Raiders already have marquee men: Shillington
Ricky Stuart says Canberra won't be peeling themselves off the NRL floor until they attract marquee players to the club, but veteran David Shillington is adamant all the star power they need is right under the Raiders' nose.
Stuart gave a frank appraisal of his squad's ability to match it with the competition's best last weekend, conceding the Raiders' fortunes "ain't going to change" until he could attract players of "Origin and international" standard to the nation's capital.
But despite the once famed Green Machine looking decidedly sickly – a loss to fellow stragglers Cronulla this Sunday would leave them all on their lonesome at the bottom of the ladder and facing their first wooden spoon since 1982 – injured vice-captain Shillington has identified up-and-comers Jack Wighton and Edrick Lee as possessing the talent to lead the club out of the doldrums.
"The way I think about it, I know we've been trying to sign some marquee players, but we've actually got some players who over the next 12 to 24 months will be marquee players in Jack Wighton and Edrick Lee particularly in the backline there," says Shillington, who has been ruled out for the year with a torn pectoral suffered in Round 21.
"Jack was experimented with at five-eighth earlier in the year there which wasn't a strong position for him, and he's had some injuries since, but he's shown how talented he is.
"Hopefully those guys are injury free over the pre-season and have a strong year because they will be our marquee players."
Wighton was earmarked by NSW coach Laurie Daley as an Origin player of the future when he was called into the Blues camp ahead of Origin II, while Lee has proved explosive in the limited game time he's had over two injury-plagued seasons, scoring 18 tries in 26 first-grade games since debuting in 2012.
The aggressive recruitment policy Stuart has adopted since arriving at Canberra last year is still yet to net the club a top-end player, with Kevin Proctor, Josh Mansour and James Tedesco all choosing to remain with their respective clubs despite being heavily chased by the Raiders, while Bulldogs skipper Michael Ennis chose to sign with the Sharks even with a reported $500,000-a-year deal tabled by the Raiders.
The club has managed to land Melbourne winger Sisa Waqa, who has scored 17 tries this year with the Storm, as well as hooker Josh Hodgson and three-quarter Iosia Soliola from the English Super League.
Regardless of who Stuart brings to the Raiders, Shillington says a marquee signing will not automatically turn the club around, using the success of Stuart's former club Parramatta as an example.
"The whole squad needs to work harder to set up the opportunities for those players, because you look at Parramatta," Shillington says. "They work really hard and then Jarryd Hayne puts the icing on the cake.
"People talk about the difference between him this year and last year. It might very well be his forward pack going forward and making space for him.
"You can't have a couple of marquee players come into a team and think it's going to be better.
"The whole team needs to improve and then hopefully they provide opportunities for those players with the skills to capitalise on them."
While the Raiders' on-field performances have left them with little to write home about, Shillington says the absence of the off-field dramas that plagued them last season has the playing group in better shape than this time last year.
Almost 12 months ago Shillington raised the ire of Raiders officials by criticising their handling of former stars Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson, who were both shown the door for repeated off-field incidents.
Shillington called on the incoming Stuart to turn the club's culture around after lenience from officials over misdemeanours had "created the devil" in players, and had them believing they were "bigger than the club".
Speaking at the unveiling of the NRL's Academic Team of the Year, Shillington credited Stuart with a successful off-field upheaval, despite a lack of results to show for on it.
"Ricky has changed the culture at the club," Shillington said.
"The roster's changed slightly, but there's a really good bunch of blokes that enjoy each other's company and work hard and do the right thing on the field and off the field.
"The difference between this year and last year is we don't have all that controversy off the field; players misbehaving. That really puts divisions in the ranks. Some players have a certain set of rules and others don't.
"It's hard to believe, you'd think there would be a lot of disharmony in the place. You'd think there'd be conflict down there, but there's not. That's not me trying to bull**** you. It's a really happy place but in saying that we know we need to win.
"On the field we need more work, we need to be getting those wins no doubt about it."