2024 NRL: Ricky Stuart Reaches Coaching 500 Game Milestone

The transition from champion player to champion coach isn’t easy: lots of players struggle to make the switch to guiding former teammates/opponents as well as coping with the media scrutiny that comes with being head coach.

But former Canberra Raiders champion Ricky Stuart is one of the handful who’ve managed it: he’s set to coach his 500th NRL game against the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (appropriately a club he used to coach – taking them to a preliminary final) on Sunday afternoon at GIO Stadium. And that’s not including his time coaching NSW Origin (nine games for four wins) and the Kangaroos (11 Tests for 10 wins – the one loss coming in the 2008 World Cup Final, that controversially cost him his job).

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After retiring in 2000 due to injury (following an uneventful two-year run at Canterbury-Bankstown), Stuart jumped into coaching, winning the 2001 Jersey Flegg Premiership with the Bulldogs.

In 2002, he became head coach at the Roosters with immediate success, winning the 2002 NRL premiership: critics will palm this first premiership off as Ricky being blessed with a superstar Sydney Roosters side, but he made the most of it – taking them to two more grand finals (both losses) and a World Club Challenge title. Though the Roosters’ dips in 2005 and 2006 cost him his job.

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After leaving the Roosters, Stuart joined the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks in 2007. While he didn’t have the same success, he did take the Sharks to the 2008 preliminary final against Melbourne (up against former teammate – and one of his best mates – Craig Bellamy).

Then he moved to Parramatta in 2013, but it was a tumultuous time with the Eels winning only five games and finishing wooden spooners. A few days after the Eels’ nightmare season ended, Ricky announced he was coming back home to Canberra.

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Even the biggest critics will admit that Ricky Stuart is Canberra royalty, and almost untouchable at the club where he played over 200 games and won three premierships. It’s appropriate that Ricky’s coaching legacy is focused on the nation’s capital.

While it started slowly (missing the finals in 2014 and 2015) Ricky’s passion for not only the club but the city of Canberra was clear (he’s done so much off-field for the Canberra community and through the Ricky Stuart Foundation). Results would eventually come for a club that hadn’t made a preliminary final since 1997 (Super League).

With “boring old Canberra” unable to attract big names, Stuart focused on recruiting UK and New Zealand players: Josh Hodgson, Elliot Whitehead, Jordan, Rapana, and Joseph Tapine to name a handful. He also took a punt on fringe first graders like BJ Leilua and Blake Austin. It worked, as Canberra rode a 10-game winning streak in 2016 to finish second, playing some dynamic footy in the process. While they lost the qualifying final to the Sharks, they rebounded by beating Penrith to make the preliminary final, where they had an agonisingly close loss to Melbourne.

After two poor years in 2017/2018, Stuart again looked overseas for new faces: New Zealand’s Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, and Englishmen Ryan Sutton and John Bateman. Canberra was 6-5 after 11 rounds, then won nine games from 13 to seal a top four spot. They beat Melbourne in Melbourne (starting a five-game winning run that saw Raiders fans jokingly rename AAMI Park as ‘Canberra Rectangular Stadium’), and then beat South Sydney in the preliminary final – one of the most emotional nights at Bruce Stadium since the 1990s glory days. Of course, we all know the grand final result, but an inconsolable Ricky refused to blame the referees for THOSE incidents. Though delivering a drought-breaking premiership to Canberra would have solidified Ricky’s reputation as coach: it’s one thing to take the superstar Easts sides to three straight grand finals, it’s another to drag the unfashionable and inconsistent Raiders to a premiership after a 25-year wait.

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While the 2019 Grand Final seemed like the start of something for Canberra, it wasn’t to be: since then, the Raiders have only made one preliminary final (2020) before a much-needed cleanout in 2023.

Even the most green-eyed Raiders fan grew frustrated with Ricky during this period: some mind-boggling selections where he seemed to play favourites with certain players, taking too long to catch up with the faster ‘V’landysball’, and some grumpy and petulant press conferences. Ricky’s famous press conference demeanor came to a head after Canberra’s win over the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown in 2023. The Raiders nearly blew an 18-0 lead, so Ricky was understandably annoyed, but when his decision to rest Jarrod Croker (so he could play his 300th game in Canberra) was questioned, Ricky snapped: his went on a rant about, “These muppets who have been bagging me, they’re all the guys who’ll read the textbooks and talk about courageous leadership, game management and talk at corporate functions, but they can’t actually execute it.” The NRL clickbait media lapped up the fallout and even Raiders fans found it funny. Then there was the one-game suspension in 2022 after calling Jaemon Salmon a “weak gutted dog”.

Though Ricky seems to have calmed down in press conferences: he knows he’s a target for the ‘Sticky is a sook’ clickbait, and the social media commentators who love seeing him blow up so they can stick the boot in, so he’s careful with what he says most of the time. With Canberra in a rebuilding phase and bringing a lot of young/inexperienced guys into first grade (Ethan Strange, Chevy Stewart, Xavier Savage, Kaeo Weekes, Simi Sasagi, Morgan Smithies, Ata Mariota, Trey Mooney), Ricky is the wise and occasionally stubborn head that will bring them through and maybe give Ricky the premiership he deserves before he retires.

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