Canberra Raiders turnaround, Ricky Stuart, Jack Wighton, Mal Meninga, finals, top four, premiership, title drought


Raiders coach Ricky Stuart could barely believe it when Jack Wighton walked into his office and delivered the devastating news.

After 14 years at the club, Wighton was leaving to join the Rabbitohs in pursuit of an elusive premiership – the only trophy missing from his cabinet.

The 2020 Dally M Medal winner decided the one omission on his otherwise flawless resume couldn’t be achieved in Canberra.

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Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart with Jack Wighton. Picture. Phil HillyardSource: News Corp Australia


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Wighton, who rejected a new $4.4m deal from the Raiders, went agonisingly close to winning a grand final in 2019 when he was named the Clive Churchill Medal in a losing side.

He’s leaving for Souths in pursuit of a premiership but ironically it’s Canberra who currently closer to a title.

The Raiders and Rabbitohs respective seasons have gone in opposite directions since Wighton signed a four-year deal in April to play alongside his cousin Latrell Mitchell.

Canberra was 14th on the ladder with a 3-4 record when Wighton was wooed away following Round 7, while the Souths were sitting pretty in fourth.

Wighton’s bombshell departure would have been enough to derail a serious premiership contender, let alone a club whose pass mark was simply making the top eight – according to most pundits.

Instead, Stuart decided to turn a negative into a positive and used Wighton’s shock call to galvanise the Green Machine into making the most unlikely of premiership runs.

Canberra started to flourish in the wake of their best player announcing he was leaving and they now sit fourth heading into a Round 21 clash against the Warriors on Friday night.

South Sydney, who have lost five of their past seven games, face the high-flying Broncos on Friday night and will likely drop out of the top eight if they’re beaten.

Foxsports.com.au spoke to Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga who explained why he wasn’t surprised to see Stuart reinvigorate the Raiders following Wighton’s decision.

Meninga, who has a 76 per cent winning record as a representative coach and is one of Australian sport’s best communicators with players, said Stuart’s coaching ability is ageing like a fine wine.

“He’s getting older and wiser,” Meninga told foxsports.com.au.

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“They’ll have to do some rebuilding with Jack gone and there’s a few ageing players there but Ricky is the man to manage them into the future.

“He has become a better coach over the years, the way he manages himself and the way he manages his players (these days) has been really good.

“He demands everything out of them and he is Canberra when you talk about the Raiders.

“They’ve got their DNA, they’ve got their identity, they fight for everything and they’ve got character so they’re very competitive in what they do.

“He gets the best out of his players and he’s getting even better the way he communicates with people all the time. You walk around Canberra and everyone loves him and his passion for the club.”

Meninga won three premierships for Canberra alongside Stuart and the Raiders legend said his former teammate is the man to break the club’s 29-year premiership drought.

“He nearly did it in 2019, one missed tackle away, Joey Leilua went for the intercept I think,” Meninga said.

“He built that squad too, so we’ve got to remember that. He built that squad up to that crescendo so he knows how to get the best out of players and win premierships. He did it right at the beginning of his coaching career with the Roosters.

“To be involved for such a long time, nearly 20-odd years as coach, he’s definitely the man, he knows how to do it.”


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Meninga conceded it was impossible to replace Wighton but emphasised there’s plenty of rising talent at the club, with the Raiders on top of the table in the SG Ball Cup.

“They’re leading the comp in the under-19s and they’ve got some good young halves coming through, they’re not quite NRL but they will be,” he said.

“(Matthew) Timoko is a talent. They need to get the best out of (Nick) Cotric.

“But you also need experience. You’ve got Paps (Josh Papalii) and Elliott (Whitehead). Then to get experience around those younger outside backs like Harley Smith-Shields, it’s worth re-signing (Jarrod) Croker.”

The Raiders have historically struggled to bring top-line talent to Canberra but Meninga said Stuart is one of the club’s biggest recruiting tools.

However, the Green Machine great added their recruitment approach needed tinkering and laid out his plan to strengthen the club’s roster long term.

“The country boy coming to the city is an attraction so they really need to work hard on areas like Wagga and in the regions,” Meninga said.

“Have a real focus on bringing through your local talent then you have wins in the community and more kids will play the game if they see there’s a pathway.

“There just needs to be a bit more of a focus on the local talent, that’s the Riverina as well and down the South Coast there’s a lot of young kids playing down there.

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“It’s a big area to work with, it will be a bit costly but if they really want to win premierships then they need to be able to invest in those areas.”

Meninga also wasn’t copping the “it’s too cold” excuse that dished out from Sydney and Queensland players.

“It’s only cold four months a year, it’s a great lifestyle, great for raising families, so it’s about finding the right type of character. Not everyone wants to live on the beaches,” he said.

“They just have to find that type of player that suits them and doesn’t care about sunshine and beaches and living by the water.

“They need another Wighton who loves fishing by the Murrumbidgee, there’s no other club in the game, except for maybe the Cowboys, that suits that country lifestyle.”

Stuart is the Raiders’ longest-serving coach after a decade at the club and Meninga believes when he eventually leaves it will be as part of a succession plan.

“I think it might be a case where he brings someone in like Wayne (Bennett) did a really good job with at the Rabbitohs, and now at the Dolphins,” he said.

“Craig (Bellamy) is doing his best to find that next coach (for the Storm), so I think the next rebuild might be like that too, it all depends on what Rick wants to do.

“It depends on Rick more than anyone else because he won’t let the club down, that’s the thing about him, he’ll make a decision based on what’s in the best interest for the club.”

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