Croker expects Bulldogs pups to pack plenty of bite
Canterbury showed last weekend in Newcastle they won't be pushovers despite their lowly status on the ladder and Canberra captain Jarrod Croker is wary of the young Bulldogs pups.
The ninth-placed Raiders, six points adrift of eighth spot, are backing themselves to storm their way into finals calculations over the remaining nine games but they can kiss their slim hopes goodbye if they can't account for the Dogs at Belmore on Saturday night.
Croker said their young opponents, written off after the mid-season exits of Aaron Woods and Moses Mbye on top of the season-ending injury to Kieran Foran, had nothing to lose and everything to prove.
Canterbury coach Dean Pay has been forced to usher in a new generation of players, including halves Lachlan Lewis and Jeremy Marshall-King. They have a mere 17 games of Telstra Premiership experience compared with 245 of their opposite numbers, Aidan Sezer and Sam Williams.
Croker said the yawning gap in NRL exposure won't matter if the Raiders do not take Canterbury seriously. The Dogs are also without prop David Klemmer in camp with NSW although the Green Machine is also missing a vital cog due to representative duty, Queensland forward Josh Papalii.
"It [player movement] didn't affect them last week, they came out and pumped Newcastle, if anything it's given them a bit of a spring in their step," Croker said.
"They've got some young players in there now and everybody knows how dangerous a young and enthusiastic side can be.
"There's pressure on halves every week, there's pressure on [Jonathan] Thurston, there's pressure on Cooper Cronk and they've played 200 or 300 games.
"I thought Lachlan Lewis debuted really well last week, it was a big effort coming into a side that's had a bit of turmoil and a lot of player movement, so I thought he played really well."
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart has relegated off-contract star Blake Austin to the bench, elevating Williams to the starting halves alongside Sezer.
They have enjoyed mixed success this year, with the pair leading the side in their round-three loss to the Warriors before Williams injured his knee in Canberra's first victory of the season, coincidentally against Canterbury in round five.
"He's got a good opportunity, he's one of the smarter players I've ever played footy with, he's got such a football brain," Croker said of Williams.
"He's played a lot of first grade, a lot of NRL, he's been around a long time and every time he's got his opportunity he's taken it so I'm hoping he can do the same thing this weekend."
With 58 tries, the second-most in the NRL, it won't be their attack that will define if the Raiders win this weekend but their work without the ball.
Austin has been criticised for his decision making in defence at times this year. However, Williams and Austin have a tackling efficiency of 82%, well above another half who has been criticised for his defence in Blues pivot James Maloney (62%).
Croker said the team was thrilled with Brad Abbey's first NRL appearance as a Raider at fullback last weekend and hoped he would continue that vein of form in Sydney.
The future of who plays at fullback in the long-term is up in the air, with Jack Wighton back in court on Friday after pleading guilty to an early morning assault in February.
"It had been addressed a long time ago for us so we've all put it behind us, obviously it's just resurfacing in the media," Croker said of Wighton legal matters.
"The boys are fine and Jack's fine, he's in a good headspace."