Brisbane Broncos v Sydney Roosters
In the most anticipated end to a trilogy since Tina Turner joined Mad Max in the Thunderdome, the Broncos host the Roosters at Suncorp Stadium for the second time this season in a sudden-death encounter many hoped would serve as the culmination to our season.
In Round 6 it was a Ben Hunt golden-point extra-time try that earned Brisbane a confidence-building 22-18 win over the competition favourites that was remembered largely for the confrontation between Sam Thaiday and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.
Four months later the Roosters had to fight through the losses of both Waerea-Hargreaves and halfback Mitchell Pearce during the game to record a gritty 12-10 win in which both teams completed at better than 80 per cent.
Senior Broncos players say it was that game that showed the younger members of the squad what was required to win big games at this time of the season and which will hold them in good stead on home soil.
With his side having earned a week off Broncos coach Wayne Bennett has named the same 17 that defeated the Cowboys in Week One of the finals while the Roosters welcome back Origin half Mitchell Pearce from a hamstring injury, with Jackson Hastings dropping back to the bench and Matt McIlwrick missing out.
It's been 15 years since the Broncos and Roosters met in the 2000 Grand Final in front of more than 94,000 fans at ANZ Stadium in Sydney and the build-up in Brisbane all week has resembled a premiership decider come one week early.
Watch Out Broncos: In the absence of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves two young tyros have taken it upon themselves to provide the aggression Roosters teams thrive on and there has been nothing to suggest Dylan Napa and Kane Evans will be overawed by this occasion. Napa missed out on playing in the 2013 Grand Final as he made way for Luke O'Donnell on the bench and the 22-year-old has matured wonderfully over the past two seasons. He stood toe-to-toe with Bulldogs captain James Graham last week and his tackles are more brutal than bountiful. Evans similarly has been given time to develop after making his debut last year and had a try assist as well as his own controversial four-pointer against Canterbury last week. Other players will rack up bigger numbers but they may not have the impact of the Bondi bash brothers.
Watch Out Roosters: Only six players in the NRL this season have reached double figures in both tries and try assists and two of them play in the halves for the Brisbane Broncos. Sitting next to each other on a flight to Papua New Guinea 12 months ago as members of the Prime Minister's XIII forged a partnership between Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford that promises to dominate the NRL for the next half-dozen years. Their different styles are perfectly suited as the game manager in Hunt sets the stage for Milford to weave his magic. Their combination was expected to take time to develop but they dismantled South Sydney in Round 25 and each scored tries in the Qualifying Final win over the Cowboys. Hunt has already broken Rooster hearts once this season; don't be surprised if he does it again.
Key Match-up: Justin Hodges v Michael Jennings. There is no other centre in the NRL with whom Justin Hodges has had more one-on-one match-ups than Michael Jennings over the course of his 15 seasons in the NRL. The majority of their individual battles have occurred in the Origin arena and of the 20 times they have opposed each other it is Hodges who holds a narrow 11-9 winning advantage.
In their first meeting in 2007 Hodges scored four tries but a double playing for the Panthers saw Jennings finish on the right side of the scoreboard. In 2015 Jennings has outscored Hodges eight tries to three, but the Broncos veteran has 14 line-break assists and 14 try assists compared to eight and seven for his Roosters counterpart. Nothing would give either man a greater sense of satisfaction than giving their team the edge by besting their old foe on such a massive occasion.
History: Played 40; Broncos 24, Roosters, 16. A total of just 18 points have separated these two teams in their past four clashes with an aggregate score of 68-58 in favour of the Roosters. The Broncos and Roosters have played each other four times in finals football with the Broncos boasting a 3-1 record, their most recent September meeting in a Qualifying Final in 2008 where Brisbane recorded a 24-16 win.
Did You Know: Whenever the Broncos and Roosters have met in a Preliminary Final the victor has gone on to win the premiership. This is the third time the Broncos and Roosters have met in a Preliminary Final with the ledger currently reading at one win apiece. In 1998 minor premiers Brisbane ended the Roosters' brave finals run from sixth position with a 46-18 thumping but in 2002 the Roosters upset Brisbane 16-12 before running out 30-8 winners over the Warriors in the grand final.
What Are The Odds: Broncos $2.10, Roosters $1.75. The money is coming in at a rate of four to one for Brisbane in head-to-head betting and Sportsbet punters are backing the Broncos to win 1-12 in winning margin betting. Ben Hunt is the best backed player to score the first try ahead of teammate Corey Oates.
Match Officials: Referee – Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee – Gavin Badger; Touch Judges – Brett Suttor and Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Ashley Klein and Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
How We See It: This has all the makings of the match we will look back on in years to come as the defining moment of the 2015 Telstra Premiership. The two best teams for 26 rounds meet a week out from the decider with different elements of pressure to cope with. The Broncos have exceeded the expectations of many to get this far in Wayne Bennett's first year back at the helm while the Roosters are desperate to convert a third straight minor premiership into a second title. They have thrilled league fans in two previous meetings already this season and are poised to deliver a decider that will live long in the memory. A capacity home crowd to make the difference; Broncos by two points.