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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald
Max McKinney

Ban leaves promising Knights forward on back foot for 2023 campaign

Mat Croker, right, alongside Oryn Keeley, left. The 23-year-old forward copped a two-match ban for a hip-drop tackle in the final game of last season but has been forced to miss the trials as well. Picture by Max Mason-Hubers

Mat Croker hopes to cement a spot in Newcastle's NRL side this season but the promising forward will start 2023 on the back foot due to a suspension anomaly.

Croker will be unavailable for the first two NRL matches this season after accepting a suspension for a hip-drop tackle he was penalised for in the last two minutes of the final game last season.

But the 23-year-old has been unable to play in the pre-season trial games as well because he was charged with a grade-three offence.

Had it been a grade-one or two ban, the Nabiac product could have played last week against Cronulla and on Friday against Parramatta.

In a clear example of how the rule works, Knights tyro Oryn Keeley copped a grade-two ban late last season which renders him unavailable for round one, but he can still play in the trials.

"I have to miss two round games which is fair enough, you have to get these tackles out of the game," Croker said.

"But it was an accident, I just fell off the back of him.

"Missing trials is the bit that hurts. A lot of guys get to play [with suspension]. To miss the trial matches is really hard because you can train all you want, but on the field is where you start to build combinations and learn to play with other players."

In hindsight, the Knights may have been better off seeking a downgrade of Croker's charge, but he took an early guilty plea to only miss two games, rather than three.

With genuine competition for spots across multiple positions this season, Croker is having to rely on his work at training to push for an opportunity come round three.

But the coaching staff are unlikely to forget how he performed in 2022. The Taree Panthers junior had a breakout year, one of the few shining lights amid a disappointing team campaign.

After making two brief appearances in 2021, Croker played 16 games last season and at one point looked to be becoming a permanent fixture on the team list.

He started last year on a training contract, not even a development deal, but by mid-season earned a new two-year deal and upgrade to the top-30 roster for 2023.

"I didn't think I was going to get as many games as I did, but I was 18th man [in] round one and I think that's when it hit me I was a good chance of playing in this team a fair bit," Croker said.

"I unfortunately broke my jaw early in the year, so I had to miss about four or five games ... but I got a fair chunk of the season which I was just over the moon with because I was working really hard to be the best player I could be.

"To get those rewards was a really good feeling, but we didn't win a whole heap of games so my next goal is to be a part of the NRL team and win a lot more games for this club and this town."

Croker is keen to make up for lost time when his ban ends.

He knows he may have to play some NSW Cup but is desperate to be an NRL regular, not just a cover player.

As a middle-forward, he is likely vying for a spot on the bench.

"I don't want to be out of the 17, or 18 as it is now," he said.

"I'd like to nail down a bench spot and if possible, even the top 13.

"But to play off the bench is just as crucial as being in the starting side."

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