Players to watch: Semi-finals
Everyone realises the importance of the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Daly Cherry-Evans and James Graham. They don't need spruiking or a write-up detailing how good they are. Everyone is well aware of the talent they possess.
But then there are the individuals in action this weekend who don't receive the plaudits they deserve. These players aren't their team's best but you better believe their respective clubs would struggle without them. Their form and presence will be essential when the NRL straps in for week two of the finals.
Gavin Cooper (North Queensland)
Four months ago, Gavin Cooper was writhing in agony, a dislocated hip the cause. Ironically the cringe-worthy incident occurred against the Roosters and come this weekend Cooper will line up against the very same opposition for another shot at finals glory.
The 29-year-old was a man on a mission last weekend against the Broncos. His hole-running ability off the back of Thurston and Robert Lui saw him squeeze through Brisbane's defence twice for tries and will be called upon again to lift with Tariq Sims rubbed out for the rest of the season.
His steeliness in defence is another admirable quality. This season Cooper has made 472 tackles. Doesn't sound like much, right? Yet in his 16 games for the Cowboys in 2014, Cooper has only missed 18 tackles leaving the back-rower with a tackle efficiency of 96.3 per cent. Sonny Bill and Waerea-Hargreaves will be hard-pressed busting down Cooper's left edge on Friday night.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Roosters)
With Anthony Minichiello announcing his retirement, it has become increasingly apparent that Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has been spending more time than usual at fullback in recent weeks. His importance in the team has grown exponentially due to this and will be one man the Cowboys will have to keep an eye at all times. You just never know where the New Zealand international will pop up with Tuivasa-Sheck floating between the wing and out back constantly.
His speed is unmatched by any Cowboy and if halves James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce create enough space for the 21-year-old out wide, look out North Queensland. While his ability to create tries is something the Roosters will be looking to improve over the off-season, Tuivasa-Sheck has no worries getting down field having produced the sixth-most metres competition wide (3492 run metres).
Brenton Lawrence (Sea Eagles)
The Rabbitohs ragdolled, bullied and dominated the Sea Eagles last weekend. Brenton Lawrence's numbers were noticeably down though the barnstorming prop was playing his first game in three weeks after being sidelined with a knee injury. It could well have been a lot worse if he didn't play.
His influence was certainly missing in the final two regular games of the year, the only two fixtures he missed all season. While Manly were able to sneak away with a last-gasp win over Penrith, it certainly wasn't the case in Townsville six days later. Lawrence has averaged 94.3 metres and 95.4 per cent tackle efficiency in 2014, and his absence left a noticeable hole in the Sea Eagles forward pack.
With the experienced Jason King packing down alongside him from the get-go on Saturday, Lawrence will certainly be looking to lift in what could prove to be a scintillating showdown up against the Bulldogs’ blond duo Aiden Tolman and Graham.
Tim Lafai (Bulldogs)
Hurricane Lafai rampaged through Melbourne last Sunday leaving 17 players to reflect on their season come Monday. Three tries, 179 metres and a try assist later the Storm bowed out of the finals series thanks, in a big way, to this man. Buoyed by the news that his partner is expecting the couple’s first child, announced in the week leading up to match, Lafai put forward a truly inspiring performance.
The centre limited the impact of his Queensland representative opposite Will Chambers, and the 23-year-old will be called to do much the same against aggressive Sea Eagle Steve Matai this Saturday night.
A beast with the ball, Lafai has proven a perfect foil for his winger this season too. Whether Corey Thompson, Mitch Brown or Chase Stanley, the Campbelltown Warriors junior has assisted 12 tries with the majority coming off the back of slick Bulldogs backline movements.