Fresh-faced … one of the Raiders’ up-and-comers, Dimitri Pelo.It hit Don Furner at the Dally M Awards. ”I was sitting and looking across at the Bulldogs table,” the Canberra chief executive said. ”They’ve signed up two internationals during the year, they got an international in James Graham at the start of the year. They get another international next year in Tony Williams.
”As far as I can remember, the only international we’ve ever brought in was Mal Meninga.”
Canberra have been in the big league since 1982. Yet sitting at the Bulldogs table were more imported Test stars at the time of their recruitment than in the entire history of the Green Machine.
So, how did the Raiders get to this point? How does a team that had no major sponsor for the opening seven weeks of the competition make it to the big dance? How does a club with a coach supposedly on borrowed time storm home to book a home final? How do you attract marquee players when, according to one official, you have to pay them overs of about 20 per cent to come to the nation’s capital?
Perhaps the last question is the easiest to answer. They don’t.
Granted their skipper, David Shillington, was poached from the Roosters. But he was only a bench player at Bondi and didn’t go on to represent his state or country until making the shift, leaving Big Mal as their only superstar who was bought rather than made.
Almost every player in the current squad is a local junior or comes from the country. About seven years ago a decision was made to develop players rather than purchase them. The Canberra lifestyle is a much harder sell than the Sydney one, which is why they stopped trying.
”We’re the non-latte set,” Furner said. ”I don’t think you’ll find Shaun Fensom or Jarrod Croker having a latte or worrying about the latest fashions. Our guys aren’t in the social pages and it doesn’t worry them.”
However, it hasn’t stopped the Raiders from being in the headlines. Two months ago, David Furner was gone. The affable coach, according to those supposedly in the know, was warming the seat for good mate Ricky Stuart. There was instability in the ”spine”, they were having more success on the road than at home and the wooden spoon loomed large. The club’s most important forward, Brett White, and key playmaker, Terry Campese, were watching the mess unfold from the casualty ward.
”Put it this way,” said Don Furner, the brother of David. ”If we had to go back halfway through the year and renew memberships then, a lot of them would have come back cut up.”
The easy thing to do would be to cut up the coach’s contract. After all, it’s rare for a man in Furner’s position to pull through. Just ask Stephen Kearney, Brian McClennan or Brian Smith.
But the board persisted with Furner, who is contracted until the end of 2014, and they have their reward. There is now a possibility he may re-sign rather than resign.
Chairman John McIntyre, the NRL’s longest-serving official, said that decision would ultimately be left to the board. But when pressed on his own views, the 72-year-old said: ”I certainly would [re-sign Furner].
”No one is more dedicated to his cause and his job than David Furner. We’ve got a very strong youth policy and it would probably be appropriate to apply that to the coaching staff as well.”
Everyone is looking to pinpoint the moment it all turned around for the Green Machine. McIntyre’s theory is there was ”a change in attitude when the Ricky Stuart story went away”. Don Furner points to the stabilisation of the spine – Dugan returning to fullback, Josh McCrone and Sam Williams gelling in the halves, and Glenn Butriss and Travis Wardell settling into the hooking duties. But for John Waser, that turning point came last year.
Waser and premiership-winning former Knights coach Michael Hagan were brought in to undertake a comprehensive review of the club after a disastrous 14th-placed finish last year. Usually such reviews sound the death knell of the coach. However, this one looked at how they could save rather than skewer the man with the clipboard.
Every player was given an opportunity to vent in a confidential and anonymous manner. Concerns were raised – the absence of a full-time physiotherapist, the length of some of the game reviews, the need for more opposed sessions. Almost all of the key recommendations were acted upon. Significantly, not one of the players thought the problem was Furner.
Waser, who has worked at the Australian Institute of Sport and in an education capacity with the Raiders, believed the navel-gazing process has, belatedly, turned things around. ”Everyone was uncomfortable with where the club was,” he said.
”I think the turning point was when everybody, the board, CEO, the people who sell sponsorship packages, the players, started chipping away to make things better.”
Some sacrifices had to be made. Furner, who proudly wore the green and gold during his playing career, stepped down as Tim Sheens’s assistant with the Kangaroos when things went pear-shaped (although he has since rejoined the Australian coaching staff). His support staff was bolstered. Sam Patterson was appointed as a leadership coach from outside the club to give a fresh perspective and there are big raps on assistant coaches Andrew Dunemann and Justin Morgan.
Momentum is hard to gain but even harder to stop. The Raiders are the only team to have beaten competition leaders Canterbury and Melbourne during the regular season. While today’s clash against Cronulla is a sudden-death encounter, they are accustomed to pressure after winning their past five matches.
”They have actually got nearly the best form, when you look at for and against, of all the teams over the last month,” Hagan said. ”They are probably a chance of getting to week two or week three. They’re full of running. There’s normally a team that has a run of form at the end of the year. ”
Now the Raiders have to prove they deserve to be at the head of the table. Perhaps it’s appropriate Meninga will be sitting in the coaches’ box alongside Furner today.
Twitter – @proshenks
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