If the Raiders can end their 25-year premiership drought and qualify for next year’s World Club Challenge, it will guarantee the biggest international club fixture since the Broncos hosted Wigan before a crowd of 54,220 in 1994.
With four English players in the Canberra line-up currently entrenched in the NRL top 4 and Wigan halfback George Williams joining them next season, Britain’s Sky TV has begun broadcasting Raiders matches on a regular basis.
While Sky has not committed to offering every Raiders game to its 10 million subscribers, the Green Machine’s success with a side boasting Josh Hodgson, Elliott Whitehead, John Bateman and Ryan Sutton has made the Raiders a drawcard for English viewers.
Most Canberra games have been broadcast live on Saturday or Sunday mornings in Britain, which are the most popular time slots for NRL matches on Sky, and the focus on recruiting English players is paying off in ways the Raiders hadn’t considered.
The addition of Bateman and Sutton has added steel to a Canberra side which has struggled defensively in recent seasons and regularly lost close games, with Ricky Stuart’s men now second only to Melbourne for the least amount of points conceded.
Off the field, there are also opportunities to attract new sponsors and increase their appeal to international companies such as Huawei – Canberra’s major sponsor - due to the wider exposure the club is gaining through its English contingent of players.
Already popular in England because of Mal Meninga, who starred for Australia on a record four Kangaroo tours and led St Helens to premiership success in 1985, there would be strong interest if the Raiders were to play a game against a Super League team.
If Canberra didn’t go to England, Wigan has previously shown their interest in playing matches in Australia after last year negotiating a deal with Tourism NSW and Destination Wollongong to play a Super League fixture against Hull FC at WIN Stadium and a clash with South Sydney at ANZ Stadium.
The Wigan Connection
Bateman and Sutton were lured to the Raiders after hearing Stuart’s passion and vision for the club during a meeting at a Marulan truck stop while in Wollongong for the historic Super League match.
Williams also plays for Wigan and the England halfback will join them in Canberra next season after the Raiders agreed to a transfer fee to secure his release.
Hodgson, Whitehead, Bateman and Williams are all members of Wayne Bennett’s England team but Sutton was a lesser known prop who Raiders recruitment and high performance director Peter Mulholland first spotted playing for Wigan’s academy side.
Mulholland travels to England each year for Super League’s Magic Round and he has remained in regular contact with Sutton, who has the same manager as Bateman and Whitehead.
“Ryan Sutton wanted to come to Australia for all the right reasons,” Mulholland said. “He refused to go full-time early in his career with Wigan because he wanted to finish his electrical apprenticeship, which is amazing.
“After that he said he had a two-year deal on the table with Wigan he wanted to honour and then we would talk. He is just a good old-fashioned English prop. I am not saying he is going to be as good as Dick Huddart or Cliff Watson but he just had that toughness about him.”
When the Raiders first joined the premiership in 1982, the club recruited heavily from Queensland and had great success, with Meninga, Gary Belcher, Steve Walters and Gary Coyne playing in Canberra’s 1989 and 1990 premiership winning teams.
Kevin Walters, Peter Jackson and Sam Backo played alongside the quartet in the club’s 1987 grand final team.
After the introduction of the Broncos in 1988, Canberra coach Tim Sheens turned his attention to New Zealand and Ruben Wiki, Quentin Pongia and John Lomax helped the club to the 1994 premiership. Brent Todd and Sean Hoppe also
However, luring the best talent across the Tasman became harder after the Warriors joined the competition in 1995 and after James Tedesco and Kevin Proctor reneged on deals with Canberra, Stuart decided to turn his focus to England.
Hodgson joined the Raiders in 2015 and Whitehead followed a year later.
“We have had to look elsewhere and that seems to be working really well,” Canberra CEO Don Furner said.
“They fit in really well here. Whilst we do have cold weather and we are not Sydney, we do have other benefits.
“I know Mal didn’t want to live in Sydney, that was probably the same for a lot of the Kiwis and I know the Englishmen really enjoy it here.”
After finishing 10th in 2017 and 2018, the Raiders are on track for a top four finish this season and are just two points behind second-placed South Sydney on 24 competition points with Sydney Roosters.
The key to the turnaround is an improved defence and stronger mental attitude that has helped the team win close matches they were losing in the previous two seasons.
Bateman and Sutton helped Wigan to the grand final glory against Warrington last season and Stuart’s decision to target English players with winning habits is paying dividends as the Raiders have lost just one match by four or less points this season, compared to seven last year and six in 2017.
The Raiders had the second best attack in the NRL last season but the fifth worst defence, whereas only Melbourne has conceded less points so far this season.
Captain Jarrod Croker revealed that the team had played practice games during the pre-season where they were either a man short, as occurred when centre Nick Cotric was sent off two weeks ago, or had to defend a lead against fresh opposition.
“We had been losing close games and losing tight ones over the past couple of years so we trained under pressure during the pre-season,” Croker said.
“We’d be put into situations under fatigue where we had 12 men or the score was 12-12. It would be an opposed session after a conditioning drill when you are absolutely gassed and you have got to concentrate and work with the blokes inside and outside you.”