Jarrod Croker at the Raiders' fan day on Saturday. He will captain the club at the Auckland Nines. Photo: Elesa Kurtz
Canberra centre Jarrod Croker has defended the club's decision to field a weakened side devoid of star power for the Auckland Nines as the Raiders make it clear the NRL season is their priority.
And Raiders coach Ricky Stuart says one trial match will be enough for skipper Terry Campese and his World Cup stars - Anthony Milford and Josh Papalii - to hit the NRL season running.
Not even a share of $2.2 million in prizemoney has swayed the Raiders to field a strong team for the Auckland Nines, with Canberra's focus completely on its round-one clash with North Queensland on March 8.
Croker, Reece Robinson, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Joel Edwards are the only regular first-graders in the 16-man Raiders squad for the Auckland Nines, which also features six back-rowers.
Stuart will also bypass the two-day event, which begins on February 15. Instead, assistant Matt Parish will take the reins.
But Croker, who will captain the side for the first time, insisted the club's young talent had earned their chance.
''They've trained just as hard as us over the pre-season and they deserve to have a crack,'' Croker said. ''They'll get a lot out of it being in camp and it will make them more hungry as well.''
However, he admitted it was a letdown for spectators that Anthony Milford, who is being monitored for a foot injury, will not line up in Auckland.
''Ricky's just concentrating on the trials and Tony's just come back from the World Cup, he's been working pretty hard and they want to ease him back into it,'' Croker said.
''It's a bit disappointing for people wanting to watch, but … it'll be good to get Tony back to full fitness and ready for round one.''
Canberra has also named a 29-man squad for its opening trial against Melbourne at AAMI Park on Saturday.
Campese and World Cup stars Milford, Papalii and Brett White will not be used until the second trial, against Newcastle in Tamworth on February 22.
''Trials for me are all about conditioning and getting a bit of timing and cohesion for the [regular season] games,'' Stuart said.
''There'll be a big squad again for the second game [against Newcastle].''
As revealed by Fairfax Media, Jack Wighton and Mitch Cornish will play five-eighth and halfback respectively against the Storm, in a revival of their successful under-20 partnership. Robinson and Jack Ahearn will share the fullback role.
Canberra Raiders trial squads
- Auckland Nines, February 15-16: Jarrod Croker (c), pictured, Reece Robinson, Mitch Cornish, Bill Tupou, Matt McIlwrick, Joel Edwards, Glen Buttriss, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Jarrad Kennedy, Mark Nicholls, Jake Foster, Lagi Setu, Mitch Cronin, Luke Bateman, Jack Ahearn, Andrew Heffernan.
- Trials versus Melbourne at AAMI Park, February 8: Jack Ahearn, Matt Allwood, Luke Bateman, Shannon Boyd, Mitch Cornish, Mitch Cronin, Joel Edwards, Jake Foster, Jeremy Hawkins, Andrew Heffernan, Jarrad Kennedy, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Brenko Lee, Jeff Lynch, Patrick Mago, Sam Mataora, Josh McCrone, Matt McIlwrick, Mark Nicholls, Mosese Pangai, Tevita Pangai Junior, Jordan Rapana, Reece Robinson, Sami Sauiluma, Lagi Setu, David Shillington, Dane Tilse, Bill Tupou, Jack Wighton.