Painful wait out of the way for Croker
For young Manly Sea Eagles playmaker Lachlan Croker, the most painful part wasn't having his 2016 NRL debut with Canberra ended after less than 40 minutes by a shoulder injury.
The most painful part wasn't even the subsequent ruptured ACL, suffered playing for Raiders feeder club Mounties later that season, which sidelined him for a year.
It was the two years in the NRL wilderness, not knowing if or when he'd get another chance, not truly knowing if he was good enough.
That long wait came to an end at Newcastle's McDonald Jones Stadium last Friday night, and while his Sea Eagles fell agonisingly short in that 19-18 loss, Croker himself believes he and the team will be better for the experience as he aims to make the wait between his second and third NRL games roughly 50 weeks shorter than the one between his first and second.
"It was a pretty special experience having my family up there [at Newcastle]," Croker said.
"They obviously know how hard it's been on me and how tough things have been. It was more of a culmination of things and something we were all really happy about.
"The last couple of years have thrown me around with not being back in there (the NRL) and the way my body had been treated so to get through it and hopefully get through a couple more will be good."
Croker stressed his knee is fine and it wasn't his injury history playing on his mind. His pre-game nerves also settled once he got into the team environment, he added.
"I was more nervous being at home and not being around the boys but as soon as I got in with the boys and got around them I had – not a lot of nerves but I felt like we were all in it together and they were always going to look after me so being around them made it easy," he said.
"It's just a different feeling. It's all I wanted to do for so many years and to be able to do it is really special."
Croker's club debut drew support from prop Martin Taupau.
"I think he did really well for his first game for us," Taupau said.
"I think he's still trying to find his feet in our side. It will definitely take a couple of rounds and you'll see some fireworks."
Much of the conversation in the pre-season has centred around how Croker will fare filling the gulf left by departed five-eighth Blake Green, who proved an ideal foil for senior half Daly Cherry-Evans last season.
Green's deft kicking was a highlight for the Sea Eagles last year whereas Croker's strongest facet is his running game. Croker admitted the combination is a work in progress but felt he and Cherry-Evans could combine well together.
"[The combination] were pretty good considering we only spent the last three months together," he said.
"They're obviously pretty crucial positions and they have to be able to gel properly to have a good team performance. We're only going to get better and the more time we spend together the better it will be.
"We're both around the ball a lot where Chez is good on an edge or a lot wider.
"I feel like the way the game went with so much dropped ball and all that sort of stuff we weren't able to move the ball as much as we would have liked. Holding the ball will fix that and letting Chez have a crack on the edges and not having to worry about what happens through the middle.
"I feel like our jobs are completely different so that makes my job easier, knowing that's my job and that's his job. Games together will fix that."