The Newsroom previews the preliminary finals of the National Rugby League.
80 minutes is all that separates the four remaining teams from a spot in the 2016 NRL Grand Final.
The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and North Queensland Cowboys will battle it out on Friday night for a spot in the Grand Final before Melbourne Storm and the Canberra Raiders go head to head on Saturday night.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys
In the first of two preliminary finals, the last Sydney team standing will host the defending premiers. The Sharks come into this game fresh and well rested after having a bye last weekend. Captain Paul Gallen is set to make his return after missing their last game as a result of a back injury, meaning Jason Bukuya drops back to the bench and Jesse Sene-Lefao misses out.
North Queensland enters this game on a high after their nail-biting extra-time win over the Brisbane Broncos last weekend. The Cowboys welcome back centre Kane Linnett, pushing Javid Bowen to the wing. Young gun Kalyn Ponga will also have to drop out of the team after his impressive debut.
Players to watch are the locks for both teams, Paul Gallen and Jason Taumalolo. Both are powerful workhorses who usually play the full 80 minutes. Kick off is scheduled for 7:55pm at Allianz Stadium.
Melbourne Storm v Canberra Raiders
The final game of the weekend is between Melbourne Storm and Canberra Raiders. These were the two best teams after 26 rounds this season, but only one can advance through to the Grand Final next week. Melbourne, the Minor Premiers, have had the luxury of a week off allowing players to overcome injures. Lock Dale Finucane is just getting over an ankle injury and will play, but Nelson Asofa-Solomona will be out for the year with an elbow injury. Christian Welch, Matt White and Felise Kaufusi have all been brought in to fight it out for the last remaining interchange spot. This weekends final will also see halfback Cooper Cronk play his 300th NRL game.
Canberra have made no changes to the team that beat the Penrith Panthers last week 22-12. The Raiders have won 11 of their last 12 matches and have been unstoppable. Both hookers have been on-form all season and are the key to their teams success. Melbourne skipper Cameron Smith is arguably the best hooker to play the game but Canberra’s Josh Hodgson is the favourite to win the Dally M medal for player of the year. The game starts at 7:40pm on Saturday at AAMI Park. – Paul Burns
Photo of the Sharks players at Canberra Stadium from the Cronulla Sharks Facebook page.