Jarrod Croker will go down in history as a Canberra Raiders champion and join the elite 300-game NRL club, but coach Ricky Stuart has revealed he tried to prematurely draw the curtains on the Green Machine icon.
Croker will line up for his 300th match against the New Zealand Warriors today at 6pm after Stuart rested the star centre to ensure he would reach the milestone at home in front of family and friends at GIO Stadium.
He will become just the 48th NRL player to reach the milestone, just the 18th player to achieve it with a single club and only the second Raiders player to reach 300 games.
It will be a memorable experience for all involved, but it could have been very different after a sobering moment during the isolation of Covid two years ago.
Croker’s body had been bashed, including shoulder reconstructions, cartilage problems in his knee and issues with his Achilles that almost robbed him of his superstar qualities.
Croker will get to celebrate his 300 NRL game milestone in front of family and friends in Canberra tonight
Stuart had to deliver the tough news to Croker in 2021 that his playing days in the NRL might be over, but his champion player proved him wrong
Croker overcame a host of injuries and poor form to claw his way back into the NRL side in 2023 and has been able to hold his spot ever since
Stuart, one of the most senior coaches in the NRL, had seen this movie before.
Great players that had their careers and reputations stripped from them by playing on when they were no longer the same player.
So he had the chat with Croker he didn’t want to have, urging him to retire early in a bid to retain his reputation.
‘Injury on injury is the true killer in the NRL. So he wasn’t prepared for what I had to say. I told him I thought he should retire,’ Stuart wrote in his column for News Corp.
‘He wasn’t playing to the standard of the Jarrod I knew and I didn’t want him going out badly, being remembered for performances at the end of his career that could overshadow all those other memories he should have been remembered for.’
‘I told him I was trying to protect Jarrod from Jarrod.’
Needless to say, Croker did not take the advice well.
‘He didn’t want to know about it so I told him to go away and think about it. I told him I didn’t want to be the coach to pick him in second grade. I thought he deserved better than that for all that he had given,’ Stuart wrote.
‘I understood. He wanted to play on. I also told him I couldn’t guarantee he’d be picked, that from now on his selection would be based purely on performance.
‘He understood that, saying even if all he gets to do is to help the younger blokes in the NSW Cup, he’d be happy to do that, but he wanted the chance. Again, he was all for the jersey.’
The last game Croker played in Canberra prior to the 2023 season was the round nine match against the Bulldogs where he dislocated his shoulder
Injuries became a recurring theme for the Raiders champion and coach Stuart thought he might not be able to make it back from them
Croker’s career was at a crossroads and he had to make a decision on whether he was willing to continue and possible finish his playing days in reserve grade
Early this season, Croker’s NRL career appeared over.
His last match against the Bulldogs resulted in a shoulder dislocation and he was relegated to reserves for the opening five rounds of the 2023 competition.
However the Raiders had a dismal start to the year and a review was required when they were whacked 53-12 by the Panthers at home.
As part of the review, the players urged Stuart to pick Croker again.
‘Elliott Whitehead said he wanted Toots on the left edge. Straight away Josh Papalii agreed with him,’ Stuart wrote.
‘I asked why.
“He’ll bring some calmness,” Elliott said.
‘They also felt he’d bring energy back in first grade.
I told them I trusted them and if I didn’t listen to what they thought then I shouldn’t be their coach.’
However when Croker returned to first grade training, the early signs were not good.
‘The next day at training, though, we were doing an opposed session against the NSW Cup team and some of our younger blokes were absolutely skinning him,’ Stuart wrote.
‘They kept getting outside him. Jarrod was training to get through the session and get to the game. I needed more. I was watching and worrying whether for all the energy it brought, it was the wrong decision.’
Croker playing in his debut season for the Canberra Raiders against the North Queensland Cowboys in 2009
Croker and now-wife Brittany Wicks arrive at the 2016 Dally M Awards where he received the Provan-Summons Medal, Captain of the Year and Top Pointscorer of the Year awards
Despite those fears, Croker got through a tough 20-14 win over the Brisbane Broncos that re-ignited the Raiders season. He has played in seven NRL matches so far this season and only tasted defeat once as Canberra rises up as a true contender in 2023.
‘All the time sport offers us examples of old champions rising to the occasion, finding something in their makeup that for a dozen good reasons they shouldn’t be able to do, but they find a way to get it done anyhow,’ Stuart wrote.
‘We don’t just talk about our culture, we live it. I don’t expect anyone outside our club to understand it but this is more than just any other game. For him, and for us.’