GEAR UP FOR THE WEEKEND | Round 21 of the #NRL kicks off tonight with the Roosters hosting the Bronc...
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Parramatta Eels captain Nathan Cayless has stood on the edge of NRL grand final glory but knows only too well the bitter aftertaste of finals defeat.
In 2001, the Eels suffered an agonising 30-24 loss to the Newcastle Knights as their quest for a fifth first-grade title went horribly wrong.
With Sunday's semifinal clash with the North Queensland Cowboys the final hurdle standing in the way of next weekend's NRL grand final, the 27-year-old Sydney-born New Zealander believes it's time to make amends as his side hits this weekend's game as strong favourites.
But in the back of his mind are the demons of 2001.
"It was the most disappointing day of my life. It's something I'll never forget."
That sunny Sydney afternoon the Knights raced to an 18-0 lead inside the first 20 minutes and were 24-0 up at the break.
The Eels, minor premiership champions that year, fought back to within six points but it was not enough.
"I want to have another crack at it but we've got a very tough game this Sunday. If we don't get the job done against the Cowboys then it's all over and we'll have to start thinking about next year," Cayless said.
"We've been in good form in the last couple of weeks but so have the Cowboys (and other semifinalists) West Tigers and Dragons.
"The last three games are going to be thrillers with any of the four teams left able to win it from here."
Since his first-grade debut in 1997, Cayless has etched out a reputation as one of the NRL's hardest working and most reliable forwards and he took over the Eels' captaincy in 2000.
Two years earlier, Cayless made the decision on what colour test jersey he was going to pull on.
"My brother (Sydney Roosters prop Jason Cayless) and I were both born in Australia but mum grew up in Waitara and dad's from Wellington. I was happy with my decision to be a Kiwi and I'm always very proud to pull on the black jersey."
With a sprinkling of New Zealanders in action in this weekend's two semifinals, Cayless said there was a strong camaraderie off the pitch but no love lost for 80 minutes on it.
"Whenever we play each other we always catch up after a game ? this weekend I'll be marking (117kg Cowboys prop) Paul Rauhihi (from Porirua) and I expect a tough battle from the big man.
"There's also a few of the young Kiwi blokes there at Wests Tigers."
"He's really enjoying his footy at the moment. Every day when you pick up the paper in Sydney he's plastered all over it and that can only be good for New Zealand rugby league," he said.
"There's a lot of good young players coming along for the Kiwis and it's just a matter of getting them on the field at the same time then we'll give the Aussies a real good run."
While next month's Tri-Nations kickoff sees several of the Kiwis top-tier talent ruled out with injury, Cayless has declared himself available for the two southern hemisphere tests but will miss November's English leg with his partner giving birth to their first child