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 Townsendunder 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.
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Last time they met: Rd.14 – Cronulla 13-10 North Queensland
Line tip: Cronulla Sharks +1.5
1 Ben Barba 2 Sosaia Feki 3 Jack Bird 4 Ricky Leutele 5 Valentine Holmes 6 James Maloney 7 Chad Townsend 8 Andrew Fifita 9 Michael Ennis 10 Matt Prior 11 Luke Lewis 12 Wade Graham 13 Paul Gallen. Interchange: 14 Gerard Beale 15 Chris Heighington 16 Kurt Capewell 17 Jayson Bukuya 18 Sam Tagataese
1 Lachlan Coote 2 Kyle Feldt 3 Justin O’Neill 4 Kane Linnett 5 Javid Bowen 6 Michael Morgan 7 Johnathan Thurston 8 Matthew Scott 9 Jake Granville 10 James Tamou 11 Gavin Cooper 12 Coen Hess 13 Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: 14 Rory Kostjasyn 15 John Asiata 16 Scott Bolton 17 Ben Hannant