NRL Finals series: Week 1 - the schedule
Premiers Melbourne will kick off the NRL finals series with an AAMI Park showdown against South Sydney in the wake of the tightest finish at the top of the ladder in premiership history.
After wrapping up the minor premiership, the Roosters will host Cronulla at Allianz Stadium on Saturday in the other match where the winner advances to week three of the playoffs and the loser lives to fight another day.
In the sudden-death elimination finals, Penrith will host the Warriors at ANZ Stadium on Saturday at 5.40pm while the Broncos will take on St George Illawarra at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday at 4.10pm.
If Brisbane scored one more point in their win over Manly they would have finished fifth but will end up in sixth spot and host the Dragons in week one of the finals
- Qualifying Final: Friday, September 7
7.40pm, AAMI Park
(2) Melbourne Storm v (3) South Sydney Rabbitohs
- Elimination Final: Saturday, September 8
5.30pm, ANZ Stadium
(5) Penrith Panthers v (8) New Zealand Warriors
- Qualifying Final: Saturday, September 8
7.40pm, Allianz Stadium
(1) Sydney Roosters v (4) Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
- Elimination Final: Sunday, September 9
4pm, Suncorp Stadium
(6) Brisbane Broncos v (7) St George Illawarra Dragons
The regular season reached a thrilling climax with the top eight not decided until Sunday's two matches - with Cronulla locking up fourth spot with their win over Canterbury and the Broncos thrashing Manly at Suncorp Stadium but they just fell short of the 33-point margin needed to take fifth spot from Penrith.
On Saturday, St George Illawarra bounced back from their 38-0 drubbing the previous weekend to edge out the Knights in Newcastle in front of a crowd of 24,662 fans. The match had a total viewership of 218,292 on Fox Sports, up 21.4% on its 2018 timeslot average.
Johnathan Thurston's farewell match for the Cowboys also drew a bumper crowd with 26,681 fans packing into Cbus Super Stadium as North Queensland surged home to beat the Gold Coast. A tick under 400,000 viewers (399,927) tuned into the match on Fox Sports, making it the highest subscription TV audience for 2018.
The Roosters' ultimately successful chase to win the minor premiership later on Saturday night also drew big interest - 13% higher than its 2018 timeslot average.
Cronulla could lay claim to hitting the finals in the best form of any team with four straight wins but as coach Shane Flanagan has correctly pointed out after several of those, the last three have been at-times scrappy and far from polished 80-minute efforts.
The Roosters roared into first place with a 44-10 demolition of wooden spooners Parramatta, snapping a mini-slump of two losses on the bounce.
"We've only played them once and it was pretty early in the year but they were skilful [on Saturday] night," Flanagan said of his upcoming opponents.
"Souths were powerful [beating Wests Tigers 51-10] and definitely the Roosters were skilful so we're going to have to work really hard this week. It's a big game and we're looking forward to it."
Flanagan praised the Roosters' professionalism is not taking their foot of the pedal against the Eels despite having little to play for in terms of finals ramifications long after a top-two finish was guaranteed.
"[They] showed some really classy footy, scored some good tries and put some points on and defended pretty well.
"Souths, there was a period just before half time that Souths just put their foot down and the Burgess boys were coming off the back fence and they were powerful.
"Those two teams for me are in form."
Flanagan insisted the Storm would be dangerous with some players back but had a tough time of it in a loss to Penrith while missing the likes of Billy Slater, Cameron Munster, Brodie Croft, Suliasi Vunivalu and Nelson Asofa-Solomona.
"Melbourne, they just had too many out. I know Craig [Bellamy] will have his team ready to play, they know all about semi-finals. Don't write them off," Flanagan added.
Flanagan could face a headache at the selection table next week with stand-in winger Sosaia Feki in wonderful form but senior backs Jesse Ramien and Ricky Leutele set to be available. If both come in, Edrick Lee and potentially Feki could miss out.
"They'll both be fit so that's a challenge for me as well but looking forward to having those two players back," Flanagan said.
"Both quality players, both give us something that we've backed our game on, they carry the ball strong out of our end, Ricky and Jesse, that's their strength so we look forward to those two players coming back."