When Sia Soliola made his NRL debut as an 18-year-old winger at the Roosters in 2005 he admits he was intimidated by his "cranky" coach Ricky Stuart, but with the Raiders one win from a grand final he says it is Stuart who deserves all the credit.
The Raiders have not appeared in a preliminary final since Stuart was the team's halfback in 1994 and are now faced with the daunting assignment of getting past the Melbourne Storm in order to earn a grand final berth.
Where the 1994 Canberra team that would go on to defeat Canterbury in the grand final boasted a rugby league roll call hard to match in any era this Raiders side is an ensemble cast dragged from all corners of the globe.
After five years at St Helens Soliola returned not as a powerhouse centre but a rampaging back-rower and was joined on the trip from England to the ACT by Hull hooker Josh Hodgson while Blake Austin was a pick-up from the Wests Tigers.
Stuart's canny recruitment has paid dividends in 2016 with the acquisitions of Elliott Whitehead, Joey Leilua, Aidan Sezer and Joseph Tapine, but Soliola tells Big League this week that the coach sensed something special was building two years ago.
"Ricky was telling me the type of players we've got and how there was something building at the club – I'm only just seeing that come to light now," said Soliola, who won the Mal Meninga Medal as the club's best and fairest player in 2015.
"It's all Ricky, everything that's happening now. He spoke about when I first came to the club. He had faith in me to come back to the NRL and I've got a lot to be grateful for."
A return to coach the club where he played more than 200 first grade games and won two premierships has reinvigorated Stuart and allowed him to bring the best out in his squad.
There's a freedom to their play with an underlying sense of discipline that the players have responded to in the best possible fashion, a far cry from his formative days in coaching at the Roosters where their ruthless reputation and snarling forward pack battered other teams into submission.
The passion is still evident in his sideline acrobatics but there is an underlying sense of care for his players that Soliola says has transformed their relationship.
"When I first started, I saw him as a cranky old guy who just told me what to do," Soliola says.
"I was intimidated at first, but there’s a purpose behind everything.
"Now we're pretty close. I'm really fortunate to have him in my life. He's been a really good friend and a great mentor."
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