CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JULY 23: Joseph Leilua of the Raiders celebrates scoring a try during the round 20 NRL match between the Canberra Raiders and the New Zealand Warriors at GIO Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Canberra’s star centres set for stellar season

This time last year, it was unsure whether Joey Leilua would find a place in the Canberra Raider’s backline. By season’s end, he was the reigning Dally M Centre of the Year. Jarrod Croker twelve months ago, fresh off his first season as club captain, had people doubting his leadership skills as well as the defensive game. In 2016, he ended the season as Dally M Captain of the Year. After the Raiders fell agonisingly short of a grand final berth this season, Canberra’s new favourite duo will be back in 2017 – with a premiership in sight.

While both stars achieved stardom this season, the centres had very different beginnings to their careers. Croker was always destined for a career with Canberra. Born in Goulburn, Croker was signed by Canberra in his mid-teens. Debuting in 2009, Croker has played 191 games for the club, and in 2016, became the club’s highest-ever point scorer with 1424 points. Despite representing Country Origin and the NRL All Stars as well as becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer, being named the captain of the club at the start of 2015 season would be the career highlight for Croker.

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Joseph Leilua had a much different pathway to the Raiders compared to his counterpart. Playing in the juniors for St George Illawarra, the blockbusting centre was picked up by the Sydney Roosters at the start of the 2010 season. Leilua made his NRL debut in that season, even featuring in the 2010 NRL Grand Final, which the Roosters would lose to his junior club, the St George Illawarra Dragons. His career with the Roosters was ended abruptly in 2012 following allegations of Leilua sending explicit pictures of his ex-girlfriend to her brother, the Samoan international signed on with the Newcastle Knights.

Despite being contracted to the end of 2016, Leilua literally walked out on the club mid-2015, his departure announced by a video posted by Frank Pritchard on Instagram. Since signing on with Canberra mid-2015, he has been a revelation for the nation’s capital, forming a dynamic combination with Kiwi international Jordan Rapana.

Forcing their way into the NSW Blues side is no easy feat, with the likes of Michael Jennings, Josh Dugan, Josh Morris, Jack Bird and Jarryd Hayne all in contention for the centre spots. Though with the form they displayed this year for Canberra, there’s no reason they can’t overcome their competitors to feature for the Blues.

Not only did Croker and Leilua end the season with respective Dally M accolades, both featured in the Kangaroo’s wider train-on squad for the Four Nations before being cut from the final 24-man squad. The two centres will begin Canberra’s premiership push in Round One, a blockbuster match against North Queensland at 1300SMILE Stadium, pitting the two preliminary finalists against each other in a game full of tantalising match-ups.

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