What To Do About: Jarrod Croker

This is our off-season series on some key decisions facing the Raiders. Some will be people, some will be less tangible, but all are issues that the Milk will need to address this off-season. Part I on Elliott Whitehead can be found here.

BY DAN

Once upon a time, when I was younger, I used to believe in fairy tales. My heroes all wore green, and fought tigers and panthers and whatever beast there was. Some won their battles, some lost. One day the biggest hero of them all walked off into the sunset having claimed all and sundry and somehow I thought it should always be like this.

It’s funny how certain events in your youth shape your outlook on life. Mal’s farewell was so perfect that I ignored that most of the time it wasn’t like this. He walked out at maybe not the top of his game, but an international, state and club captain, first choice at his position. Premiership winner. His head wasn’t held high. It was defiant. He went out as near as perfect as you can. Michael Jordan wishes his own retirement went as well.

There was no good reason for me to think things end perfectly. My idol Gary Belcher had retired because his knees gave up. Bradley Clyde had fought his body for his entire career and Kevin O’Neill ended up sending him away. Ricky Stuart – who had taken massive injections into his groin to keep the Raiders going in 1991 – was sent with him. Laurie Daley got to stay, but even then spent his last years battling fate disguised as faulty joints. When he retired he got a crowd but all he wanted was functional knees. Terry Campese was effectively retired years later for the same reason. Josh Hodgson’s trilogy of ACL injuries still make me sad, and I suspect seeing him in Parramatta colours next year will be akin to seeing an ex-partner.

Rugby league is a physically (and mentally) punishing game . The ramifications of years experiencing a car-crash size force multiple times a game takes its toll on the human body. Players rail against the inevitable price they pay, trying to get their body ready to play one more year. Then when they’re done they have to deal with the chronic pain that follows. The human body can only take so much for so long. To quote the philosopher Jalen Rose, Father Time is undefeated.

Time is coming for Jarrod Croker too. It’s a futile fight. It’s like a stampede of horses careening over the horizon, and he’s just watching it come to him. There’s still time for him to have a moment, and he’s made it clear he will try, but the end result is decided. Everything ends at some point. I’m sure Jarrod knows this, but he’s made it clear he wants one last chance to get his body right, to prove himself at the highest level. To maybe get to 300 games and feel the sun shine on his back on the blessed earth of Bruce Stadium one last time.

He’s done so much on the footy field, and been such a champion for the Milk that it feels heartless to hope for anything but that. He bore the burden of leadership when the club was at its lowest. When there wasn’t the promise of finals or glory. Just hard work. Croker was there, dragging a side to respectability and stability, and providing the foundation that would become better days. He’s earned everything he’s been offered, and that he’s been perilously close to a premiership, to rep footy, even to 300 games, without being rewarded with any feels like a cruel joke. And now his body hasn’t cooperated the last two years in a manner that we’ve seen in many of our heroes past.

The problem for Jarrod is that even if he can get his body to cooperate, he’s arguably not even a first choice player. Seb Kris, Matt Timoko, and Harley Smith-Shields, all at the other end of their careers to Jarrod, are likely to be in front of him on the depth chart. Smith-Shields was tagged to start in that left centre position before last season’s cruel ACL injury ruled him out. Timoko spent time there at the beginning of the season despite right centre being his preferred, and obviously better, position. Seb Kris was a tentative fill-in early in the season but is now an international after proving himself a quality starter over 2022. It will be hard for Croker to crack this line up.

The good news is that the nature of the modern game makes it almost inevitable that the Raiders would need him at some point, regardless of depth charts. The Raiders gave backline debuts to James Schiller, Albert Hopoate, played Semi Valemei and Seb Kris out of position, shifted Xavier Savage from NSW Cup to first grade, and moved Matt Timoko from left to right side centre. In short, there was enough fluidity and resourcing challenges that they’ll almost certainly need all available hands for the 2023 campaign.

In the meantime he’ll probably again be asked to prove his body through time in Cup footy. When we watched him in pre-season and Cup footy and his one foray in NRL last year, it always felt like he was negotiating with his body rather than trusting it to back his plans. I have no experience as a elite athlete, but in my limited experience with sports injuries the lack of trust in your body has a dramatic impact on your confidence, your ability, and likely longevity. Getting on the field is the only way back to trusting it, and likely why he spent so much time playing reserve grade in 2022. Stuart wanted him to trust his body. It cruelly let him down.

But coming back through Cup footy shouldn’t be sneezed at. The Raiders backline is young, and needs an elder statesmen around week-to-week to keep them level-headed, even if it’s from the sidelines rather than on the first grade field. There was a time when experienced players weren’t sent to the glue farm as soon as they smelt like mortality. They instead stayed with the club, passed their knowledge on the next generation, and showed them how to be a professional sportsperson. It may not be the best or most efficient way to spend five percent of your salary cap, but you can at least make the most of it while it’s an option.

It’s hard to think about how Jarrod Croker is feeling right now. He’s given everything to the club not the least his body. His soul. He’s stood up when there wasn’t a reason to. If there’s ever been a Raider that deserved a premiership it is him. If we were to win one without him he’d be the first person I’d think about.

This isn’t the end but it’s closer than I wish. Hope floats, but each injury has felt like another weight holding him down. Time is coming for Croker and I doubt it will be perfect. He deserves a Mal Meninga style send off – walking off with his head held high and a premiership under his arm.

I hope we get that fairy tale one more time.

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One comment

  1. It’s entirely possible Croker has already played his last game. I wonder if he is playing reserves all year whether he still activates his player option for 2024? Can’t blame the player for doing it but it’s madness the number of these sort of contracts Raiders have on the books compared to some other clubs.

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