Holden Cup Qualifying Finals Previews
The Sharks, Panthers, Dragons and Eels finished in the National Youth Competition's top four and have a double chance in the Holden Cup Finals Series.
Holden Cup Qualifying Final Preview: Panthers v Dragons
The Panthers will be hoping for a change of fortune when they take on the Dragons in the first of the NYC qualifying finals on Saturday evening.
Last year's beaten grand finalists might have finished a point ahead of the Red V on the ladder but they were beaten both times they played in 2017, with St George Illawarra claiming a crushing 40-10 win on the road just a fortnight ago.
Neither team heads into the playoffs with great recent form but whoever gets the job done won't care as they will enjoy a much-needed week and a guaranteed spot in the preliminary final.
Why the Panthers can win: A quick glance at the stats tells you all you need to know. The Panthers have scored more points (711-660), conceded fewer points (518-620), made fewer errors (234-278) and conceded fewer penalties (155-179) this season while they also have finals experience in key positions.
Why the Dragons can win: While you could argue that both starting sides cancel themselves out, the Dragons appear to have a clear advantage on the bench. Big man TJ Uele isn't just a cult hero; the kid can play. His nuggety nature makes him tough to handle while his leg drive makes metres that he had no right to earn. However, the key man is Jackson Willis who spent most of the year at halfback but has found himself on the bench in recent weeks. The feisty playmaker leads the team with 18 try assists, is second with 97 points and is the Dragons' equal leading try scorer with 15 four-pointers, including a couple of hat-tricks.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Replay 9:40am on Sunday.
NRL.com predicts: Dragons by 4
Holden Cup Qualifying Final Preview: Sharks v Eels
The minor premiers will start as warm favourites when they face the Eels on Sunday afternoon, and while most people will write Parramatta off, the blue and golds know they have what it takes to knock off the Sharks.
The Eels claimed a 22-12 win when the sides met in Round 4 and have shown all season long that they have both the attack and the defensive brutality to match it with the competition's best sides.
While the Eels got the chocolates on that occasion, the loss proved to be a mere blip on the radar for Cronulla who didn't lose again until Round 25 en route to the club's first minor premiership.
Why the Sharks can win: Where to begin? They scored the most points in the NYC (920), conceded the fewest (446) and rode a 15-game winning streak to finish seven points clear of the second-placed Panthers. Halfback Kyle Flanagan finished 2017 with the most points (344) in a single season by anyone in competition history while Sione Katoa was the Holden Cup's leading try scorer with 23 four-pointers. Unsurprisingly, they had six players in the Team of the Year, as well as coach, John Morris.
Why the Eels can win: The Eels have flown under the radar a bit in 2017 but there's a reason why they finished the regular season in the top four. Winger Greg Leleisiuao scored 17 tries and broke an absurd 206 tackles in just 19 games on the edge and they've been boosted by the inclusion of star halfback Troy Dargan who has played just seven matches this season. However, their key man is interchange utility Reed Mahoney who has emerged as one of the most important players in the competition. Mahoney led the league with 965 tackles, set up 14 tries and scored 12 of his own; a feat made more incredible given the fact he only started three games.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live coverage from 1:25pm.
NRL.com predicts: Sharks by 7