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Eels and Cowboys face off in unlikeliest of Semi Finals
At the beginning of 2017 the notion that Parramatta would host North Queensland in a Semi Final seemed nothing more than a Blue and Gold fantasy. Failing to qualify for the finals every year since their 2009 fairytale run, the Eels could hope at best to finish in the lower half of the top eight. In contrast, a Cowboys outfit boasting the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott were expected to vie for another premiership title. The fortunes of NRL teams have a way of throwing up the unexpected and with just six teams left with one common goal in mind, the prosper-or-perish mentality of sudden death football should ensure that irrespective of external criticisms, rugby league will be the winner.
Rated severe outsiders leading into their match against Melbourne last week, the Eels gained plenty of admirers with a gallant loss to suggest that with a few improvements, the long-standing premiership drought may be about to end. Gaining the upper hand on the Storm throughout the Qualifying Final at times, poor discipline proved costly for Brad Arthur's men, yet the resilience to fight their way to within two points of the premiership favourites will give the side plenty of confidence coming up against the Cowboys. Hosting their first final at ANZ in a decade, the Eels will be out to exorcise the demons of the only other time they faced off against the Cowboys in September - a harrowing 29-0 loss in the 2005 Preliminary Final. Retaining the same starting side that went down 18-16 in the Southern capital, coach Brad Arthur has resisted bringing back Bevan French from injury, while also naming Cameron King at starting hooker despite a lengthy stoppage of play initially drawing fears the injury-riddled rake could be set for another extended stint on the sidelines. While unlikely to use players outside the named 17, the experience of David Gower, Josh Hoffman, Kaysa Pritchard and Peni Terepo could see late changes to the side finalised an hour before kick-off.
Defying expectations with an inspiring come-from-behind effort to down the reigning premiers in a match largely overshadowed by the petulance of the losing coach, the Cowboys will approach Saturday's encounter with a similar air of minimal expectation and maximum self-belief. Buoyed by the confidence instilled by such a monumental performance that ranks among the best in the clubs history, coach Paul Green will be wary of the toll endured by his players having gone beyond the distance to claim victory in extra time. As the only side to feature twice in the NRL's revamped finals overtime protocols, the Cowboys will need to ensure a strong start against the Eels or risk a similar fate that saw the former champions fall by the wayside in the penultimate match of 2016. Retaining the same squad that triumphed 15-14 over Cronulla, the visitors will be hoping the occasion of Kane Linnett's 150th appearance for the club inspires a result similar to their emphatic 32-6 win over Parramatta in Darwin three months ago. In the only possible change from last week, dual premiership winner and representative speedster Justin O'Neill could be a late inclusion after being named on an extended bench. If cleared to play, the former Storm outside back would be expected to take the place of Javid Bowen in the centres, but with Antonio Winterstein struggling with injuries throughout 2017, a reshuffled backline could see the Samoan representative omitted from the starting side.
Last meeting: Round 14 2017 - Eels 6 Cowboys 32
Last Finals Meeting: Second Preliminary Final, 2005 - Parramatta Eels 0 North Queensland Cowboys 29
Who to watch: Making a successful return in the run towards September having initially been diagnosed with a season ending injury, Beau Scott will be out to bring his aggression and experience to the fore on Saturday night. The most experienced finals player within the Parramatta ranks, the former New South Wales and Australian enforcer developed a reputation for his unrelenting treatment of Johnathan Thurston and will be out to live up to the hype in what shapes as a tough night for Michael Morgan. A far cry from the centre that debuted for the Sharks 12 years ago, Scott has risen to the heights of rugby league with success in all facets of the game, yet his greatest accomplishment potentially lays ahead by leading the Eels faithful to the promise land of premiership glory that has eluded the Blue and Gold army for the past 31 seasons.
Having defied expectations to lead the Cowboys to the unlikeliest of wins last Sunday, reigning Dally M medalist Jason Taumalolo will be intent on leading his side to another major scalp over the Eels. In the absence of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, the 24-year-old colossus has become the most important player for the North Queensland outfit, with his work rate leaving a path of destruction for opposition sides to contend with. While the Eels may boats an arguably stronger forward pack across the board, the individual brilliance of Taumalolo will go a long way towards determining the victor of Saturday's showdown. Overcoming a period of ineffective performances, the New Zealand international looms as the player most capable of determining which side faces off against the Roosters next week.
The favourite: While a combination of luck and big match inexperience proved costly for the Eels in Melbourne, a second chance in front of a vocal home supporter base has the Blue and Gold's poised to extend their premiership tilt by another week.
My tip: Having pushed Melbourne down to the wire last Saturday, the chance to make amends against a gallant, but battle weary Cowboys outfit should see the Eels set up a Preliminary Final date with the Roosters. Eels by 14.
1. Will Smith 2. Semi Radradra 3. Michael Jennings 4. Brad Takairangi 5. Kirisome Auva'a 6. Corey Norman 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Daniel Alvaro 9. Cameron King 10. Tim Mannah 11. Manu Ma'u 15. Kenny Edwards 13. Nathan Brown 14. Beau Scott 17. Suaia Matagi 18. Kaysa Pritchard 19. Peni Terepo
1. Lachlan Coote 2. Kyle Feldt 19. Justin O'Neill 4. Kane Linnett 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Michael Morgan 17. Shaun Fensom 9. Jake Granville 10. Scott Bolton 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Ethan Lowe 13. Jason Taumalolo 8. John Asiata 14. Ben Hampton 15. Coen Hess 16. Corey Jensen
Referees: Matt Cecchin, Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials: Brett Suttor, Chris Butler; Video Referees: Ashley Klein, Ben Galea;