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'Chirpy' Fergo fending off youngsters in Eels backline race

Parramatta captain Clint Gutherson says a refreshed Blake Ferguson will be crucial to Parramatta's 2021 hopes while also praising the rising crop of young backline hopefuls pressing for spots.

There is one vacant centre spot to be filled pending the outcome of Michael Jennings' provisional drugs suspension but a lacklustre second half of the season and straight set finals exit will no doubt have plenty of players on notice in what is a dramatically revamped top 30 with nine new faces.

"We've had a pretty big turnover this year with a good bunch of young kids coming in and a couple of great players coming through," Gutherson said.

"It's freshened up the club. It's probably one of the biggest turnovers I've seen in a long time at this club. It's good for us, it freshens it up, we've got a lot of young kids coming in who are energetic and ready to learn. It makes us older guys look at that and it makes training fun."

Gutherson himself is just a week back in after a late return thanks to his Origin commitments and has been focusing on fitness with limited chances to build combinations so far, but has been impressed by what he has seen from some of the younger players outside the top 30.

"We've got (NSW Junior Origin centre) Will Penisini who's been training well, if he really puts his head down he could have a big future in the game and especially at this club," Gutherson said.

Analysing the Eels' 2021 draw

Haze Dunster, who debuted in last year's semi-final loss against Souths after the game-day suspension of Jennings made him the third back unavailable, has also impressed.

"Blaze has been great; he got a taste of it in sort of awkward circumstances last year but he did a great job for us in the semi-final," Gutherson said.

"He's come back bigger and better. I think he's finally realised he can do it. He probably lacked a bit of confidence in himself.

"We're mixing the teams up, we've got enough players there. Every session all the teams are different."

Former Bronco and Cowboy Tom Opacic plus former Manly and Canberra flyer Michael Oldfield are also in the hunt for the vacant centre slot.

It's a big season for veteran off-contract winger Blake Ferguson, whose form was criticised through 2020 for a lack of tries despite a typically strong yardage game.

Gutherson said he had no idea if reports that Ferguson had already been told this was his last year at the Eels were true but backed the former Test and Origin flanker to return to his best.

The Eels' 2020 season review

"I don't know if that's true or not, you don't really ask those type of questions at training [but] he's been great since I've been back," Gutherson said.

"He's fit, his head's on, his body's feeling good. He's ready to go. We need Fergo at his best for us to be at our best so I hope he keeps it up.

"Everyone goes through those years at some stage and last year was Fergo's year but he's left that in last year and that's what we need him to do.

"He's flying at the moment, they've got him a little bit modified just to make sure he gets to the right peak when we need him.

"He's been good chirpy at the moment, he's picking his moments a little bit better this year, he's got his head down and working hard and I'm sure Brad and the staff have told him what they need from him. I can't wait for him to unleash this year and prove how good he is."

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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