Rugby League

Raiders toughnut Jason Croker makes comeback for Auckland Nines 10 years after retiring

Jason Croker built a record-breaking Canberra Raiders career on being a rugby league toughnut who never backed down from a battle with the big men.

But 10 years after retiring from the NRL as the Green Machine's most capped player and playing almost every position from wing to front-rower, he says the "little nippy blokes" worry him most as he aims for an Auckland Nines comeback.

Legend returns: The most capped player in Raiders history, Jason Croker, will be in the club's Auckland Nines team.
Legend returns: The most capped player in Raiders history, Jason Croker, will be in the club's Auckland Nines team. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

It looms as a commentator's worst nightmare with Croker set to link with nephew Lachlan and namesake Jarrod to complete a Croker hat-trick and an unusual uncle-nephew duo.

Croker has been hooked up to heart machines, put through fitness tests and given medicals as the Raiders work with the NRL to register him for the tournament on February 6-7.

Jarrod Croker as part of the Raiders' 1994 premiership team.
Jarrod Croker as part of the Raiders' 1994 premiership team. 

"And it's not the big blokes that worry me, it's the ones who can run around me these days," Croker laughed.

"It's been 10 years since I left the Raiders. I knew it was time back then, I wasn't playing as good as I used to. But the chance to play with Lach, that was too good to pass up. That's pretty special."

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But the 318-game champion isn't just along for the ride or a hit and giggle.

His hair might have disappeared long ago and he's now 42 years old, but Croker still bleeds green almost 30 years since moving from Crookwell to Canberra to join the Raiders.

It comes a year after Ken Nagas made his comeback at the Nines and when Croker bumped into Raiders assistant coach Dean Pay at the gym in Belconnen two months ago, the wheels were in motion.

"[Pay] called me later that day and said, 'what do you think about playing at the Nines?' I asked him [if] he was serious, and he was. Here we are," Croker said. "A few older blokes have done it, I spoke to Kenny and he said I'd have a ball."

The man better known as "Toots" was the last link to the Raiders' premiership era when he decided it was time end his NRL career in 2006.

He started at the Raiders as a 15-year-old, sharing a boarding house at Seiffert Oval and getting so homesick that he commuted from Crookwell to Canberra for two years.

He was the last remaining link to the Raiders' golden era when he retired with the most games of any player in Raiders history and a record 120 tries. Both of those records still stand.

To put that in perspective, the next player on the games record list is Laurie Daley at 244 while Jarrod Croker has played 149 since his debut in 2009.

"But the glory days? They're well behind me," Croker laughed. "It's not possible to get back there. I haven't played since 2010 ... I play a bit of touch and go to the gym.

"I've got a mate, Eik, who's a personal trainer and he looks after me. But that's it ... just running around with the kids. It keeps me a little bit in shape, but nothing like I'm getting myself into over the next couple of weeks."

Croker has spent his time working at his businesses around Canberra in recent years, including his cafe in Crace. But he'll start training with the Raiders once the NRL agreement is finalised.

The Raiders will send a team of future stars to Auckland to join Croker and give fringe players a chance to set the tournament alight.

Their NRL top squad will play a trial match in Orange while Jarrod Croker and Jack Wighton have also been picked to play in the All Stars game.

Jason Croker joins a list of past players, including Nagas, Brad Fittler, Steve Menzies and Braith Anasta, to come out of retirement for the Nines.

"I had all the tests and everything's in working order ... but I had to do a run last week with shuttle runs and stuff like that. I got through OK, but needed to go home for a sleep afterwards," Croker said.

"The old body is going to be sore [after Auckland], I'm not going to lie. But it's going to be good. Obviously there's that fun element of it and enjoyment. Everyone's going over to win but I know it's not the grand final."

Croker knows about having to back up. He played in the world nines in Fiji during Super League in 1997 and backed up to play three grand finals in a day in 1990 to win under-21s, reserve-grade and first-grade premierships with the Raiders.

But the clincher for his decision to play in Auckland was an opportunity to play with Lachlan, the 19-year-old playmaker ready to follow the family path.

"He's was just bloody good at whatever he played when he was younger and I've seen his games ... he's always had ability. Hopefully he can stay in once piece and you never know, he's a good kid. Obviously he comes from a good family," Croker grinned.

As for incumbent Raiders skipper Jarrod, who's no relation: "Mate, he's going to give my games record a shake. I wish I could claim him. I reckon if we're all out there at the same time, I might even be able to commentate that."