Fourteen long years ago, on a Sunday afternoon at Canberra Stadium, a slight 18-year-old Goulburn native ran out in the number 20 jersey for the Raiders against the New Zealand Warriors.
This was only his 7th appearance in the National Rugby League after rising through the ranks as a star in Canberra’s lower grades and a mainstay in that incredible Raiders Toyota Cup team in 2008.
On that day in 2009 against the Warriors, Jarrod Croker’s opposing centres were Simon Mannering and Jerome Ropati – two of the greatest Warriors the club has produced.
Kids from Goulburn aren’t much bothered with stuff like that.
‘Bigger they are, harder they fall.’
On cue, Croker bagged a pair of meat pies that Sunday and the Raiders raced home for a commanding 38-12 win after leading 16-12 at oranges.
His coach back then was David Furner.
“There’s a saying they’ve got there ‘bleed green’ and that’s just exactly what Jarrod does,” Furner told NRL.com.
“On and off the field, he is just a great person with very good values. I’ve still got a really good relationship with Jarrod and it’s a special bond.
“It’s memorable as a coach to debut a player but Jarrod will go down as a very special player and a very special person to me.”
By 2009, the name Ali Lauitiiti was an urban legend in the southern hemisphere. By then, the hulking second-rower, with hands as soft as Andrew Johns or Stacey Jones had been bamboozling defenders in the Super League for more than half a decade.
The Sonny Bill Williams before Sonny Bill Williams, once dubbed by former Warriors coach Mark Graham as the future “Michael Jordan of rugby league.”
All the while, the pint-sized Croker, socks around the ankles and headgear tightly wrapped around his head, pinballed between Warriors heroes… Manu Vatuvei, Steve Price, Ropati, Mannering, Jones.
In a backyard somewhere in Papatoetoe, a suburb in south Auckland, six-year-old Ali Leiataua kicks and passes a withered old Steeden.
On Friday night, that same kid, the nephew of Lauitiiti, runs out for the Warriors in his NRL debut, wearing the number 3 in Jarrod Croker’s 300th first grade appearance.
“I think it’s important we back our own,” Warriors coach Andrew Webster said.
“He’s [Leiataua] been fantastic in reserve grade, been their best player, been reliable, been tough and deserves this opportunity.
“He’s just so confident in himself. He’s so confident, but doesn’t get ahead of himself.
“He’s aggressive, he’s strong, he can beat people. Fundamentally, he’s reliable.
“You’re going to see a fearless player this week.”
This Friday in Canberra is all about Jarrod Croker and rightly so.
The journey to 300 first grade games is a long and arduous journey.
It comes and goes in a blink of an eye.
Just ask Croker, no more than 8 or 9 running down a footy field in Goulburn in the late 1990’s, as Ali Lauitiiti scores a try for the Warriors to upset David Furner’s Raiders 32-30.
When Croker runs out to the ‘Viking Clap’ on Friday night and a sold out GIO Stadium, it will be for the 300th time. Across the field from him will be a boy just beginning his journey.
Once upon a time, a rookie battled Ropati and Mannering.
Some day, a veteran will talk about the time he crossed paths with a head-geared Raiders legend in his 300th match.
In a way, we’re all still that kid in the backyard.
Running down a footy field in Goulburn.
It’s the spirit of the game – the time machine that links one generation to the next.
The only thing that changes is time and the cracks on our faces.