After five years and 57 career matches in the NRL, Lachlan Croker is about to play his first finals series.
The 24-year-old Crookwell product has played a crucial role for the Manly Sea Eagles this season in the number nine jersey, which saw the team compile a record of 16 wins and eight losses.
A favourable points differential squeezed Manly into fourth on the ladder, which has set up a qualifying final against the Melbourne Storm this Friday.
"It's a bloody strange feeling, to be fair," Croker said.
"It's been a really good year for the team, and I've been lucky enough to be involved with a group of guys who are playing really good footy. Friday night will be something that I've never experienced before, and I'm really excited to see what it's all about, and get out there and give it a good crack."
In the early stages of the season, however, the Sea Eagles did not appear to be destined for a place in the finals.
After their first four matches, they had recorded four losses and slumped to the bottom of the ladder.
"It was a pretty upsetting time," Croker said.
"We do so much work over the off-season ... but to come up and lose the first four games and be sitting last was really upsetting."
But Manly's fortunes reversed after that initial skid, and the team went on to win 16 of its next 20 games. Croker attributed this, largely, to the return of star fullback Tom Trbojevic, who he said was "probably the best player in the competition at the moment".
"Obviously losing Turbo for the first five weeks didn't make things easy for us," he said.
"We had him the whole pre-season and a lot of our shape and structures revolved around the way he played footy. Losing him, and then having a fullback in there that wasn't training with the spine we had at the time, it would hurt any team.
"Seeing how good he's been since he came back, it's no surprise that we struggled early."
2021 has been revelatory for Croker on-field, as it is his first season playing at hooker. For the majority of his career, he has played in the halves, but this year made the switch to number nine and has done well in the role. Croker credited the success of this change to guidance he received from the club.
"I knew at the start of the year that I could fill this position and do the job well," Croker said.
"But to be able to put some performances together and repay those guys that had a lot of faith in me, the coaching staff and particularly guys like Michael Monaghan, Chad Randall, and Matt Ballin who put a lot of time into me as ex-hookers themselves, that's probably the best thing, being able to repay them."
But Croker, and the rest of the Manly line-up, will have to play at their best this Friday if they hope to upset the top-ranked Melbourne Storm.
With 21 wins and three losses for the season, which included a stretch of 19 straight victories, the Storm have been juggernauts of the 2021 season and will start the qualifying final as significant favourites.
However, the only time Manly and Melbourne played this season, in round 21, only ten points separated the two by the final horn as the Storm came away with a 28-18 win.
"After the last time we played them, we got a lot of confidence out of it and the way that we played," Croker said.
"There wouldn't be many teams in the top eight now that don't think they're going to be able to go on to win it, otherwise they're wasting their time.
"We're confident in what we can do, but the thing will be trying to put an 80-minute performance in against the best team in the competition.
"We've had a bit of trouble with getting into games and then falling away from them, so we're very aware that this game's going to have to go for 80 minutes and we're going to have to be prepared to win it in the back end."
The Manly Sea Eagles and Melbourne Storm will face off in the first final of the 2021 NRL season this Friday, September 10, from 7.50pm at the Sunshine Coast Stadium.
While you're with us...
Did you know the Goulburn Post is now offering breaking news alerts and a weekly email newsletter? Keep up-to-date with all the local news: sign up here.