The Canberra Raiders 2021 season didn’t work out the way anyone wanted. Over the next few months we’re going to look at some key issues the Raiders need to sort out and the players that represent them. Welcome to the “We need to talk about” series. This is part III. You can read part I on Corey Horsburgh here, part II on Emre Guler here, and part III on Elliott Whitehead here.
Jarrod Croker is a Canberra Raiders legend.
You know all the stats. Most points and goals. Nearly 300 games. Scything runs through the left side attack. Critical extra ball handler in some of the best attacking sides in modern footy. Capable defender. He’s a man that stood up when Canberra was at its lowest, and lead them back to the grand final.
He has given every inch, every ligament, and every goddamn breath of his life to make sure the Canberra Raiders are successful. Croker’s willingness to sacrifice his body, (and judging by his face in some post-game press conferences alongside Sticky, his soul) for the Milk cannot be understated. Even this off-season, he has been discussing career saving stem-cell surgery in order to soothe his cartilage-less knee, according to the Canberra Times. He may not have the star recognition of a Josh Papalii, or the trophies of stars from the golden era. But when time comes to pull stumps, there will be a statue, or a stand, that will bear his likeness or name.
But sometimes you have to let the past stay there.
Up until the start of the 2020 season Croker was a no questions asked starter for the Green Machine. He hasn’t provided typical centre fare – he’s no barnstorming runner, nor was he the quickest player on the field. He’s different. Enough pace, a bit of skill, and plenty of smarts. Lately he’s put that intelligence to work, forming a unique triumvirate on the left edge with Elliott Whitehead and Jack Wighton: a trusted colleague able to provide an extra set of creative hands (or feet), and able to fit into structured backline movement, with a synchronicity the Raiders have struggled to find without him. Defensively, he’s (often unfairly) bore the brunt of fan ire about defensive decisions (usually blamed for mistakes made inside of him – often by Jack Wighton, who because he’ll lay a dude out occasionally, seems to escape the same scrutiny), he has always been solid, and sometimes amazing, a fact underscored by his underrated performance in the 2019 preliminary final.
He signed a new deal at the beginning of 2020 to keep him at the Raiders until end 2023. But since then his body has refused to cooperate. In addition to his knee joint being so bereft of lubrication you might be able to spark a fire with it, he’s had shoulder and pec issues, which have severely hampered his ability. No better was this displayed than in the 2020 preliminary final when he was physically overwhelmed by Sulasi Vunivalu. He was where he needed to be, but his body would not cooperate. It’s something all ageing footballers are familiar with, but it’s cruel to watch it happen. 2021 bore continued this trend, and in 12 games he missed one tackle for every four he made, had one try assist (the lowest in his career and his first sub-five year since 2013), and played 12 games, which felt like seven or eight more than actually occurred.
I think Croker can still be a contributor. I think. At the very least he’ll be given every opportunity to be. Those skillful hands wouldn’t go unused in the more structured offence to hopefully come from the return of offensive coordinator Mick Crawley. And if the Raiders’ middle defence is better prepared for the style of football to be played in 2022 then perhaps there will be less problems the edges will be asked to fix. And then maybe we’re worrying about nothing, and this can be one of those articles I chuck up and laugh about how wrong I was.
But it’s not just about Jarrod now.
Because father time remains undefeated, things are changing. Just as the sun is setting on the great career of Jarrod Croker, it’s rising on Harley Smith-Shields, the most likely contender for the left centre spot that Croker is theoretically the incumbent of. Instead of wondering how the Raiders will get by without their long-time centre, the question is now whether hoping Croker makes a comeback is more sentimental than helpful. Smith-Shields has been ear-marked for years as the leader of the next era of Raiders backs. He’s an unquestioned talent, a player capable of something from nothing, beating his opposition given a smidge of space or time. In brief appearances in first grade over the last two years he’s mostly played wing, but his natural position is in the centres, and with Nic Cotric and Jordan Rapana likely around for the next two years, centre – specifically Croker’s left centre position – becomes the most likely spot for him to thrive.
Both Croker and Smith-Shields’ current deals end at the same time. Smith-Shields is eligible to negotiate a new deal from 1 November 2022, and the Raiders again will face the challenge of other teams wanting to make a star out of Smith-Shields. Not just money, but the promise of opportunity could be used to entice Harley away from home. The question is no longer “can Croker’s knee survive” and has now become “what is the cost of pursuing this end?” It’s a question that Canberra has had to face a lot recently. What value do we put on the past, and what does that cost the future? Sometimes that’s meant difficult decisions have been made (some that I don’t always agree with) and club stalwarts have been moved on.
There’s no easy way forward here. Choose Croker and you risk the future of the club. Choose anything but Croker and Sticky risks moving on a club hero before his time – something that Stuart knows all to well from his dramatic departure from the club in 1998 at the hands of Kevin Neill. It’s more than bad juju. At the most extreme it can be a culture killer. Of course, Croker’s knee might fail him but save the Raiders a tough decision. Medical retirement would also free up cap space that, together with Josh Hodgson’s deal, frees up a old-fashioned ‘war-chest’ (theoretical good but a more complicated reality). It’s frustrating and humbling to think that if the medical retirement option comes up that Croker would take it for the good of the team.
This is a problem that Coach Stuart will have to solve. Are the Raiders ready to let go of the past? If the roster clear-out following the unsuccessful 2021 campaign, and the unsentimental way Josh Hodgson’s departure has been dealt with, the choice has been made, and Croker’s papers may have already been marked. Whatever the outcome, I hope Croker is given the respect he has earned. He’s given everything to this club. He deserves no less.