Is there a more divisive player in the NRL than Blake Ferguson? It’s certainly hard to think of any other player who’s taken such a roundabout route to arrive at his genius, with so many dead ends, false starts and failed hopes along the way. In fact, so bad is Fergo’s track record that it’s hard to completely trust that he’s come good with the Roosters, even though we’re undoubtedly looking at his most solid stretch of good behaviour in a long time. Nobody can predict where he’ll go from here – he’s one of the most unpredictable players in the game, both on and off the field – but it does seem as taking on the duties of fullback may work wonders if he’s given a shot at the position, as Anthony Minichiello has recommended to Trent Robinson in the wake of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s departure for the Warriors in 2016. In many ways, fullbacks are the custodians of the team, caretakers both on and off the field, and it may be that granting Fergo more responsibility is the best way to finally curb the irresponsibility that has plagued him ever since his earliest days with the Raiders.
Of course, irresponsibility is a pretty polite way of putting it. After a short stint at Cronulla, Fergo and Josh Dugan became the poster boys of the Canberra crisis of 2013. While Todd Carney and Joel Monaghan might have been sillier and lewder, there was an unchecked hostility to Dugan and Fergo that was more alarming and more aggressively antisocial. While Dugan was front and centre, there was no doubt that Fergo was his enabler, and sure enough the troubled Raiders centre was charged with indecent assault in June 2013, only a month after he had signed a contract guaranteeing his position at the Green Machine until 2016. A couple of months can be an eternity in Rugby League, and it wasn’t long before Fergo was embroiled in what would turn out to be a twenty-two month suspension from the game, a suspension that only came to a close this year with his move to the Roosters following Sonny Bill Williams’ departure for Rugby Union.
The situation with the Raiders was all the more dispiriting in that Fergo, at least, had seemed to have a pretty good work ethic. While Dugan was renowned for not giving his all at training and not being prepared to cop the full physical load demanded of a fullback, Fergo was apparently dedicated to his footy right up until the end. At the mere age of twenty-two, and shortly after his contract had been renegotiated with Canberra, he was called up for one of the best Blues debuts in recent years, putting in a smashing performance that undoubtedly contributed to New South Wales’ growing momentum over the 2013-2014 season. It was particularly galling, then, to see this up-and-coming Blue sidelined for what amounted to the next two Origin seasons, deregistered despite the Raiders’ best efforts to rehabilitate and return him to Canberra. In an alternative universe, Fergo and Dugan would have become the face of a Raiders outfit that was a genuine finals contender, as well as spearheading one of the strongest Blues-Raiders synergies in years.
And for Raiders fans, it must have felt as 2013 turned Canberra into a bit of a benchmark for how much the NRL would tolerate, as well as how much criminal behaviour they were prepared to rehabilitate. In a game that’s as violent, explosive and impulsive as Rugby League, the rules are often – and perhaps inevitably – inconsistent as to when, where and how players escape from scandal and impunity. In the leadup to Origin and the Grand Final, for example, it feels as if anything goes, whereas in the aftermath of a big match penalties tend to be more extreme. For my money, Ben Hunt’s high tackle on Kane Linnett during the final minutes of the Grand Final wasn’t any more irresponsible than Justin Hodges’ dangerous throw the week before, but the repercussions were quite different. Of course, that’s just my opinion, and I’m not trying to say that the NRL judiciary are biased – it’s more that in a sport that thrives on excess, determining the exact line of conduct can sometimes seem difficult, and even inimical to the game.
During the Canberra crisis, however, a very clear line was drawn in the sand. While a social media outburst like Dugan’s might be excusable – it wasn’t long before he was making a pretty big dent in the Dragons – an indecent assault charge of the kind racked up by Ferguson was a whole other thing entirely, just as Carney’s photograph proved to be a point of no return as well. Add to that the fact that Sandor Earl was deregistered a mere couple of months after Fergo on doping charges, and it felt as if Canberra had gone from being one of the most promising stable of young guns to a microcosm of every problem plaguing the NRL. It’s not surprising, then, that the Raiders became a bit of a scapegoat for the game at large, as well as an example of what players across the board could expect if they followed in Dugan, Monaghan, Fergo and Sandor’s footsteps: expulsion for any drug or harassment charges, and severe measures for any kind of unwarranted online aggression.With that kind of policy, it seemed unlikely that Fergo would make it back into footy in the foreseeable future, let alone with such an elite team as the Roosters. And in my next post, I’ll talk a bit about how and why that happened, as well as what it means for the Chooks, the Blues, and Fergo himself.