At 15-years of age, Matt Croker already understands and has tapped into the unique spirit of rugby league’s State of Origin.
As a member of the Under 16s NSW representative side, the Nabiac based Knights junior has been in camp this week industriously preparing for Wednesday night’s Origin curtain-raiser match at ANZ Stadium.
“I think the mateship is pretty big,” Croker said.
“These blokes I’ve camped with and who I’m set to play with, will be my mates for life.
“I can’t wait for the contest, State of Origin is one of the biggest rivalries ever.
“It’s going to a completely different level and is going to be quicker and more physical.
“I’m just going to go out there and try to enjoy myself and play a good game of footy.”
Every element of Wednesday night’s match incites excitement in the talented young forward.
“We are playing at ANZ Stadium, before the big boys and it’s the one and only State of Origin,” he added.
“It’s really exciting and nerve racking, but it’s all positive.”
The enormity of the achievement became real for Croker when the side explored ANZ Stadium and ran through the game day routine and pre-game warm up.
“I think a lot for a lot of the boys it kicked into them as soon as they walked out onto the field,” he said.
“I don’t think any of us have ever played at ANZ Stadium so it was a massive buzz.
“To be playing at one of the best games in Australia and before one of the biggest games of the year, it has everyone really switched on."
In a testament to the teenager’s maturity and ability to lead his peers, Croker was named captain for the representative match as he aims to steer his state to glory.
“I was nervous and excited, it’s probably the proudest moment I’ve ever had,” he said about the announcement made by coach Danny Buderus.
“It was mixed emotions but all good ones.”
The whirlwind week began with high intensity training sessions and bonding activities at the team's base in Narrabeen.
The young Blues then put the finishing touches on their game plan in the captain’s run training session on Tuesday before watching starry-eyed the first grade NSW Origin side train.
Croker’s journey to represent his state was ignited at junior rugby league club, the Taree Panthers when he started playing league at the age of four-years-old.
He first linked up with the Newcastle Knights when he was selected to play for the U15s Chargers last year, which earned him an invitation to join the Club’s High Performance Unit.
He then progressed to captain the Anthony Gleeson coached Harold Matthews Knights this year.
“When I got my first contract with the Knights, that was a pretty big highlight and a big moment for me,” he said.
Croker reflects he received the exciting call he’d made the cut for NSW Origin Pathways squad when he was watching his younger brother play football.
“When I got the call I sort of flipped out and grabbed mum,” he said.
“She got a bit teary and I was sitting next to my dad and looked at him, and he doesn’t give too much away.
“He shook my hand and said, ‘good on you boy.’
“I know they were all pretty proud of me and I just want to do them proud.”
On the eve of the big match, the aspiring Blues were presented their jerseys in camp with Knights' legend and NSW Origin star Andrew Johns handing over his number eight jersey.
The Taree High School student particularly treasures the opportunity to be mentored by Buderus..
“It’s good because we are both from Newcastle and are both Taree boys,” he said.
“He’s been great. He’s a great bloke and a really good coach.
“He’s such a genuine and nice guy and has taught us a lot in the past week so it’s been awesome.”
For Croker, the phenomenal experience brings him a step closer to his ultimate dream, to play first grade for the Newcastle Knights with his early representative honour inspiring him to seize every opportunity that will bring him closer to the end goal.
Meanwhile, the 29-man NSWRL under 18s State of Origin squad has been selected with Knights Brock Lamb, Jack Cogger, Brodie Jones and Jayden Butterfield gaining selection.
The squad is set to gather on Wednesday June 3 when the players will meet the 2015 State of Origin team staff, including the head coach Todd Payton. The group will then go through some training drills, and tactical education in preparation for their game against Queensland.
The final 18 players to represent New South Wales will be selected the following weekend.