Just 80 minutes stands between these four teams and a berth in the 2016 NRL grand final.
Cronulla Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys – 7.55pm (AEST), Friday, September 23 @ Allianz Stadium
The Storyline: The Sharks have been cooling their heels for a fortnight, while the Cowboys needed 90 minutes to stay alive with a win over the Broncos. These sides have plenty of recent finals history, including Beau Ryan’s infamous seventh-tackle try of 2013 and last year’s semi-final rout in Townsville, but this is the biggest clash yet as Origin icons Gallen and Thurston lead their clubs into battle.
The Stat: Cronulla has won only one preliminary final in the last 37 seasons – in the ’97 Super League season – chalking up losses in 1988, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2008 during that period. North Queensland has a 2-2 record in preliminary finals.
It’s a big game for: Sharks halfback Chad Townsend was hooked midway through the second half of the week one upset of the Raiders – an absolute rarity in the modern game for a No.7. Townsend’s team needs him at his confident early-season best against a well-drilled Cowboys defence.
The Verdict: The Sharks were gutsy against the Raiders, but they also had a few things go their way. They’ll need to be much better against the Cowboys – and their recent form line prior to the finals was ordinary. The premiers may be weary from last week’s extra-time epic, and the Sharks will try desperately to drag them down into a grind. Don’t count the hosts out, but the Cowboys have to be favoured with the weight of history creating another obstacle for the title-less Sharks. Cowboys by 7
Melbourne Storm v Canberra Raiders – 7.40pm (AEST), Saturday, September 24 @ AAMI Park
The Storyline: It’s a southern derby on Saturday night with the indomitable Storm hosting the effervescent Raiders in Melbourne. The Raiders are in their first prelim in 19 years, while the Storm are in their eighth in 11 seasons. The Green Machine were given a leg up by a sloppy Panthers outfit last week, while the Storm will rely on their ability to strangle opposition teams into submission – but the contrast of styles in this one makes for a fascinating showdown.
The Stat: The Raiders have a handy record at AAMI Park, winning three of their last four at the Storm’s home base. They are the only opposition team with a winning record (3-2) during Melbourne’s seven seasons in residence at the ground.
It’s a big game for: If the Raiders are to cause a boilover, their forwards need to get over the top of their vaunted Storm counterparts. Junior Paulo laid an outstanding platform against the Panthers, and his match-up with in-form Jesse Bromwich will go a long way to deciding the outcome.
The Verdict: The Storm are obvious and deserving favourites, but if there’s one team with the unpredictable attacking strike that can unsettle the clinical Melbourne machine, it’s the Raiders. Their off-the-cuff brilliance, second-phase play and fearless approach can unsettle the Storm as they did in a 22-8 win at home in Round 23, and as the Broncos did to the Storm at AAMI Park a fortnight later. In the past 20 seasons, only four times have the two teams with the week off both prevailed in the preliminary finals – that means if the Cowboys get up on Friday, there’s a 75% chance the Storm will go down. This has the eerie feeling of the 2011 prelim final at the same venue, when the Warriors stunned the Storm with a similar freewheeling approach to the one Ricky Stuart’s side employs. Raiders by 4