Luckless Canberra veteran Jarrod Croker has his sights set on an NRL return with the Raiders in 2023, but knows a spot in Ricky Stuart's side won't be handed to him as he continues to recover from season-ending shoulder surgery.
After going under the knife midway through last season, his 14th for the Green Machine, Croker's 2022 campaign was capped at just one appearance, having suffered the setback in his side's Round 9 bout with the Bulldogs.
The ailment curtailed the 32-year-old's season after just returning from the casualty ward, with further setbacks forcing Croker to the sidelines for the foreseeable future and raising questions over his chances of competing in the NRL ever again.
Now eight months since going under the knife, a timeframe that compounded an already frustrating two years for the former Raiders captain, Croker is nearing a return to full training in the nation's capital.
Speaking to The Canberra Times, Croker said while he's taking "baby steps", the veteran centre is nearing a point in his recovery where he's feeling close to refreshed.
"I'm feeling good. It's been a bit of a journey the last 12-18 months with a few injuries and setbacks," Croker said.
"But I've done wrestle sessions, and initial front-on contact is fine, making a tackle and whatnot doesn't bother me and that's a positive.
"The more you do, the less you think about it. The shoulder was major surgery and it still gets a bit sore, but I'm not going to have it in the back of my mind.
"The main thing for me is how my knees and legs are feeling and how I'm moving.
"It's literally baby steps at the moment, back to square one. I haven't really played footy properly for six to eight months."
Since his second last appearance in the NRL, which fell in the back-end of the 2021 season, the Raiders have been able to experiment with their outside back stocks in the absence of the 292-game veteran.
The likes of Hudson Young and Xavier Savage are among the fledgling Canberra youngsters that have staked their claim for a spot in Stuart's 17, prompting an uphill battle for Croker come selection once he returns to the field.
"It's everywhere. Competition for spots creates strong squads and you need it over a season," he said.
"Matt Timoko, Seb Kris, Xavier Savage and Hudson Young - those guys who excelled [in 2022] get a full pre-season to gain another step."
Canberra are scheduled to open their 2023 season against the Cowboys in the opening round with a trip to Townsville, with their first home match of the year coming in Round 3 against the Sharks after their clash with the Dolphins.
Contracted for this season with a Player Option for next. I don’t know where he and club would stand if he says he wants to go around in 2024, but the club says he is not fit to do so.
My suspicion is he will suffer another injury this year and sit out the back half of the season. Then, at that point, the club will retire him on medical grounds, and give him no payout for 2024.
My understanding is that if a player retires midway through a contract, the pay for the year in which he retires falls under the cap, but pay for future seasons does not. Having said that, the club has had limited value out of him for the last two seasons and are unlikely to get much from him this year or next, so I can see them playing hardball.
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