Ricky Stuart has hit back at critics who claim his team is fractured in the wake of their upset win over Manly at 4 Pines Park on Thursday night.
A superb injection off the bench from Joe Tapine and Tom Starling helped Canberra overcome a shaky start and then a second-half Manly fightback to claim a 30-16 win, vaulting them back into finals contention after losing four of their previous five matches.
With both sides missing two players on Origin duty, Canberra's stand-in halves combination of Sam Williams and Matt Frawley – who have spent seasons together as a reserve-grade pairing at the club – turned the screws with their dual kicking games grinding Manly out of the match.
"You hear a lot of comment about our situation at the moment, that we’re fractured as a group, we’ve got issues in the camp,” Stuart said.
"We haven’t, but we’re all very competitive individuals. We’re a club that strives to be a competitive football team that wants to be playing finals football.
"When you’re in a very volatile, competitive industry, there is always going to be headbutts.
Match: Sea Eagles v Raiders
Round 17 -
Venue: 4 Pines Park, Sydney
"I’ve never coached a football team or be coached as a player where there hasn’t been a few headbutts throughout the year. But we’re all men and we get on with it.
"It is a lot different inside our club than what the comment is outside.
“I know we’ve been accused of players not putting in, a lack of effort. That couldn’t be any further from the truth."
Passionate Stuart addresses perceived in-house issues
Williams was rewarded with two tries and the pair combined for eight goal-line drop-outs forced after Tapine and Starling dragged the side back into the match after Manly had threatened to blow Canberra away early.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart praised his new halves pairing and particularly their ability to execute the game plan and build pressure with the boot.
"Our kicking game put an immense amount of pressure on [Manly]," Stuart said.
"We kept the pressure on them with our kicking game and we played to a plan and they executed it and that's what you want from your halves.
"It's his (Williams) 101st NRL game now and he's a competitor."
Fullback Xavier Savage was also impressive on his official debut, supplying a safe pair of hands at the back and some excellent kick returns with just over 100 metres, three kicks defused and a crucial early try save on Brad Parker against just one ill-timed handling error to blot his copybook.
Starling slices Manly open through the middle
"I was very happy for Xavier," Stuart said. "He made a couple of big plays. The big fella that made a break late in the second half ... he got in front of him and stopped him.
"He's obviously got a lot to learn and the best way to learn is by being out there.
"I don't like throwing young players in to play NRL when you're going through this type of difficult period losing games of football but the senior boys got around him; those boys were fantastic with Xavier all week.
"I told him first thing Monday he was going to be playing so he could have as much time as possible to sink it in and prepare."
The first half turned on its head once Canberra's first two interchanges were made.
Tapine replaced Dunamis Lui after just 12 minutes with the former Maroons prop succumbing to a calf strain that ruled him out of the game.
The Raiders interchange forward tore through 173 run metres in just under half an hour in that period to drag his side back into the contest, making almost as many metres as Manly's entire starting forward pack did (178) in the opening half.
Starling was brought on far earlier than he had been in recent weeks, pushing Josh Hodgson to a ball-playing lock role and adding plenty of spark from dummy-half.
Williams does it all himself for Canberra
His livewire scoot in the 29th minute, weaving back and forth between tired forwards for an untouched try, got his side on the board and into the lead after a Dylan Walker show-and-go had embarrassed Canberra's right-side defence just eight minutes in.
Stuart would not commit to the new rotation being a permanent move going forward but praised the two hookers' combination in the middle.
"Tommy Starling and Josh Hodgson were terrific in the middle third of the footy field as well," Stuart said.
"[Our strategy with them] comes back to the style of game, it comes back to how the game's going at a certain period of play in the first half.
"They both combined well together but it was a plan this week to get Tommy on very early."
A falcon from Suli, a try for Kris
Brad Parker's dropped ball over the try-line under attention from Savage proved a huge turning point with Canberra allowing Manly just one set out of 11 possessions at one point as both Williams and Frawley repeated snaked grubbers into Manly's in-goal for five first-half drop-outs forced.
The wave of possession eventually told when Williams dummied his way between some tired forwards in the 36th minute to send his side to the break with a 12-4 advantage.
There was a passage of déjà vu for the Sea Eagles as Canberra forced their sixth and seventh goal-line drop-outs of the match in the 10 minutes after half-time before Williams dummied his way between some tired forwards to score his second of the game.
Canberra's fourth try seemed to sum up Manly's night - a Sam Williams bomb went up and Moses Suli turned his back on it perhaps thinking it was travelling past him but it instead bounced off his head into the Manly in-goal for Seb Kris to pounce and all-but seal the game at 24-4 with 20 minutes to play.
Some rare attacking ball for Manly culminated in Haumole Olakau'atu smashing his way through five defenders to score in the 65th minute before a great angled run from Suli closed the sore to 24-16 with almost 10 minutes remaining.
After their second-half woes this year you could forgive Raiders fans for wondering if history was about to repeat with Manly only needing two tries to add another disastrous collapse to Canberra's season but instead it was Emre Guler who crashed through the Manly line from a standing start in the 76th minute to seal the win.