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Nine lives: Rise of cut-price rakes holding finals fortunes in their hands

On the same sunny Autumn afternoon that Jake Friend played what would be his final outing for the Roosters, Ben Marschke was dusting himself off after his second game in 24 hours.

Such is the lot of a park footballer, match payments from Ron Massey Cup duties on a Saturday, then backing up for North Sydney on a Sunday made both dollars and sense for Marschke.

With sudden-death finals football upon the NRL, Marschke looms as one of three cut-price No.9s charged with touching the Steeden more than any other player on the paddock for the Roosters, Manly and Parramatta as each club's season goes on the line.

Each has their own tale and each has made the most of 2021 and then some; be it Lachlan Croker pushing through three knee reconstructions for the Sea Eagles, Ray Stone picking up dummy-half duties for the first time in his life just before his NRL debut, or Marschke rising from fifth-string hooker to numero uno for the Tricolours.

Marschke's first NRL outing in April came after injuries had sidelined Friend, Sam Verrills, Freddy Lussick and Adam Keighran, with a development deal needed just to bring Marschke up into first grade reckoning.

The 23-year-old Bundaberg product once again shapes as Trent Robinson's dummy-half fallback now Verrills has been suspended from Friday's clash against the Sea Eagles.

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NRL.com understands Marschke's original $60,000 development deal will be upgraded next year, fitting reward for a player who like so many fringe NRL footballers, saw so little game time last season due to COVID-19.

Across the way on Friday night stands Croker, the once-hyped Raiders prodigy who after three ACL ruptures in four years, asked Des Hasler to make his move to hooker permanent as he chased more game time.

Like Marschke, Croker may well have never got a regular crack if Manly's first-choice No.9 Manase Fainu were available.

But after a summer of "sleepless nights" as Croker wondered if he would truly get an extended chance in first grade, the 24-year-old played every game this year until being a late withdrawal last week due to a back injury.

Croker has earned himself a new two-year contract on the Northern Beaches along the way and is regarded as an underrated but important cog in the Sea Eagles set-up.

"I've been really impressed with the way he's bounced back from his injuries in the last couple of years and the way that he's developed his game as well," teammate Marty Taupau says.

"He brings a lot of grit and a lot of clarity for our middles as well and some really good direction for us.

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"With everyone putting their heads together in the middle he simplifies things a bit. He's exactly what you need from your number nine in the middle and with that it trickles down through your halves, your fullback and the rest of the squad."

Stone, meanwhile, holds a similar status for Parramatta, if a slightly different skillset.

A Wests Tigers junior pitched into hooker with Reed Mahoney and Joey Lussick out injured, Stone's heavy hits in defence make him a treasured teammate as the Eels prepare for Saturday's derby final against Penrith.

COVID-19 scuppered an early ascent to the No.9 for Stone last year when Mahoney was last injured, with the season put on hold within an hour of Brad Arthur calling to tell him he had earned a rare starting spot in April last year.

The 24-year-old has persisted with dummy-half practice since and now shapes up to the one top-tier hooker left standing this weekend, Penrith's Api Koroisau.

Fifty tackles in 54 minutes against Newcastle and another 54 the week earlier against Penrith suggest both teams targeted Stone without the ball.

Brutish shots on James Fisher-Harris and Jake Clifford suggest they'd be better off looking elsewhere.

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"If you run at him you're obviously not all there in the head," Eels star Mitchell Moses says.

"He did an outstanding job [against Newcastle].

"He got the ball to me and Dyl [five-eighth Dylan Brown] when he needed to and defensively he was really good.

"He's pretty much had that [in him] the whole year. He knows if our hookers go down he's pretty much in line to take over.

"He's practised his service and passing, all that type of stuff. He knows the game plans, sets and plays."