players weren't getting paid. The Sharks have had the ASADA investigation. The Wests Tigers have had to cope with internal board splits and accusations of disunity between coach Mick Potter and his players.

We're told the harmony within Canberra's playing group has never been better but it hasn't carried on to the field. The squad hasn't delivered on its potential.

As the Raiders take on the Sharks in a wooden spoon play-off this weekend, it is worth reflecting on 2012, when the two teams played at a sold-out Canberra Stadium in the first week of the finals.

Go back even further, when the Raiders played the Sharks in the first week of the 2008 finals. That year, under the coaching of Neil Henry, the Raiders were a hotchpotch of players but finished the regular season as one of the NRL's hottest teams.

The Raiders were forced to sack their best player, halfback Todd Carney, mid-season for disciplinary reasons. They did so, knowing they had already released their back-up halfback Michael Dobson to the British Super League. A young rookie, Marc Herbert, was elevated to NRL but, when he went down with a season-ending injury, the team was patched together with utilities Alan Tongue and current hooker Glen Buttriss at halfback. Still they won.

The Raiders had lost their first-choice fullback, William Zillman, to a season-ending injury too. His replacement, Bronx Goodwin, was sacked along with Carney. The Raiders then relied on third-stringer David Milne.

Terry Campese was in the form of his career but it was a weak squad on paper, playing to its strengths.

It is too early to say whether Stuart can deliver on his promise to turn the Raiders into a force but he has a three-year contract and deserves at least that opportunity.

The Raiders could do worse than model themselves on the example set by Penrith these past three years.

When Phil Gould reunited with the Panthers as general manager in mid-2011, he was widely ridiculed for detailing a five-year plan to return the Mountain Men back to the summit of the NRL.

He punted then coach Matthew Elliott for Ivan Cleary. Penrith let go of the skipper, Australian prop Petero Civoniceva, then moved on representative centre Michael Jennings because he didn't fit their culture. The Panthers didn't stand in the way when another rep star and club stalwart, Luke Lewis, sought a new gig at Cronulla.

The following season, 2012, the Panthers finished 15th of 16 teams. The next year they jumped to 10th. 

Meanwhile. the Panthers launched an aggressive recruitment campaign for marquee men. They narrowly missed out on poaching Cowboys superstar Johnathan Thurston. They targeted Carney, too, who knocked them back.

Their recruitment strategy shifted. They looked at the next strata of player, those on the fringe of rep footy. Peter Wallace, Jamie Soward, Brett Kite, James Segeyaro and Jamal Idris have combined with Penrith's emerging juniors.

Going into this weekend's round, the Panthers were third on the NRL ladder in the third year of Gould's five-year plan.

Success has come at Penrith quicker than expected. But it's important to note that it hasn't come about as a quick fix. It was planned.