GEAR UP FOR THE WEEKEND | Round 21 of the #NRL kicks off tonight with the Roosters hosting the Bronc...
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After having the bye in round 26, Newcastle welcome back captain Andrew Johns from a contrary conduct suspension for their Qualifying Final against Manly. The match will be played at a sold out Energy Australia Stadium, where just a month ago, the exact same sides played in a corresponding match which was fuelled with controversy, as the Knights lost an attacking raid with just one minute on the clock. That night referee Paul Simpkins correctly ruled that a pass was not played at by Sea Eagles? centre Steve Matai.
Knights coach Michael Hagan, who hypothetically could be coaching his last match in Newcastle before heading to Parramatta next season, has named a seven man bench, which includes young star Jarrod Mullen who will play off the bench with the halves combination including Johns at halfback and Kurt Gidley at five-eighth.
Manly also welcome back captain Ben Kennedy, who returns from a knee injury he sustained in that match against the Knights in round 23 in Newcastle. Coach Des Hasler has named just that one change for this match, with lock Luke Williamson dropping back to the bench with the return of Kennedy to the side.
Despite losing to the Storm last Saturday and thus relinquishing a top four position, the Sea Eagles have been in good form over the past month with victories beforehand against the Bulldogs, Rabbitohs and Knights.
Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett has named an unchanged lineup for their home semi-final against St George Illawarra on Saturday evening with prop Shane Webcke given the chance to play his final match in Queensland. Normal centre Justin Hodges retains his spot in the number one jumper despite being under pressure from his wingers Darius Boyd and Karmichael Hunt, who can also play in the fullback role.
The Dragons have also named an unchanged lineup for this match, with prop Michael Henderson named on an extended five man bench. Halfback Mathew Head has been named in Premier League once again, although he could make a surprise appearance for the joint venture since playing two weeks in a row in reserve grade. The last time these two sides met, was in round 15, with a last minute conversion from the sideline from hooker Aaron Gorrell being the difference.
The Bulldogs have been hit with a blow in the week leading up to their clash with the Raiders at Telstra Stadium on Saturday night with Souths junior Reni Maitua being ruled out of the match with a knee injury. Dallas McIlwain has replaced him in the starting side, with Australian representative Willie Mason returning to the side since being suspended in round 24 in the side?s heavy defeat to the Broncos, for a late tackle on halfback Shane Perry.
Canberra will play their first game in the finals since making an appearance for one week in 2004. Coach Matthew Elliot has kept the same side, which got home against the Sharks last Saturday evening. Veteran Jason Smith is listed on the bench. This means that if the Raiders were to go down on Saturday night it would be the end of his career at Canberra before moving to play with the Cowboys next season.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy, who was crowned Dally M Coach of the Year for season 2006, has named a seven man bench for their home semi final against the Eels on Sunday afternoon. This bench includes Gold Coast bound Jake Webster, who can?t seem to score a place in the starting side since the return of Greg Inglis in to the centres. This match will be the only semi final in 2006 to be played during the day, with the remaining five games after this all being at night.
Eels? captain Nathan Cayless will make a shock return for this sudden death clash away to the Storm after being ruled out for the season in round 24 against the Roosters with an eye socket injury. Despite this, Cayless has been named to play against the Storm, which could be coach Jason Taylor?s last game in charge of the side, before moving to South Sydney next season to coach the new look Rabbitohs.