Just a week after a humiliating defeat in front of their home fans, the Canberra Raiders rode the emotion of a favourite son’s return to stun the unbeaten Broncos at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
Travelling to Brisbane without Jack Wighton and Joe Tapine, the Green Machine were tipped to be no match for the 5-0 Broncos, but it was clear from the opening exchanges that they had come with a different resolve.
Almost a year since the last time he took the field in an NRL game, 32-year-old Jarrod Croker was back patrolling the centres and bringing the calming influence his young teammates needed when the Broncos came at them in the second half.
Apart from his 58 running metres and 16 telling tackles, it was Croker's ever reliable goalkicking that proved crucial as he nailed four from four in the 20-14 victory.
“Bringing Jarrod back was always going to give us great enthusiasm and energy because all the players love playing with Jarrod,” coach Ricky Stuart said post-match.
“We had a meeting on Monday and the players asked me, they wanted to pick Jarrod, he had played NSW Cup.
Match Highlights: Broncos v Raiders
“For me, there’s nothing better than having Jarrod in the football team playing well and I would love nothing more than for him to keep that form up and that consistency up so gets his 300 games, and the way he played tonight I can’t see why it can’t happen.”
With game No.293 now ticked off, Croker is well and truly back in the hunt to become just the second Raider in the 300 Club, along with Jason Croker (318).
That dream must have seemed a million miles away after he played just one game in each of the past two seasons, but Croker’s fighting qualities are legendary in the national capital.
“It was awesome, great to be back. There’s no better stage against a good footy side at a good stadium,” said Croker, who required shoulder surgery after his lone appearance in 2022 against the Cowboys.
“Now I’ve just got to worry about going again and getting right to go again next week.”
With so much at stake on Saturday night it was Canberra’s senior men who led the club to a famous win that could prove a turning point in their season.
Winger Jordan Rapana, prop Josh Papali’I and Croker have seen it all across their 752 games in the NRL and when the blowtorch was applied early in the second half they ensured the Raiders would not be rattled.
Horsburgh's all ticker
Papali’i told Fox Sports after the game that it was the players who took responsibility for leading the review in the wake of the 53-12 loss to Penrith, and the players who would take responsibility for restoring pride in the jersey.
Matching motors with in-form duo Payne Haas and Pat Carrigan on their own patch, Papali’I stormed his way to 153 metres from 15 runs, every one of them full of intent and passion.
Rapana, meanwhile, was enormous with two tries and a number of courageous takes under the high ball, the last of which resulted in him copping an accidental knee to the head and being taken off in the medicab.
"Every game I've played with Rapa he's given 110 per cent for the jersey. That's what he has done his whole career,” Croker said.
Raiders strike first in Brisbane
“That's the sort of player he is. He could not do a whole pre-season but you just throw him a footy jersey and a ball and he'll go for you and tonight was no different.”
For Croker, the next challenge is to get over the bumps and bruises ahead of a clash with the Dragons at GIO Stadium in Round 7.
If all goes to plan, the man who has been the heart and soul of the Raiders for more than a decade could play his 300th game against Wests Tigers in Round 14.
Willing him to get there will be those same teammates who put their case to Stuart and pleaded for his recall in their hour of need.