Dally M Medal: Ricky Stuart, Jarrod Croker and Joey Leilua's pain eased with awards

Dally M Medal: Ricky Stuart, Jarrod Croker and Joey Leilua's pain eased with awards

Ricky Stuart declared "I just love being back home" after being recognised as the best coach in the NRL as the Canberra Raiders swept to a hat-trick of Dally M awards on Wednesday night.

Stuart beat grand final mentors Craig Bellamy and Shane Flanagan for the top coach's prize for engineering a remarkable transformation in Canberra after his Green Machine rose from 10th last year to a preliminary final this season.

The Raiders were knocked out of premiership contention by the Melbourne Storm last weekend, ending their campaign of dreams in heartbreak as they fell one game short of a grand final berth.

However, the Raiders' charge in 2016 resulted in their highest ladder finish since 1995, their first preliminary final in 19 years and the most points by any Canberra team.

Raiders captain Jarrod Croker was named the NRL's captain of the year.

Raiders captain Jarrod Croker was named the NRL's captain of the year.Credit:Getty Images

Stuart's top prize was added to by Jarrod Croker winning the captain of the year, the Provan-Summons fan choice award and highest point-scorer, as well as Joey Leilua being named as the centre in the team of the year.

Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson was beaten to the top prize, the Dally M Medal, as Melbourne halfback Cooper Cronk and North Queensland Cowboys enforcer Jason Taumalolo finished as joint winners.

Stuart would rather be preparing for a grand final, but when asked what Canberra had done for three-time Raiders premiership-winning halfback said: "I just love being back home."

"It's not just about one person, it's about a number of people. And most importantly, it's about the players. I've got a wonderful team and I love being their coach.

Ricky Stuart was named the NRL's coach of the year on Wednesday night.

Ricky Stuart was named the NRL's coach of the year on Wednesday night.Credit:Quinn Rooney

"...It was hard when I got back to [Canberra] because it was an unknown. But now there's a big change and the community are behind the boys."

Stuart and Croker have formed an impressive leadership team as part of a new era of players in Canberra.

But the partnership almost never happened when Stuart initially hesitated on his decision to give Croker the captaincy job in 2014.

Now they're recognised as the best coach and captain in the competition and the double success will help ease the pain of a preliminary final defeat.

Croker has spearheaded Canberra's best regular season since 1995, ended a 19-year preliminary final drought and is now the greatest points-scorer in Raiders history.

Croker's 296 points this year led to him passing David Furner's mark of 1218 career points and many are already tipping the 26-year-old to finish his career as the NRL's greatest points-scorer.

"Crokes always had the ability to handle first grade," said Furner, who was also Croker's first NRL coach.

"We put him back to the under-20s for a bit after his debut but when he came back up he has never looked back.

"I've always said he was a good level-headed kid ... a mature head on young shoulders.

"He could just mingle with older players and you could tell he was just a bit more mature than others. He's always been a good leader, everyone enjoyed his company."

Croker's bid for a Australian Kangaroos debut could be cruelled by injury as he fights to overcome a knee problem.

Leilua is also racing the clock to overcome a hamstring injury to earn a Kangaroos jersey. Leilua's season of redemption in Canberra has put him in the frame for Test duties and he was named centre of the year on Wednesday night.

Leilua was the only Raider in the NRL team of the year despite his devastating combination with winger Jordan Rapana and Hodgson's outstanding year as Canberra's rake.

But the man who pulled it all together, Stuart, beat a hot field of coaching candidates to earn a fitting reward for the Raiders' on-field revival.

Stuart stepped into the Raiders job at the end of 2013 and the club finished 15th and 10th, respectively, as he set about building a new culture and team.

The rapid improvement this year shocked everyone as the Raiders jumped to second on the ladder for their best end to a regular season since 1995 as well as winning 10 games in a row for the first time in Canberra's history and scoring more points than any other Green Machine team in the club's 35 seasons.

Stuart beat grand final coaches – Melbourne's Bellamy and Cronulla's Flanagan – to be named the best mentor in the game after a superb season that included 17 wins.

But he'd give it all back for a crack at the grand final on Sunday after the Raiders were beaten by the Storm in the preliminary final last weekend.


"The biggest lesson ... the experience and the journey the boys have created this year has exceeded everybody's expectations," Stuart said after losing to Melbourne.

"The hurt [after losing to Melbourne] is the start of a real competitive, strong era for the Canberra Raiders. We have to learn from this loss, not just throw it away."

Chris Dutton is the sports editor at The Canberra Times.

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