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Echoes of 2001: Why Knights could stun Eels again

In the two decades since the eighth Immortal Andrew Johns led Newcastle to their last premiership, the pride of the Hunter have savoured eight trips to the finals and suffered the ignominy of four wooden spoons.

The team they beat on grand final night in 2001 and face again in sudden-death on Sunday, the Parramatta Eels, have made the play-offs nine times and run last three times in the same period.

Two sets of passionate fans have ridden the highs and lows with their teams but at least the blue and gold army had the chance to be part of another decider in 2009 and get to a preliminary final in 2005 and '07.

In contrast, the closest the Knights have come to the big dance was 2013, when favourite son Danny Buderus took them to a preliminary final but in a cruel twist of fate was concussed just 18 minutes into the game and played no further part as the Roosters ran away with a 40-14 win.

For the next six seasons Newcastle struggled to get out of their own way, slumping to 12th in 2014 before the wooden spoon took up permanent residence at Knights HQ between 2015 and 2017.

The case for the Knights to upset the Eels

Through it all, their loyal supporters kept the faith, and during the closing stages of a wretched 2017 season they began to see light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

Three straight wins over the Dragons, Warriors and Eels between round 21 and 23 gave a glimmer of hope that the spoon could be offloaded to Wests Tigers before losses to the Storm and Raiders took the wind from their sails.

Even the realisation that they would finish last for the third successive year failed to deter the faithful from turning up in their droves for the final-round clash with Cronulla.

A crowd of 20,535 at McDonald Jones Stadium ensured the Knights would finish behind only Brisbane, Melbourne and North Queensland for average home crowds in a season where their fans could have been forgiven for turning away en masse.

The arrival of premiership-winning playmaker Mitchell Pearce and the precociously talented Kalyn Ponga in 2018 was the catalyst for a rebuild that has now taken the Knights to consecutive finals series for the first time since 2002-03.

Their 2020 title tilt came to an abrupt halt at the hands of a rampant Rabbitohs outfit in week one of the finals but a quick glance at the team sheet for Sunday shows why Knights fans are daring to dream again.

Now in his second year at the helm, astute mentor Adam O'Brien has a quartet of quality additions to the side that was run off the park 46-20 by Wayne Bennett's Bunnies a year ago.

Big-game player Tyson Frizell joined the club this year from the Dragons with two Origin series wins to his name and finals experience with the Red V in 2015 and 2018.

The season so far: The run to the finals

Then there's former Cowboy Jake Clifford, now with 12 games under his belt since a mid-season switch and growing in confidence by the minute alongside Pearce, Ponga and Jayden Brailey in the spine.

After playing just two games last year before an ACL injury struck him down, Brailey is another X-factor for O'Brien, while Connor Watson has rebounded in style after missing the bulk of 2020 due to a ruptured Achilles.

Blues Origin prop Daniel Saifiti returns after three games on the sideline with a knee injury and his battle with Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard up front will determined which set of halves gets to play the game on the front foot.

NRL captains react to Suncorp hosting grand final

Now in his sixth year with the club and with 118 games to his name, Saifiti is the heart and soul of the place. A local junior who got to sing the team song just six times in his first two seasons, Saifiti stuck solid and is now reaping the rewards.

Just as Matt Parsons and Josh Perry took the fight up to their highly fancied opponents in that '01 decider, Saifiti will lead from the front in Rockhampton as the Knights fight to survive.

And just as they did 20 years ago, Newcastle will enter the game as underdogs, thanks in no small part to the 40-4 drubbing they copped at the hands of the Eels in round 13.

History shows that Parramatta put the Knights to the sword 40-0 in round 17 of the 2001 season but come grand final night that mattered for little as Johns, Buderus and Ben Kennedy exploded out of the blocks to put the game to bed by half-time.

On the 20th anniversary of that premiership, the time has come for Pearce, Ponga and Saifiti to channel those heroes of the Hunter and make a September statement. To show their passionate fans a third premiership is more than a pipe dream.

 

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The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.