The greatest moment of Lachlan Croker's burgeoning NRL career took place last night, just over a week after he feared he might have no more part to play in the 2021 season.
Ahead of the Manly Sea Eagles' slated clash with the Melbourne Storm in the first round of finals, Croker felt some stiffness in his lower back during training.
This was enough for the team management to rule the injury-prone 24-year-old out of the game on September 10.
"It's always tough with these things, because you never want to put yourself in the position where you're not fully ready to go and take the spot of someone else if you're not going to get through the game," Croker said.
"That was a concern of mine, and thankfully the week leading into yesterday's game I got through it, trained a couple of days, and was ready to go on Friday night."
Though his finals debut was delayed by a week, it could not have come in a better game for the Sea Eagles, who demolished the Sydney Roosters 42-6 at Stadium Mackay, Queensland, last night.
The Roosters have won two of the last three NRL premierships (in 2018 and 2019) and finished the season in fifth place, narrowly below Manly on the ladder. Though they were depleted by the absence of Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend, Sam Verrills, Brett Morris, and Joey Manu through either injuries, retirement, or suspension, Croker didn't expect the scoreline to be as one-sided as it became.
"You never expects those games, especially in finals, to go the way it did," he said.
"I think the way they've performed throughout the year and the guys they've had out, it was a rollercoaster of a year and a pretty long year for them.
"Handling errors and stuff like that, it happened to us the week before and we knew exactly how they felt last night because Melbourne did it to us. We were just lucky we got the extra chance to learn from our mistakes before, and they weren't as lucky."
The match was eye-opening for Croker, who, despite having 58 games to his name, had never played in one with the same scrutiny and pressure as last night's.
"It was really cool, with the fireworks and everything before the game," he said.
"Getting out there in front of a good size crowd, with the atmosphere and the realisation that if we don't turn up tonight, we're going home was something I'd never experienced before and something I'd like to keep experiencing from here on out.
"That's the reason you play footy, and last night was obviously the biggest game of my career. Playing finals footy was something I'd always had pencilled in, and to be able to do that last night was a real dream come true."
The dream will continue for Croker this Friday, when the Sea Eagles face off against the South Sydney Rabbitohs on Friday, September 24, in the first preliminary final of the year.
The match will take place at Suncorp Stadium in Milton from 7.50pm on September 24.
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