Lachlan Croker is adamant he still has plenty of quality rugby league left in him after recently returning to the training field following a third knee reconstruction.
The young Sea Eagles five-eighth suffered the season-ending left knee injury in the round eight loss to Newcastle last April. What followed was more surgery, eight long months of rehab, and the constant mind battles of pushing his body through it all again.
The injury was a cruel blow to Croker who spent the pre-season building a combination with half-back Daly Cherry-Evans in his first year at the club.
"I won't be doing any contact work for a while yet but to just be back out with the boys training again is a massive lift," Croker said.
Croker thanked the Sea Eagles Rehabilitation team for being by his side for the past eight months.
"I owe a lot to Cam and I'm really grateful for the amount of time and effort he has put into me,'' Croker said.
As for the mental challenge, Croker admitted there were thoughts of retirement.
"It is really hard, the mental side of it,'' the 22-year-old said.
But I knew if I gave the game away, I would kick myself for the next 50 years.Lachlan Croker on thoughts of retirement
"(Being an NRL player) is still the best job in the world. Obviously, I would change things if I could but you can't. You just have to move on.
"As a league player, you know what you are getting yourself in for in terms of possible injuries. But as I said, it's still the best job in the world and I love being here every day and around the boys.
"I've learnt a lot about myself over the last eight months. The first six months were unbelievably hard just because I knew how far away I was.
"I knew it was going to be a long process because we were going to take this rehab a little slower being a second time around on the knee.
"When you hear how long it is going to take and what you have to do again to get back, it makes it very hard mentally.
"I've always said that if you don't know what you are getting yourself into in terms of the rehab, then it is a lot easier to do. But knowing what's ahead makes it really hard.
"However I have learnt a lot about my mental strength and am tougher for it now.
"I have been really lucky with the support from my partner, Abbey, and my family. Abbey looks after me unbelievably. She has been through a lot of tough days but has always been positive about it all. She certainly didn't let me dwell in my own sorrow.
"It is the same with my parents and brother. When I see them, it's not about footy but just about where I am as a person, and how things are going."
With new recruit Kane Elgey and the experienced Trent Hodkinson vying for the five-eighth jersey, Croker knows he has plenty of groundwork to make up if he is to return alongside Cherry-Evans. The pair played seven matches together before Croker's injury.
"I'm grateful to still be here at Manly. It's time now to repay the club,'' Croker said.
"I'm just looking forward to playing footy again. Obviously, I think about getting back and playing in the NRL every day but I have to work my way back in.
"Rugby league is a funny game. I was enjoying my footy with Daly and felt I was starting to find my feet. I knew my role in the team and then to have it come crashing down again was just devastating.
"I felt we were in a good spot. We had a lot of conversations about the way we were playing and the roles we had, so we tweaked them to make it more beneficial for the team.
"Daly was always very good to me and made sure I knew what I had to do. He pushed me to be better, and hopefully, we can get back to playing together again."
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