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A finals rematch two decades in the making
The first week of the finals concludes with a do-or-die encounter between the Parramatta Eels and the Newcastle Knights on Sunday afternoon.
Renewing a finals rivalry that reached a crescendo in 2001 when Newcastle defied the odds to be crowned premiers, the two teams will be fully aware of the stakes with the victor to take on the loser of the qualifying final between Penrith and South Sydney next Saturday evening.
Beginning the year in fine form before declining in the post-Origin period, the Parramatta Eels will be hoping 2021 can be the year the club's 35-year premiership drought comes to an end.
Securing sixth position off the back of 15 wins and the prestige of being the only team to defeat the reigning premiers twice during the regular season, coach Brad Arthur will be looking for his rested players to make an impact in the end of season fixtures after effectively conceding last week's 40-6 loss to the Panthers by fielding an understrength line up.
Recalling nine players who watched on from the grandstands last Friday, the blue and golds will be additionally bolstered by the returns of Ryan Matterson - named on the extended bench - and Reagan Campbell-Gillard from suspension and injury respectively.
Winning one of their three previous clashes against the Knights in finals football, the Eels have gone down in four of their past six matches in September despite leading or being level on the scoreboard at halftime.
Reaching the top eight in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 18 years, the Newcastle Knights will be hoping to continue a late surge of momentum after securing a place in the finals with five wins from their last six matches.
Finishing the home-and-away season in seventh position with the worst for-and-against of any team to legitimately qualify for the finals in the NRL era - the Raiders (2002) were elevated into eighth with a points differential of -170 after the Bulldogs were found to be in breach of the salary cap - coach Adam O'Brien will be banking on his side to bounce back after resting a host of stars during last week's 35-22 loss to the Broncos.
Regaining the services of Hymel Hunt, Daniel Saifiti, Jacob Saifiti, Jayden Brailey, Mitchell Barnett, Tyson Frizell and Sauaso Sue for the must-win encounter, ten members of the team that went down to South Sydney in last year's elimination final will line up again on Sunday afternoon.
Naming four players in the first-choice 17 yet to experience the intensity of finals football, the match will be especially memorable for interchange forward Sauaso Sue who will play his first finals match eight years after debuting in first grade.
Winning nine matches by eight points or less this season - the most of any team in the league - the Knights have made a habit out of conjuring match-winning plays with minutes remaining through the brilliance of explosive centre Bradman Best, superstar fullback Kalyn Ponga and veteran halfback Mitchell Pearce.
Last meeting: Round 13 2021 - Knights 4 Eels 40
Last Finals Meeting: Grand Final, 2001 - Parramatta Eels 24 Newcastle Knights 30
Who to watch: Named on an extended bench after spending the past three weeks watching on from the sidelines, skilful second-rower Ryan Matterson will be out to make up for lost time. Experiencing an interrupted season due to concussion and suspension, the 26-year-old second-rower has remained an imposing force with 109 metres and 33 tackles on average in 16 appearances this season. Coming into the contest as one of two players in the Parramatta ranks to experience the ecstasy of winning a grand final, Matterson's experience will be invaluable as the Eels strive to defy recent history in finals football.
Set to gain his first taste of finals football after making a mid-season move to the Hunter, ever-improving five-eighth Jake Clifford will be out to add a new dimension to the side's attack during the September season. Developing a blossoming partnership alongside Mitchell Pearce in the halves, the former North Queensland playmaker has thrived in a supporting role with six try-assists and ten forced dropouts since making his club debut against the Eels back in June. Coming up with several clutch plays during the side's late season run, the 23-year-old's goal kicking accuracy may be the difference between booking a semi final berth and making plans for 2022.
The favourite: Coming into the contest with bragging rights after posting an emphatic win on Newcastle's Old Boys Day earlier in the season, the Eels are expected to advance into the second week of the finals.
My tip: If the Knights can establish an early lead and keep the contest close heading into the final ten minutes of the match, the class of the side's big match players should shine through for a memorable win. Knights by 6.
1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Haze Dunster 3. Viliami Penisini 4. Waqa Blake 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Ray Stone 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Marata Niukore 13. Nathan Brown 14. Will Smith 15. Bryce Cartwright 16. Isaiah Papali'i 17. Makahesi Makatoa 20. Tom Opacic
1. Kalyn Ponga 2. Enari Tuala 3. Kurt Mann 4. Bradman Best 5. Hymel Hunt 6. Jake Clifford 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. Jacob Saifiti 9. Jayden Brailey 10. Daniel Saifiti 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Mitchell Barnett 14. Sauaso Sue 13. Connor Watson 15. David Klemmer 16. Josh King 17. Brodie Jones 20. Simi Sasagi
Referees: Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials: Phil Henderson, Jon Stone; Video Referees: Grant Atkins;