If you ever wanted to rob a bank in Goulburn, or take a stab at boosting the Big Merino, Friday afternoon would be the time.
There won’t be a soul around in the nation’s first inland city. They’ll all be up the freeway to celebrate Jarrod Croker, the town’s favourite son, as he plays his 300th NRL game.
This entire week has been a celebration of Croker and his long career but that story starts back home because before the 32-year-old was anything else in rugby league, he was a Goulburn Stockman.
“The Raiders have been really good, they’ve given us 400 tickets for the junior Stockmen and the senior side, the Bulldogs,” said Goulburn local Jeremy Ryan.
“We’re all going to try and wear our junior Stockmen gear so we can stand out on TV. You add in the family – God knows how many Crokers are going – there’d be 100-plus for sure and there’ll be plenty from his mum, Pauline’s, side as well.
“He plays a big part in putting Goulburn on the map. Jarrod has always been himself and he’s carried himself so well, that’s what you want to represent your town.
“What you see is what you get, he’s the most humble, good fella who’s from a great family, still great to have a beer with. He means a lot to this town.”
Ryan knows Croker better than most – he’s a cousin and a former teammate, with the two winning a first grade grand final together for the Stockmen back in 2007.
Croker was just 16 back then and everything he’s gone on to do with the Raiders was just a dream. But even then, playing against men twice his age, his quality stood out. Then, like now, he just had a way about him.
“A 16-year-old playing first grade, there’s always going to be some wraps on him. He’s not going to be chucked into the deep end,” Ryan said.
“He’d mainly come off the bench and play in the centres and his attack always stood out, he always had a knack to beat his outside man.
“He’d just put a step on, bring the winger in and put his own winger away. Having that timing at such a young age and knowing how to do that, how to create the space, was pretty awesome to watch.”
Goulburn has a proud history in the local Canberra comp but in 2007, after some tough years, they were in Group 6, which is mainly played around the Southern Highlands and Macarthur areas.
It meant there was plenty of time for bullshitting and bonding on the long bus trips up the Hume to places like Picton, Moss Vale, Thirlmere and Camden and because of the drought the fields were usually dust bowls or covered in dead, yellow grass.
If the pitches were tough the men who played were even tougher.
Among the grizzled old bastards and rock-breaking shitkickers, Croker more than managed to hold his own.
“The physicality of those sides stood out,” Ryan said.
“There weres some ex-Tigers around like Troy Wozniak, Robbie Mears – once you were hit you stayed hit.
“Everyone could see the potential and how much talent he (Croker) had, so he was never treated like a rookie.
“He was always a quiet kid, so it’s funny to see him become such a leader for Canberra, but he was always full of energy and a gun footballer.”
Loading YouTube content
Goulburn isn’t a big town but cold winters breed hard men and at the end of that 2007 season the Stockmen made it all the way to the decider against Thirlmere Roosters, who were shooting for back-to-back premierships.
Croker’s cross for an early try and the back-and-forth match was on the edge of a knife in the second half until Roosters forward Peter Jensen, one of the best players in the group, was sent off.
“He flew out of the line with a cocked elbow straight to the head of our backrower, Jeff Matai,” Ryan said.
“It was so brutal. That got our tails up.”
Ryan crossed soon after to break a 26-all deadlock before Mark Asbock, who played a few games with the Raiders years before and was the only other Stockman who ever hit the big time, sealed the premiership with one final score.
It was Goulburn’s first premiership in any competition since 1984, when Croker’s father Greg helped steer the Goulburn Workers Bulldogs to victory over Queanbeyan, and it meant everything for a town that sorely needed something to be proud of.
“It was super important for the town because we were competitive again after some tough years. There were blokes around the team who’d won that premiership back in the 80s, so it meant plenty to them,” Ryan said.
“I remember on the day how many people came up from Goulburn. There was finally a good feeling in the town after a few rough years.
“Winning a grand final, it’s all you want to do with your mates. After under-18s you stick around and watch firsts and those guys might only be in their late 20s but you look up to them, they’re people you want to impress, people you don’t want to let down.
“It can be hard, because numbers can always be tough, but playing footy for your hometown … it’s hard to put into words.
“You just want to represent your town, you want to strive to be better and show those kids the way like the old fellas did for you.”
The celebrations were filled with hard drinking and loud talking and they went for a while – Ryan made it to Monday night but some blokes kept at it until the Wednesday. Ryan reckons Croker and another teammate didn’t shower for three days afterwards because they wanted to keep the premiership dirt on them.
It was the last game Croker ever played for Goulburn because the bright lights of the NRL were waiting, but he never really left. When you’re from somewhere like Goulburn you never leave it behind and whenever you come home it’s always there waiting for you.
The very next season Croker won another premiership, this time with the Raiders under-20s side on the back of a move called G-town.
He’s been doing big things in the city for a long time now but he’s still back home all the time. It will always be his place.
That’s why everyone is going to be there.
That’s why they’ll head south out of town, past Lake George and into the ACT and all the way up to Bruce Stadium, decked out in Stockmen colours under the Friday night lights.
This is Croker’s night, which means it’s Goulburn’s night, which means it’s everybody’s night.
He has come so far and done so much and they have been with him every step of the way.
“As a teammate it was fantastic to watch,” Ryan said.
“But knowing him, what drives him, how mentally tough he had to be to get this far down the road – young footballers can always go one of two ways and plenty of them don’t make it and the determination to make the NRL, stay there and keep achieving?
“It’s unbelievable. It’s been so good to watch.”