The Canberra Raiders are a club that I have tremendous respect for.
It is no secret that for me, what happens off the field for a sporting team is just as important as what happens on the field and in my years of supporting rugby league, the Raiders are a club that have taken player behaviour off the field just as seriously as they have their performance on the field.
As a club, the Raiders have always taken a strong stance when it comes to player behaviour. It saw them terminate the contracts of players like Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson. Even though this strong stance ultimately led to other clubs signing these ‘stars’ and ultimately undermining the strong stance that the Raiders had taken, the Raiders stood strong.
For me, last year was a reward for a club that has spent several years looking for a core group of young men who would commit to living in Canberra, would commit to the Raiders and commit long-term to winning the club a Premiership. Last year it all finally clicked and the likes of Jarrod Croker, Joey Leilua, Jordan Rapana and Jack Wighton are players that I know the Raiders will be built around for the next couple of years.
Of course, central to the success of the Raiders this year will be their halves combination – Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer, whose ability to combine last year was impacted significantly by injury. Both players spent time on the sideline last year due to injury and Blake almost had his finals campaign derailed by a broken arm.
But enough about the past. It’s a new year and the Raiders are ready to take on 2017 with a bang.
After attending training with the team today and having a chat with Blake Austin, I was struck at how young the team for the Nines is. According to Blake, while the pre-season has been difficult, not much focus has been put into the Nines. The result is a young and excited squad with plenty of fresh players ready to have a crack in a competitive pool against the likes of the Roosters, Cowboys and Rabbitohs.
I challenge any person to spend time with Blake Austin and immediately not become a fan of the man who grew up in the Western Suburbs of Sydney and played for 2 other clubs before he found a home at the Raiders.
Last year a couple of stories about him vent viral. Like the story about him spotting a disabled fan waiting for a bus in the middle of a Canberra winter to attend a game. Blake pulled over to the side of the road and asked the young fan if she wanted a lift to the game so that she wouldn’t freeze whilst waiting for a bus. Another young Raiders fan woke up to a message from Blake on Instagram which said ‘hey mate, I’m cleaning out some of last year’s training gear, would you want some?’.
These random acts of kindness should come as no surprise because when you look back over Blake’s past, these sorts of commitments to fans and the community are the norm, not the exception. For example, in 2013 after injury derailed his season, Blake volunteered to coach an under 16’s team from Doonside. This team was nicknamed ‘the uncoachables’ because of a lack of discipline. Blake led this team to a successful Grand Final and coached them the following year as well.
I know Blake doesn’t do any of this for gratitude or for praise. He does it because he is simply a very decent human being and loves giving back to the sport which has given him so much.
While Blake is in New Zealand with other members of the team, other members of the Raiders squad have stayed home in Canberra to take part in the NRL Community Carnival – a month long celebration which sees each club visit schools and meet kids, spreading important social messages about respect, diversity, healthy lifestyles and inclusion.
This is a big event on the NRL calendar, but for Blake, giving back to the community is something that the Raiders take very seriously as a club. It’s no surprise to me that Blake has found such a happy home at a club that really seems to align with his values.
Onto the footy for the weekend. The word from Blake is that the players to watch from the Raiders are Nick Cotric (who is the player Blake would least want to share a room with because he doesn’t shut up) and local, Paul Roach.
I’d like to nominate one more player to watch and that’s Scott Sorensen who has joined the Raiders from their feeder club Mounties this year.
While I was waiting to have a chat with Blake, Scott decided to come and say hello and I was super impressed with this young kid who took a couple of minutes to say hello to what he thought was a Raiders fan. After a long pre-season, Scott is really looking forward to getting the opportunity to play some football over the weekend and didn’t disown me when he found out I was a Parramatta fan.
One more thing. While Blake is excited about the Raiders and season 2017, I also took the opportunity to ask him (as a father of two daughters) what it meant to him to see the Australian Jillaroos get the opportunity to represent their country at the highest level in the sport he loves so much. His response? That while he may have 2 daughters, he also has a sister who loves rugby league and 3 or 4 younger cousins who also love the game.
While women in league may not have been something that Blake thought about in the past, now that he has family members who love football he also has an interest in making sure that they have a future in the game. Blake now calls himself a big advocate for women in league and I’m hopeful that perhaps one of his daughters will also get to wear the Raiders colours one day.
Ladies who League xxx