8 hours ago
Kangaroos coach Ricky Stuart claims fans won't see Darren Lockyer at his best again until 2009, even if the Test skipper makes a successful return from injury this season.
Lockyer has withdrawn from Friday's Centenary Test against New Zealand due to complications with his knee.
His immediate playing future is in doubt as he heads home to Brisbane for more surgery.
While confident Lockyer could once again reach the level that had him regarded as the best player in the world in 2006, Stuart admitted that may not happen until next season as he continues to work his way back from a knee reconstruction midway through last year.
"The hardest part about a knee reconstruction is the six months (of playing) after surgery," Stuart said.
"We've always said that it's an 18-month injury.
"I feel as though next year will be a better year for Darren Lockyer in regards to (overcoming) his knee operation."
But while his best may be some way off, it would appear Lockyer would only have to regain fitness to lead the Australian side into the end of season World Cup tournament.
Stuart on Sunday applauded Lockyer for ruling himself out and putting the team above his own ambitions, the Test coach knowing all too well exactly what the champion five-eighth was giving up.
"It's a big occasion for rugby league ... to miss out on such an important Test match it would be very disappointing for Darren and disappointing for us because we've lost one of the best players in the game today and that's a huge blow," Stuart said.
"That's Darren Lockyer all over in regards to putting the team first."
Stuart defended the decision by selectors to promote Melbourne backrower Michael Crocker into the 17-man squad ahead of 18th man Anthony Laffranchi to fill the void left by Lockyer.
Laffranchi has been the form forward over the opening eight rounds of the NRL premiership, but Stuart said Crocker's experience and knowledge of the team structure probably swung the decision his way.
Crocker played his first Test since 2004 when recalled for the end-of-season rout of the Kiwis in October last year.
"It's not my decision but they're two different players," Stuart said.
"One is in great form and Michael, who is also in good form, has got that experience at this level (and) for a one-off Test match that's probably the way the selectors looked at it."
The Kangaroos will hold their first training session at Oki Jubilee Stadium Monday afternoon.