Cronulla v North Queensland | Friday, September 23, 7.55pm (AEDT), Allianz Stadium, Sydney
The Sharks were handed a gilt-edged opportunity to qualify for their first Grand Final appearance since their 1997 Super League Grand Final defeat to the Broncos when they welcome the travel-weary premiers to Sydney for Friday’s first Preliminary Final.
Shane Flanagan’s side earned the week off after a gutsy, come-from-behind win in the capital.
It was a performance made even more meritorious when you consider they were without skipper Paul Gallen, who has re-signed with the Sharks for a swan song season, and had Wade Graham removed from the action early on.
Lightweight prop Matt Prior really stood up in the absence of his more illustrious teammates with a series of powerful bursts and a vital solo try on the stroke of half-time and has promised to fight fire with fire once again as the shire outfit look to repeat their round 14 victory.
The Cowboys edged one of the best games in history against Brisbane but you have to wonder how much playing an intense 90 minutes on a steamy night in Townsville will have taken out of them.
Having attracted plenty of negativity in the build-up to the game with his off-field antics, backrower Jason Taumololo (pictured above) responded in the best way possible with a best-on-ground performance.
He continually hurled himself at the Broncos’ forwards with scant regard for his wellbeing, while Johnathan Thurston (who else!) stood up when it really counted by laying on the match-winning try.
Indeed, it’s in the halves where North Queensland appear to have a sizeable edge with Chad Townsend under immense pressure to guide his side around the park having been replaced in the decisive stages of the qualifying final.
Allianz hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for the Cowboys in recent seasons having lost their last five matches there, a streak which includes four finals and a 20-18 loss to this week’s opponents back in 2013.
Cronulla, meanwhile, have a strong recent record in the CBD and can draw strength from the fact the team with the week off holds a 5-3 advantage in preliminary finals under the current model, suggesting that the opportunity to rest has its benefits at this stage of the campaign.
Have an immense respect for what the Cowboys have done over the past 18 months and they won’t go down without a fight but the time might have arrived for Cronulla.
Unibet Odds: Cronulla 2.10 North Queensland 1.75
Last time they met: Rd.14 – Cronulla 13-10 North Queensland
Line tip: Cronulla +1.5
Melbourne v Canberra | Saturday, September 24, 7.40pm (AEDT), AAMI Park, Melbourne
The indefatigable Melbourne know what it takes to get the job done and will be confident of qualifying for their sixth Grand Final showing in the past 11 seasons when they confront the upstart Raiders.
This match also marks the 300th appearance of Cooper Cronk in club colours and the noted big-match player should be primed to steer his side around the park with a typically assured display.
While the final margin was close, the Storm never really looked like losing to the Cowboys as their defence really stepped it up a notch and it was noticeable how much of an advantage their speed off the line gave them as the match wore on.
However, there has been considerable fallout from that fixture with Ethan Lowe’s serious neck injury the subject of a post-match complaint from the Cowboys and the inevitable criticism of Melbourne’s tackling techniques that seem to surface at this stage every year.
Neither Craig Bellamy or this week’s counterpart Ricky Stuart were buying into that though, with the Canberra mentor more interested in the refereeing corps’ ability to police a wide 10m than any wrestle as the freedom to play an expansive game surely presents the visitors with their best prospect of a result.
The Raiders withstood a second half fightback from Penrith to remain alive and will draw inspiration from their surprisingly comfortable win over the Storm a little over a month ago.
Stuart was also wholehearted in his praise of ‘tough Pom’ Josh Hodgson who got through the game with minimal disruption and his battle with Cameron Smith for control and incision around the ruck should have a major bearing on which side comes out on top.
Canberra’s record in Melbourne is surprisingly good and they have managed to come back with the points on three of their last four trips south of the border, with Cameron Munster readying his team to prepare for an ‘ambush’ from an opponent with little to lose.
With the fitness of both Hodgson and Blake Austin confirmed, neither side has any significant ‘ins or outs’ of note.
Despite going 9-2 at home during the regular season, the Storm have been bundled out of the playoffs on their own patch in each of the previous three seasons and are entitled to feel a little nervy.
That said, while the Raiders are a dangerous team who warrant respect, it’s hard to tip against Melbourne on the strength of what we have seen this season.
Unibet Odds: Melbourne 1.40 Canberra 3.00
Last time they met: Rd.23 – Canberra 22-8
Line tip: Melbourne -7.5
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