The four remaining teams – South Sydney Rabbitohs, Manly Sea Eagles, Melbourne Storm and Penrith Panthers battle it out for a place in the Grand Final and we take an in depth look into both fixtures.
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Manly Sea Eagles (Friday, 10:50am, Sky Sports Arena, Sky Sports Mix and Watch NRL)
The Rabbitohs come into this one fresh off two weeks rest after shocking many with a resilient win over Penrith in week one of the NRL finals. Now, they find themselves a game way from the Grand Final, a feat that not many would have predicted after losing Latrell Mitchell for the season due to suspension. However, Wayne Bennett continues to prove why he is one of the best coaches out there and his side will need a similar display to that of the Panthers if they want to take down the offensive powerhouse that is Manly.
The Sea Eagles may have lost out to South Sydney the last time these two sides met way back in round two but Manly have transformed themselves into a completely different team since then with Tom Trbojevic producing one of the great individual seasons of modern era. Also when you top that off with the fact that Des Hasler’s side are also the first team to have three players score at least 20 tries this year in Trbojevic, Reuben Garrick and Jason Saab then it is clear we are in for an enthralling encounter.
Team news: The Rabbitohs have no injury worries this week with Wayne Bennett sticking with the same team that conquered Penrith in the qualifying final, only Latrell Mitchell (suspended) and Josh Mansour (knee) remain out.
Manly coach Des Hasler can also take comfort in naming the same 17-man squad that dismantled the Roosters last week.
Players to watch
The Bunnies maybe without Mitchell for rest of the season but they still have plenty of star quality that can make a difference and no more so than stand-off Cody Walker. The 31-year-old has the ability to be the spark that the Rabbitohs need with his creativity, flair and slick passing helping him become one of South Sydney’s most dynamic players over the last couple of seasons.
As for Manly there is again no escaping the fact that superstar full-back Tom Trbojevic remains the key man here. The 24-year-old had his fair share of critics after a quiet performance in the heavy loss to Melbourne two weeks ago, but they were quickly squashed with another dazzling display in the semi-final win over Sydney.
Key match up
The first preliminary final of the weekend gives us an epic battle between two of the best number sevens in the league as South Sydney’s Adam Reynolds and Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans go head-to-head. Both half-backs are the captains for their sides with their leadership and general influence huge factors. The Rabbitohs’ scrum-half has formed great chemistry alongside the likes of Walker and Damien Cook over the last few seasons on top of being one of the best goal-kickers in the league while the Sea Eagles’ Cherry-Evans sits as one of the best all-round players at his position with his ball carrying, passing and kicking ability all on point whilst his electric connection with Trbojevic has proven to be decisive on plenty of occasions this season.
Melbourne Storm v Penrith Panthers (Saturday, 7am), Sky Sports Mix and Watch NRL)
The preliminary finals are capped off with match of epic proportions between what could be said are the two best teams in the league today. The Melbourne Storm and the Panthers meet in a rematch of last year’s Grand Final where Melbourne Storm eventually came out on top. Even though both sides will not be contesting each other in the showpiece event this season it does not take away from the fact that this still all the makings of enticing affair between two teams right at the top of their game.
If Ivan Cleary’s Penrith side want to come away with a victory, then they will have to come back quickly after being part of a tough and gritty encounter against Parramatta only the week before. Meanwhile, Melbourne Storm have had a two week rest and will be the fresher team come kick off, but even so revenge can be a powerful motivator and you can rely on this Panthers outfit to be wanting just that come Saturday.
Team news: Melbourne Storm will welcome back Josh Addo-Carr from a hamstring issue while Brandon Smith starts at hooker after escaping any serious injury after being cleared of a facial fracture following the game against Manly.
Penrith trio Brian To’o (ankle), Tyrone May (knee) and Viliame Kikau (ankle) are all back in training and could be late inclusions come game day.
Players to watch
After missing a substantial chunk of the season due to a concussion injury, Melbourne’s Ryan Papenhuyzen is back on deck and looks as scintillating to watch as ever. The 2020 Clive Churchill Medal winner is one of the fastest and most polarising players in the game and has the all the skills and tools necessary to change any game as he sees fit.
The Panthers themselves obviously have plenty of star talent to watch out for but in a tense situation like this you would probably look no further than their talisman Nathan Cleary. There is not much more you can say about the 23-year-old as he stands as one of the best players the sport has to offer with his influence and impeccable all-round skillset making him of the game’s modern day superstars.
Key match up
Olam v Burton, Munster v Luai or even Hughes v Cleary, there are so many titanic battles you could look at but the one that may be decisive in terms of who comes out on top has to be the clash between hookers Brandon Smith and Api Koroisau. The Storm’s Smith has solidified himself as the main number nine for the side this year with young gun Harry Grant coming off the bench and there is no denying the fact that he has taken the opportunity with both hands. The 25-year-old is as tenacious and dynamic as they come with his tireless work ethic, defensive prowess, powerful ball carrying and ball playing all standout traits.
The Panthers’ Koroisau may not be the sheer force that Smith is. But he has still arguably been one of Penrith’s best buys over the last two seasons. The 28-year-old has proven to be the glue that holds the Penrith spine together with his toughness, game management and slick ball skills and you can imagine Ivan Cleary’s side are going to need every ounce of that if they want to stop the Melbourne juggernaut.