Sandor Earl's 2056-day wait is nearly over.
Friday night will mark the final chapter of one of the most improbable comeback stories in rugby league history, when Earl is expected to become the first NRL player to return from a four-year ban.
The Storm haven't officially announced their 17-man squad, however the 29-year-old travelled with the team to Townsville on Wednesday and on Friday night is set to play his 49th game in the NRL.
Earl hasn't played in the NRL since round 24 in 2013 for the Canberra Raiders, but NRL.com can reveal his six-year stint in the wilderness will come to an end when he runs out for the Melbourne Storm against the Cowboys on Friday night.
Earl, who was slapped with a back-dated four-year ban for trafficking peptides and then moved to Thailand, was given a lifeline by the Storm on a one-year deal in 2018.
However his dreams of returning to the NRL appeared to be over when he tore his ACL at training last pre-season.
To Melbourne's credit, they didn't abandon him.
Instead the Storm offered him a two-year extension such was the high regard in which he was held at the club and the manner in which Earl conducted himself upon his return to rugby league.
Despite many setbacks, Earl’s commitment and desire to return to the game hasn’t wavered.
It will come 10 years since he debuted for the Sydney Roosters as a teenager.
It’s a remarkable story of perseverance.
"I was thinking to myself surely not. I’ve hurt my knee but surely I haven’t done my ACL,” Earl told NRL.com in February.
"Three weeks in, to have that happen, I couldn’t believe it to be honest. It was pretty scary. Credit to the Storm, within five minutes of being told, I got a phone call reassuring me not only was I okay, there was no hesitation in giving me another chance."
Ferguson's Blues challenge
The injury to Tom Trbojevic has opened the door for Blake Ferguson to mount a claim for a State of Origin recall, however NSWRL hierarchy haven’t forgotten the events that unfolded the last time he was in the team, with some officials putting a line through his name in regards to future honours following his behaviour in the 2017 series.
While that was under the tenure of Laurie Daley, new coach Brad Fittler will need the blessing of his board if he wants Ferguson in his side.
It’s merely procedural for the board to rubber-stamp the team before it is announced, and rarely do they have an influence on selections.
But in the case of Ferguson, you can expect plenty of debate around the board room table if Fittler tosses his name up for game one at Suncorp Stadium on Wednesday, June 5.
On form alone, it’s hard to deny Ferguson isn’t the best winger in the competition in the opening month of the NRL season - making a huge impact at the Eels since joining the club from the Sydney Roosters in the pre-season.
But his reputation took a battering in 2017, especially among Blues officials, after a couple of alcohol-related issues.
Crunch time for Gutherson and Eels
Parramatta will gather on Thursday for a meeting that is likely to result in an offer to off-contract captain Clint Gutherson.
The future of Gutherson and halfback Mitchell Moses will be atop the agenda at the club’s fortnightly recruitment and retention meeting - which will include coach Brad Arthur, general manager Mark O’Neill, recruitment manager Peter Sharp, chairman Sean McElduff and chief executive Bernie Gurr.
It comes after O’Neill addressed the entire playing squad on Tuesday to provide clarity to many of the 14 players who are off contract at the end of 2019, and ensure the uncertainty around those players doesn’t impact on the team.
Gutherson and the Eels have indicated they want to continue their relationship, however the club is yet to determine whether the skipper is worth the sort of money his manager is currently after.
He knocked back an offer from the club before Christmas, believed to be around $500,000 a season, in the hope of increasing his value in 2019.
His red-hot start to the year has no doubt elevated his price tag, however the Eels have their concerns about paying top dollar despite the fact he is the fullback and captain of the club.
One of the discussion points will be whether the club would be acting irresponsibly by assigning a large chunk of their salary cap to a player who has had two ruptured ACLs in his young career.
While no one at the club can deny Gutherson’s work ethic, commitment and desire to helping Parramatta return to finals football, they believe his potential is capped given the limitations his injuries have placed on his body.
In the past the Eels have often splashed the cash to keep or lure players to the club, however new management is determined to spend responsibly, but also ensure the players at the club want to be there for the right reasons - not just the money.
The club, in consultation with Arthur, have also decided to put discussions about the coach’s future on hold until June.
However if Arthur’s men continue to rack up the victories, the club is likely to reconsider its timeline and reward the coach with a new deal.
The same goes for Moses, who after a horror 2018 has showed a renewed attitude and desire at the Blue & Gold this season.
While Gutherson is the club’s priority signing, Moses has indicated to the club his preference is to remain.
The Eels have opened discussions with his manager but want to make sure his form continues on its current trajectory before committing to the No.7 on a long-term deal.
Esan trying to master goal kicking
Wests Tigers centre Esan Marsters had a night to forget in last Friday’s loss to Penrith, missing three crucial attempts at goal that would have put the result beyond doubt.
Marsters went into the game nursing an ankle injury he picked up at training a few days earlier, requiring an injection to take part in the match.
He’s been working overtime on his goal-kicking with club legend Brett Hodgson this week, and is expected to hold on to the duties for Thursday’s clash with Brisbane despite internal discussions about handing the responsibility to skipper Moses Mbye.
Mbye has been battling a knee injury he suffered in the pre-season and the club doesn’t believe he needs the added pressure of goal-kicking.
Brown goes back home for break
The Eels have granted star five-eighth Dylan Brown some time off following the back injury that is expected to keep him sidelined for at least the next month.
Brown went home to New Zealand to visit family and friends as he deals with the reality of the injury that has brought an abrupt halt to his impressive rookie season.
The teenager is due back at training next week in the build-up to the club’s first home game at Bankwest Stadium.
The Eels will get to use the stadium for the first time on Saturday when they train at the venue the day before their match against the Raiders.
Family first for Ponga
Newcastle fullback Kalyn Ponga has also returned home to New Zealand this week to attend the funeral of a family member.
Ponga missed one training session but is expected back in time for the Knights’ captain’s run. Our thoughts are with the Ponga family.
Get in early for grand final tickets
General admission tickets for the 2019 Telstra Premiership NRL grand final went on sale on Thursday.
Fans can save on full-priced tickets with early-bird pricing if you get in soon.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.
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