The Raiders are set to capitalise on their increasing popularity in England by launching a British membership campaign they hope will coincide with an appearance in the World Club Challenge.
With four English players already in their squad – Josh Hodgson, John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead and Ryan Sutton – and halfback George Williams joining them next season, Canberra officials have been in talks with Sky UK about promoting the membership drive in Britain after Sunday’s grand final against the Roosters.
Sky has broadcast all but a handful of Raiders matches this season as Ricky Stuart's men have proven a drawcard due the English stars in the team, while the Green Machine’s first grand final appearance in 25 years has also been generating strong media interest.
While some involved in the game in England bemoan the coverage of Super League by the nation’s major newspapers, The Guardian, Telegraph, Sun and Mirror all carried stories last week about the Battle of Britain between Canberra and South Sydney, including interviews with Hodgson, Bateman and Whitehead.
If the Raiders win on Sunday, they plan to travel to England for the World Club Challenge against the Super League champions, which is expected to attract the biggest crowd for the fixture since 54,220 fans watched Wigan beat Brisbane in 1994.
Canberra have appeared in just one previous World Club Challenge in 1989 and ran out of puff to lose 30-18 to Widnes at Old Trafford after leading 12-0 in the 11th minute of the fixture, which was played just a week after their extra-time grand final defeat of Balmain.
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Should they lose to the Roosters in the grand final, the Raiders are considering a pre-season match against Wigan, which could see Williams' first match for Canberra be against his former club, where Bateman and Sutton had also been playing before moving to the NRL this year.
However, Canberra chief executive Don Furner said the Raiders could not finalise details of their planned English foray until after the NRL and Super League grand finals, with Wigan also in contention for a premiership as they play Salford this weekend for the right to meet St Helens in the decider.
“We are looking to launch an advertising package in England and we will do that later in the year, particularly if we do play a game there,” Furner said. “We will launch it when we start to announce the details of that.”
Canberra signed Hodgson in 2015, Whitehead a year later and Bateman and Sutton this season, with their success prompting other clubs to look more keenly to Super League as a recruitment ground.
While English players have regularly played for NRL clubs, the quality of the current crop is a result of a performance system set up by former Knights and Dragons coach David Waite, who was Great Britain coach and RFL technical director for three years from 2001.
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Waite established a development program with the aim of producing players who could help England to World Cup success by 2013 and the likes of Sam Burgess, James Graham, Sean O’Loughlin and James Roby were identified.
Hodgson played for the 2009 England Academy side against a Daniel Mortimer-led Australian team, while Bateman was captain of the 2012 squad, which also included Williams.
“Some very good kids came out of a 10-year plan that we did in England,” said Waite, who is still involved in the game as head of football development for Runaway Bay Seagulls. “We aimed to be the best after that 10 years but instead of being No.1 we ended up being No.2.
“There were a lot of good footballers who came through a very good performance plan that we had in England that gave us lottery funding and that sort of stuff for a decade.
Match: Roosters v Raiders
Grand Final -
Venue: Accor Stadium, Sydney
“We introduced services areas and regional camps and then we would pick the best kids from each camp and take them to national camps and then from that camp we picked a team to represent England so we introduced a lot of stuff within that 10-year performance plan.”
Whitehead and Bateman are Bradford juniors, while Hodgson is from Hull. However, Bateman moved to Wigan, where he played with Sutton and Williams.
“Wigan have a very good system, a very good structure and they produce very hard and mentally tough players, who are very skilful,” Waite said
“They had some terrific kids coming through and they still do, like the halfback who is coming to Canberra next year. He is a natural, instinctive player, not a created or a robotic-coached player.”
Former Wests Tigers coach Mick Potter, who had charge of Whitehead and Bateman at Bradford, said the pair and most of the other English players who have succeeded in the NRL, including Hodgson, had good “football instincts”.
“I think they had some good coaching but they are players who watch footy,” said Potter, who is on the Parramatta coaching staff. “You see a lot of players come through who don’t know the game, they come through just because they happen to be good at running the ball but they don’t know the game.
“These guys watch a lot of footy and they are just footballers. They also play soccer because that is the main game over there and it gives them another skill, but in their spare time they watch footy.”
Tickets for the NRL Telstra Premiership Grand Final 2019 are now on sale to the general public.