Canberra veteran Jarrod Croker remembers the day Ricky Stuart sat him down and told him he needed to retire from the NRL.
In late 2021, the Raiders were in the league’s COVID-induced biosecurity bubble, and Croker’s body was letting him down.
The Raiders captain has been battling a string of knee injuries since the 2020 preseason, and by his own admission has lost his way on the field.
Stuart was ripped and felt he could not respectfully drop Croker to reserve grade, but he could not subject him to the rigors of the NRL for another season.
“His body couldn’t handle the load and was in a position where I felt his pain,” Stuart recalls.
With 300 appearances in the NRL and two years left on his contract, Croker had a lot to consider.
“I just had to go back and think about what I really wanted to do,” he said.
“At that stage, I think I was 30. I still had a lot to give and I didn’t feel ready.
“I just wanted to get my knee right and prove I could still go.”
Proving it meant undergoing revolutionary stem cell surgery, which, as Croker saw, was the only way to revive his troubled knee and his rugby league career.
This procedure aims to initiate the repair of damaged tissue by injecting stem cells into the knee. Various results are possible.
“If it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t have been able to continue playing,” said the 32-year-old Crocker.
“I think my knee went from 50% to 85% with stem cells (treatment).”
Despite Stuart’s initial concerns, Croker struggled in reserve grades heading into the start of the 2022 season.
However, Croker was only able to make one appearance before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury that required more surgery.
Crocker was used to Canberra stopping him in the street and asking if he had retired yet.
With his beloved Raiders 1-4 to open 2023 with outside backs Xavier Savage and Nick Kotrick in the injured ward, Crocker’s teammates began wiretapping to give Stuart another chance. .
“If they want to play bastards, I’m just sitting in the box,” Stuart said.
“They’ve been with him and know him better than I do.”
The coach agreed and the Raiders have not lost since.
Croker scored his first NRL try in two years against the Dolphins last week and scored the decisive four in Canberra’s 34-30 win over Canterbury in the Magic Round.
“It’s been a long time since I scored a try like that,” Croker said.
“I had my wife and kids in the audience in front of a huge crowd. It was very special.”
Crocker is three weeks away from becoming the second man in history to play 300 games for the Raiders.
But with one eye on the past and the other on his body, Crocker hasn’t allowed himself to dream of milestones yet.
“When this happens, I can’t take my foot off the pedal.”
“I’m just happy to be playing again, playing with Papa (Josh Paparee), Jack (Wyton), Rapa (Jordan Rapana), guys I’ve spent most of my life with.
“It’s not about being a big hero, I say, ‘I’m not giving up.’ I love playing football and I love playing for the Raiders.”