The Canberra Raiders signed Coach Ricky Stuart to an extension on Wednesday, increasing his time at the helm of the side until the end of 2018. Combined with the extensions of much of the squad within this timeframe, the Raiders are effectively pushing all their chips into the middle of the table. There is a limited window for success. This side must succeed with Stuart the helm. There is no alternative.
The case for extending Stuart’s time at the Raiders is straightforward. The Raiders were an average side going nowhere when he took over. Since then Stuart has effectively identified weak spots in the roster and set about remedying these. Old forwards were moved on. The spine was rejuvenated, with Josh McCrone, Terry Campese and Mitch Cornish shown the door. In their place Blake Austin, Josh Hodgson and newcomer Aiden Sezer provide the Raiders two things the halves have lacked since the 90s: talent and youth.
The Raiders squad is as talented as it has been in years. Jack Wighton has finally found a home at the back. Jarrod Croker has proven himself not only an elite centre but a promising leader. The forward pack already has elite level talent like Paul Vaughan, Shannon Boyd and Shaun Fensom. Stuart has also brought in Sia Soliola, who has been as exemplary on the left as Josh Papali has been rampaging on the right. The roster has been filled out with high upside young talents like BJ Leilua, Edrick Lee, and Elliot Whitehead, and good squad-men like Jordan Rapana and Jarryd Kennedy.
Combine this talent glut with the fact that the Raiders have a very friendly draw for 2016 and you can see the logic in extending Stuart. Raiders take their new talent and their easy draw and march their way to the top 6. The Raiders look like geniuses for locking up the man who put it all together until 2018, taking spoon-favourite to a perennial contender for years to come.
The above is an optimists view of the situation. Blake Austin is still learning to be a half. Aiden Sezer might just be an expensive Sam Williams. It isn’t clear the forward pack has the depth or the consistency to compete against the elite groups in the competition. The defence. Seriously.
This extension is effectively rewarding Stuart for luck and what might be. Sezer, Austin and Hodgson could have easily been Tedesco, Proctor and Ennis, tying up cap space in easily replaceable positions. Wighton could still be struggling to become a half, and Sia Soliola could have ended up like Frank-Paul Nuuasala – an aged, lumbering mistake. Anthony Milford might be an overpaid halfback unable to organise the side. Stuart has adjusted well to his mistakes, but those errors have been real. He is far from perfect.
Signing Stuart to this deal takes on two risks that could have been avoided.
Firstly, what happens if the Raiders aren’t good enough? The logic of extending Stuart only works if there is surety the Raiders will excel. Another mediocre season would dampen the already miniscule demand for Stuart’s services outside Canberra. The Raiders have in effect outbid themselves for his services.
More importantly, what if Stuart proves true to form and finds it impossible to develop the talented young roster he has? Stuart’s success as a coach has been when given the finished product. Turning potential into reality has never been his strong point. Locking Stuart to this roster means that the Raiders have no option to adjust if he is incapable of getting this squad to reach its potential. This side would just wither, slowly, until 2019, by which time the unique batch of talent would have moved on.
The decision to move early to lock Stuart up means the Raiders are all in with him. His extension was an unnecessary risk. Let’s hope that risk is not realised.
 And our position is that he is elite. And only 25!
 Our hot tip for Origin in 2016.
 Always a but.