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Inside the revolution: 1-17 secrets of Ricky's signings

Canberra's grand final return has been 25 years in the making.

The roster rebuild that's got them there - just as much work, with helping hands from CEO Don Furner, his brother and former coach David, recruitment staff, assistant coaches and scouts from all over.

At its helm has been coach Ricky Stuart, who has brought a first grade squad together from England, reserve grade, rival clubs and Canberra's famed rural nurseries.

And right there with him for the past three years has been veteran talent scout Peter Mulholland, who has seen everything from schoolboy footy to Super League and several inner sanctums over 40 years in the game.

As Canberra's recruitment chief, Mulholland talks through the bargain buys, backflips, signing stoushes and twists and turns that have propelled the Raiders to within 80 minutes of a cherished NRL premiership.

The cogs in the Green Machine

1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad

Raiders assistant Andrew McFadden sounded out Nicoll-Klokstad on a Tuesday late in the pre-season, within a week the Warriors had released him and Canberra's new No.1 was training in the ACT by Saturday. He was a five-eighth in Melbourne's junior systems before Cameron Munster turned up, pushing the Kiwi to fullback as the pair shared positions.

Mulholland: "His first deal with us was $105,000 salary which we've obviously upgraded since, but when he plays every game except the last round against the Warriors - it works out as one of the bargains of the year doesn't it?"

Raiders fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.
Raiders fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

2. Nick Cotric

Long touted for higher honours as a representative junior star, Cotric played 21 games for the club's under-20s while still 17. Stuart was prepared to bring him on slowly but by February 2017 realised he had a first-grader on his hands, and he has only missed five games (three through suspension) since.

Mulholland: "He's got another year contracted with us and I'd say talks will start about extending him after the grand final."

3. Jarrod Croker

Lime green courses through this Goulburn kid's veins, with a debut at age 18, club captaincy at 24, and every Raiders record, and a few NRL ones too, set to be his by the time he wraps up.

Mulholland: "He knocked back a lot of rival interest to stay with Canberra when he was young and in that first 2008 under 20s team.

"I was at Canterbury at the time and I looked at him very heavily, there was definitely interest there but Canberra were never going to let him go. And as soon as you talked to him, you realised he didn't want to go anywhere else."

Canberra Raiders recruitment chief Peter Mulholland.
Canberra Raiders recruitment chief Peter Mulholland. ©

4. Joey Leilua

A Ricky Stuart favourite, even if "we always have our fun little chats" according to Leilua. Picked up when he was overweight and feeling under-appreciated at Newcastle midway through 2015, Stuart gave Leilua a cuddle and cracked the whip in equal measure.

Mulholland: "Within a year he had won Dally M Centre of the Year and vindicated Ricky's faith in him."

5. Jordan Rapana

Having completed a Mormon mission and had a crack at Super Rugby, he lobbed on Canberra's radar in late 2014 after cutting hair and bartending to help pay the bills. He only got his initial incentive-based Raiders deal and a first grade crack with NRL permission because the club had already exhausted its second-tier salary cap.

Mulholland: "Dave Hamilton (ex-Raiders recruitment manager) was the one that saw him down at (local rugby club) Tuggeranong Vikings and got him across to the Raiders and it's just gone from there.

"It certainly wasn't a big contract that one and he's another that's well and truly proven his value."

Wighton reflects on whirlwind 12 months

6. Jack Wighton

Another Raider through and through, and is closing in on a decade in lime green despite only turning 26 at the start of the year. It could've been a different story from the start as Mulholland reveals, not to mention last year when Wighton feared he would be shown the door over assault charges in Canberra's CBD.

Mulholland: "Jack's always been destined for first grade but he did trial with a few other teams first before Canberra locked him in at 15 or 16.

"Since then, though, Ricky and Don have been fantastic standing by him and helping him develop and mature into the player and person he is now."

7. Aidan Sezer

When Daly Cherry-Evans initially signed that Titans deal in 2015, Sezer in turn inked a Canberra contract ahead of interest from Manly, who were warm to the idea of a straight swap. No such luck for the Gold Coast when DCE stayed in maroon and white. Sezer has been linked to a return to his junior club the Bulldogs more than once. Turns out it was Mulholland that sent him north in the first place.

Mulholland: "I let him go from Canterbury as a kid, I couldn't fit him into the 20s so he went up to the Titans when he grew out of the 20s competition.

"Ricky then sorted that one out with the Titans and Aidan started in 2016."

Papalii stands tall in the moment of need again

8. Josh Papalii

One of the first to come through Canberra's Souths Logans feeder system along with Anthony Milford. Like Milford, Papalii had the chance to leave Canberra in 2013 when Stuart enticed him to the Eels, only for Papalii to renege under the old round 13 rule. Papalii reckons there was no bad blood when Stuart wound up coaching him nine months later, though he did get flogged ragged for the entire pre-season.

Mulholland: "He's probably one of the best props I've seen in the game, the metres he makes, the minutes he plays and the profound effect he has on a game, he's doing it week-in, week-out now and there's not many props that can do what he does.

"Again I was at Canterbury and I was tipped into him when he was 16, but to be honest with you I didn't think he would grow tall enough to go through and make it."

Hodgson saves a certain try

9. Josh Hodgson

The most influential player in Stuart's side first landed on the coach's radar when he was at the Eels, only for Hodgson to stay put at Hull KR. A year later Hodgson had knocked back interest from the Roosters to verbally commit with the Rovers on a four-year deal, only for Stuart to come back with a Raiders offer. A heart-to-heart with Hull chairman Neil Hudgell eventually had Hodgson on his way with the Super League club's blessing.

Mulholland: "Nathan Brown gave him a big wrap and Sticky then went and did his own research on him and decided this was the dummy-half he wanted.

"There's similarities there with how old Boxhead (Raiders champion No.9 Steve Walters) used to play with Sticky and I think that was the attraction initially."

10. Sia Soliola

Stuart gave Soliola his NRL debut when they were at the Roosters in 2005. The relationship started with a tip to Stuart and Tricolours legend Arthur Beetson, who signed him within a day of watching Soliola in Penrith's lower grades. When the veteran forward looked to come home from Super League, he only had eyes for Stuart. And after hearing another glowing endorsement from Brown, the pair were reunited again.

Mulholland: "Every coach he's ever had will tell you the value Sia brings on and off the paddock. Off the field his value is priceless because you just won't meet a better clubman or figure in the community."

Canberra Raiders back-rower John Bateman celebrates.
Canberra Raiders back-rower John Bateman celebrates. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

11. John Bateman

It took a while and a lot of haggling over his transfer fee, but Bateman was secured for Canberra midway through last year with an agreement that, should he return to Super League, it will be at Wigan under the marquee player allowance. Along with fellow Englishman Ryan Sutton, Bateman first met Stuart at a truck stop in Marulan, the pair impressing each other over "the greasiest hamburgers you'll ever find".

Mulholland: "I spoke to John two years ago at St Helens v Wigan, John was injured and didn't play.

"I asked if he was interested in coming to Australia, knowing full well he knew Elliot (Whitehead) very well and would go to him to talk about Sticky and Canberra."

12. Elliot Whitehead

Followed Hodgson out in 2016 and has been a fixture at the club ever since, with his old Bradford coach Mick Potter talking him up to anyone who would listen as Whitehead explored his NRL options, Stuart and Mulholland included.

Mulholland: "A couple of clubs were looking at him, I certainly was when I was at the Dragons in 2014. Ricky had done his research though and chased him hard, now there's talk of permanent residency and he's re-signed until 2022."

Joseph Tapine and the Raiders celebrate a try.
Joseph Tapine and the Raiders celebrate a try. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

13. Joe Tapine

Stuart's raid on the Knights in 2016 put all sorts of noses out of joint, though then-incoming Newcastle coach Nathan Brown conceded Tapine couldn't ignore the multimillion-dollar deal Canberra were throwing at him. Mulholland had just made the same move from Newcastle to the ATC, having originally signed the Kiwi schoolboy to the Hunter club. So his memory of the ugly turf war that saw Tapine threatened with a year in reserve grade before he was released? "Ricky knew what he was doing."

Mulholland: "I signed him out of Wellington at 17 for the Knights. I actually went over to watch (current Cronulla prop) Braden Hamlen-Uele, but he dislocated his shoulder in the warm-up so I never got to see him.

"But (former Raiders forward) David Lomax recommended Tapine, so I watched him and came home with his signature instead."

Charnze: Defence won the game

14. Bailey Simonsson

The son of former Norths forward Paul Simonsson, a little over a year ago Bailey had finished up in the All Blacks rugby sevens program and was working construction. Now he's about to play in an NRL decider.

Mulholland: "In nine months he's gone from train and trial to a development deal, into the top 30, then he's played every game since and earned a new deal.

"We gave him $1000 a week, for 16 weeks, and then it's been extended and he just keeps impressing."

15. Emre Guler

The club's rookie of the year in 2018 still has to explain rugby league to extended family back in Turkey, which will make for some interesting calls should Canberra go all the way on Sunday night. Landed in the Raiders 20s via South Sydney.

Mulholland: "He came out of Souths, he was always one of the better kids in the junior comps, Harold Matts and that so we had him come down after South Sydney's SG Ball season a few years ago. He played 20s for us and he's gone back to reserve grade this year and played like a first grader, that's the really impressive thing."

Raiders forward Emre Guler.
Raiders forward Emre Guler. ©Keegan Carroll/NRL Photos

16. Corey Horsburgh

From Caboolture to Canberra, and debuting to a grand final in one season, Horsburgh has come a long way from being stood down more than once over discipline issues with North Queensland. Re-signed long-term in July.

Mulholland: "The Cowboys didn't want him and we'd been watching him for a while.

"Warren Ryan used to always have a saying when watching the lower grades, 'you want the player that's always on your screen'. Corey Horsburgh never leaves the screen, he's in every play, and you can't miss the red hair either."

17. Dunamis Lui

Has found a home in the nation's capital and will be there until the end of 2021 with his latest extension after stints with Brisbane, Manly and the Dragons. Went three years without a run-on start between 2015 and 2018 due to ACL and Achilles surgeries but hasn't missed a game in the last two years.

Mulholland: "I signed him at St George Illawarra. He's been through good systems at Brisbane first and played in the state sides.

"Unfortunately he did his knee at Manly and wasn't offered a contract so I thought he'd be a great squad player at the Dragons. I told Ricky he's a handy depth player and he's proven to be more than that since he's been at Canberra."

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Acknowledgement of Country

Canberra Raiders respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.