This is the best Canberra Raiders team I have seen for a long, long time.
I’m not sure if they can repeat what that fabulous 1994 side achieved 25 years ago but I look at them and they are playing the way their coach Ricky Stuart did himself, with a lot of skill and an ultra-competitive edge.
I see some of that Raiders magic of the 1990s in this side. In the passion they are playing with, spread right across the team.
That 1994 team was unstoppable and I think the coach has instilled that self-belief in this team. Individually, they all believe they can do the job.
The Raiders have sometimes struggled in recent years to attract players and Ricky took a calculated punt by going after a group of Englishmen, who have made a huge impact.
Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead have been there for a while but Ricky liked the look of what John Bateman and Ryan Sutton were doing at Wigan and has brought them into the pack.
Ricky has looked outside the usual box and it is paying dividends.
Bateman is a guy I am sure his teammates love to play alongside. He’s strong, competes like a terrier and has real impact and game smarts. He has been one of the best forwards in the Telstra Premiership.
Hodgson is the Raiders’ version of Cameron Smith. He controls the game out of dummy-half and takes the pressure off the halves with his smart kicking game, both long and short.
Ricky is getting the best out of Josh Papalii at prop. Ricky dropped him last year and that was a wake-up call for Josh but he responded really well and was a standout for Queensland in game three of the State of Origin series.
Having that quartert of Englishmen beside him is only going to make him realise he needs to lead that pack around.
Jack Wighton has made a great transition to the halves. He’s big for a five-eighth and he is skilled. I love the way he plays his footy.
He backs himself and plays with a lot of confidence. Ricky was one of the best halves we’ve seen so having him as a mentor will only help Wighton develop his game even further.
I am really impressed with their fullback, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. He’s not a player we knew much about before this year.
He’s quick, can find the try line as he showed against Newcastle, and he looks a solid player at the back. He’s another one of those Raiders who has jumped out of the box and the best is still yet to come from him.
Nick Cotric is a NSW Blues player in waiting and has real strength. The centres Jarrod Croker and Joey Leilua have been consistent. I have always been a fan of Croker. He is a club legend. He leads the team so well. He’s probably the complete centre.
Leilua is tough as nails and has had to learn to contain some of his extravagance. He’d done that really well and has come through that period where he thought he had to be an enforcer. Now he just does his job, and he still does it with flair.
In the 1990s it was always the Raiders that were the Broncos’ toughest game. In 1994 we got knocked out by North Sydney but Canberra went on to win it and a lot of their guys got picked in that Kangaroos tour which I was fortunate enough to be on.
That is where I played alongside Ricky Stuart. He played with a lot of passion back then and that is the way he coaches.
People ask me what Ricky is like because they see him on the sideline blowing up and letting off steam. I tell them he is one of the nicest blokes you could meet.
He is actually a funny man too. He does a great impersonation of Flipper the dolphin. It sounds a bit strange but he would have us in stitches on the team bus in 1994 with his take-off. Next time his players see him they should ask him to do it.
The Raiders look like a top-four team to me so long as Ricky can keep the group together. They won’t be as impacted by Origin as much as some other teams so they should be there or thereabouts deep into September.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.