SHARKS V COWBOYS
First preliminary final
Allianz Stadium, 7.55pm
History: Played 40, Sharks 24, Cowboys 16
At Allianz: Played 1, Sharks 1, Cowboys 0
Last met: Sharks 13-10, at Southern Cross Group Stadium,
UNDER normal circumstances most good judges would be supremely confident of the Cowboys progressing to their second successive grand final, despite a surprisingly poor record against the Sharks. But the circumstances surrounding this match are by no means normal. Battered, bruised and bleating after two of the toughest games they have played all season, the premiers will need to call on every ounce of skill and desire to beat a confident Sharks outfit coming off a terrific win, plus 13 days of R&R. Many Cowboys, including big guns Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, are carrying injuries and the club has gone on a full-scale offensive over the season-ending injury to second-rower Ethan Lowe, which could be a distraction. The Sharks, conversely, have been able to sit back, secure the services of injured trio Paul Gallen, Wade Graham and Sam Tagatese, and watch the exhausted Cowboys tiptoe along their grand final qualifier road. While the two sides have shared the spoils in season 2016 in close games, last year's 39-0 finals hammering by the Cowboys will no doubt still be on the minds of the Sharks. The major query is whether the smaller Sharks pack can handle the Cowboys up front, in particular the rampaging Jason Taumalolo. And, on the surface, the answer looks to be no.
STORM V RAIDERS
Second preliminary final
AAMI Park, 7.40pm
History: Played 37, Storm 26, Raiders 11
At AAMI: Played 5, Raiders 3, Storm 2
Last met: Raiders 22-8, at GIO Stadium, round 23, 2016
BEATING the Storm in Melbourne is one of the toughest road trips in the NRL - unless, it seems, the colour of the opposition jersey is lime green. On three of their past four trips south the Raiders have lowered the colours of the Storm, although the last was back in 2013 when Ricky Stuart was not the coach and only three of the current roster played. But the Raiders have every reason to believe they can add to that impressive record in Melbourne, having suffered a loss in week one of the finals after 10 successive wins. They were also the competition's best attacking side, averaging almost 29 points over 26 rounds. The stumbling block, however, is Melbourne, the most miserly defensive team; the minor premiers; the side coming off a 13-day lay-off; and the best-prepared team in the competition. Add to that the suffocating control of Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, and the Raiders will need to produce their very best on Saturday night to reach their first grand final in 18 years. And while the likes of Joey Leilua, Jordan Rapana and Jack Wighton can be match winners, their discipline is a concern. No doubt the Raiders have been the surprise packets of 2016 and they play an intoxicating brand of footy, but this looks to be the end of the line.
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