Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys
The final match of the opening week of finals sees the 2016 premiers up against the 2015 premiers with the loser to be sent packing from this year's competition.
There is a fair old rivalry developing between these two clubs; one has ended the other's season in a sudden-death final in three of the past four years. Last year Cronulla got the chocolates in the grand final qualifier; in 2015 North Queensland had a thumping 39-0 win in Townsville en route to their premiership and of course in 2013 Cronulla tipped the Cowboys our with their infamous seventh-tackle try.
Neither of the past two grand final winners come into this elimination final in particularly scintillating form but that should stop it being a ding-dong battle.
The Sharks sort of give the impression they have been treading water waiting for the finals series to start. They have won just two of their past five games (with one of those coming against a very understrength Cowboys team in Round 24) but will now look to lean on their wealth of big game and finals experience. They are also boosted by the return from injury of Origin pair Jack Bird and Wade Graham, with last week's debutant Jesse Ramien returning to NYC duties and Kurt Capewell also dropping out.
The Cowboys were dealt a big favour with Canterbury downing the Dragons in the final round of the season and preserving North Queensland's eight-place billing. But with 13 wins and 30 ladder points, a Dragons win last week would have handed the Cowboys the hollow title of best team ever to miss the finals in a 16-team competition so it's tough to argue Paul Green's men got here on luck or aren't worthy of September footy.
They are unchanged from last week; long term absentees Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott plus centre Justin O'Neill are the only remaining high-name casualties so fitness-wise the injury-hit club is about as healthy as could be hoped for this week.
Why Sharks can win: At the pointy end of the season, experience is invaluable and that is something Cronulla have in spades. There are three 300-gamers in this team (skipper Paul Gallen plus fellow forwards Luke Lewis and Chris Heighington). The halves are both premiership-winners from last year and James Maloney is not only an Origin regular but has played grand finals and won competitions elsewhere. Wade Graham, Andrew Fifita, Val Holmes, Jack Bird and Gerard Beale have played Origins and/or Tests. Gallen (303 metres, eight busts, seven offloads) and Fifita (174 metres, six busts, three offloads) in particular warmed up nicely against a spirited Knights side last week.
Why Cowboys can win: Despite the absences of a few very big-name stars the Cowboys have plenty of premiership experience in their own ranks. In particular, reigning co-Dally M winner Jason Taumalolo has been immense this season and was typically monstrous in last week's 20-10 loss to Brisbane with 223 metres, 10 busts and three offloads. And, while it's not the be-all and end-all, North Queensland have been very disciplined with the Steeden in 2017, boasting the second-best completion rate of the season (79.4 per cent), most for penalties received (eight per game) and best for total possession with an average of 53.2 per cent of the ball every game. They'll need it to grind out a win here.
 Telstra Premiership: Paul Gallen vs Jason Taumalolo
Hit Ups, All Run Metres, Tackles, Tries.
The history: Played 43; Cowboys 16; Sharks 27. The Cowboys have a terrible record at Allianz, with just six wins from 23 starts and are sitting on a seven-game losing run at the venue. Five of those seven have come in finals football. They are also on a four-game losing run against the Sharks.
What are the odds: This is by far the most even betting game of the week with Sportsbet. There's 10 per cent more money invested on the Cowboys but their big price obviously has a lot to do with that. Both sides have been well supported to win 1-12 so we should be in for a tight contest. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein; Assistant Referee: Gavin Badger; Touch judges: Michael Wise and Clayton Sharpe; Review Official: Luke Patten; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine and Fox League – Live from 4.30pm.
NRL.com predicts: Clearly the Cowboys have the quality to win this but we get the feeling Cronulla are just about to flick the September switch and with their team much closer to full strength than North Queensland, plus the Cowboys' poor record at Allianz, we'll lean to Cronulla. Sharks by six.