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'It means everything': Croker set to make dream debut

This is a story of tenacity and resilience.

Starring down the barrel of an entire season without football and then having lost a development deal by year's end, most would be forgiven for throwing in the towel.

This was not the case for the next inductee of the Newcastle Knights, Mat Croker.

The 21-year-old is set to become the next player to don the red and blue in the top grade after being selected to make his debut against the Parramatta Eels this Sunday.

However, only half a year ago, the NRL was a pipe dream for the young forward.

"I never thought this day would happen," Croker said.

"I remember before Round 1, I called up one of the local league first grade coaches and asked if he had a spot in his squad because I didn't think I was going to make the NSW Cup team.

"I thought the dream of playing in the NRL was out the window."

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Fast forward to Round 13 and a string of whole-hearted and impressive performances in the lower grades, and player absentees, has meant Croker will earn his shot in the NRL.

The forward earned the captaincy of the Cup team and has been granted his debut after the NRL allowed clubs to pick anyone in their squad after Round 10.

Having been one of the best on ground in every game so far this season, the hard-working forward has posted three tries and ran for an average of 123 running metres.

Croker will fulfil a lifelong dream come Sunday.

"It means everything," Croker said.

"Its been the last 16 or 17 years of wanting to play for the Knights.

"All I ever wanted to do was play NRL."

Looking back: A 2001 story

Born in Nabiac, Croker played his junior football in Taree.

The 21-year-old was identified by the Knights and has come through the pathways system.

Croker has won SG Ball and Harold Matthews player of the year awards and represented NSW at Under 20's level.

Having grown up in the area of another famous Knights figure, Croker has always aspired to pull on the red and blue.

"I grew up training on the Danny Buderus Oval," Croker said.

"He was a role model for everyone back in Taree and he is one of my first memories (of watching the Knights).

In 2020, the NSW Cup competition was abandoned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the young players plying their trade in the lower grades and pursuing an NRL dream, life became a whole lot tougher.

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"To be in the bubble was tough enough, but to not do the one thing that I just love so much in playing footy, made it even harder," Croker said.

"I had to go back to being part-time which was tough to wear on the chin.

"For this year, when I found out I was in the team, I was so excited because I hadn't played in over 12 months.

"I can't explain how much joy rugby league gives me, running out with your best mates and getting in the trenches together and that feeling of winning.

Adam O'Brien phoned Croker on Tuesday afternoon to tell him of the news he will be playing on Sunday.

"There was just this silence on the other end of the phone for what seemed like an age," O'Brien said of their conversation.

"He was pretty emotional and to start with, he couldn't speak.

"I could tell there and then how much it means to him. I told him he could let his mum and dad know but that was it and not to tell the rest of the boys because I wanted to announce it in front of everyone at our team meeting the next day.

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"I can honestly say in all my time as a coach, I've never heard a reaction to a guy debuting like it with how loud it was and how long the cheering went for.

"He's just such a popular young bloke and I'm really proud of him."

Mateship and camaraderie is something in which Croker thrives in.

The forward will line-up alongside some of his long-time mates and players he has played alongside from an early age come Sunday.

"Tex Hoy is one of my best mates.

"Six years ago on Thursday, to the day,  him and I won the Harold Matthews player of the year awards.

"And now on Sunday, we'll get to run out together.

"Even to warm up I'm going to be so pumped up," Croker continued.

"I'm a bit of a student of the game, I love the sport, so I understand how much the Old Boys mean to Newcastle.

"I know who has come before me.

"One of my great mates, Jack Johns, will make his Club debut as well and everyone knows what the Johns name means in Knights history.

"Sunday afternoon, Old Boys Day and running out with 16 of my mates, the script couldn't have been written any better.

I'm so excited."