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Finals arrive a week early in Leichhardt blockbuster

The winner-takes-all clash between Wests Tigers and Cronulla at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday has one huge question mark hanging over each team.

For the home side, it is whether they risk disrupting what is suddenly looking like a very slick attacking set-up to rush Robbie Farah back early from a cracked tibia.

For the Sharks, it is just how much that heartbreaking golden-point loss to Canberra took out of them last week, following on from all the fanfare about the home farewell for Paul Gallen.

For the Tigers, they have to treat this game like a grand final. They have a massive opportunity to make their first finals series since 2011.

Much like if it was a grand final and one of your best players is under an injury cloud, you give him up until the last minute to prove his fitness – but probably not to the extent of the Roosters last year playing Cooper Cronk with a broken scapula.

Robbie is a professional player and he will no doubt have a team-first mindset. He won't want to risk having the situation where his last-ever NRL appearance turns into a 10-minute affair where him carrying in an injury costs his team a chance at a finals spot. He's far too professional for that.

Every try from Round 24

He'll be doing absolutely everything possible to get himself right but he won't play at the expense of the team.

If he does sit out, the good news for the Tigers is they are brimming with confidence after two huge wins over the Knights and the Dragons. Those two teams may be down the bottom of the ladder but when you score that many points in a fortnight you start to get some real confidence about your attack.

Josh Reynolds has been going really well coming off the bench and playing 50-odd minutes and bringing a lot of energy. As a team, they'll be feeling fresh heading into this one after the way the last two games have gone.

It could be almost the opposite for the Sharks though. They'll definitely be feeling the pressure.

Even though they've lost a lot of close games this year and haven't really hit their straps, you always had the feeling they were going to do enough to at least finish in the top eight but now they are a genuine chance of missing out.

And fans probably don't realise just how much a golden point game takes out of you, especially if you lose.

When you're watching on, it's only a few extra minutes. When you're playing, it's like a whole extra half of football.

Paul Gallen's presentation at PointsBet Stadium

Mentally you're prepared for the game to go for 80 minutes, then you get to the end and the game's already extra tense because the scores are level. You've already put so much into those last few minutes and you're super fatigued and the adrenaline is pumping then you have to get yourself up to go again.

Then to lose the golden point game, you're so deflated to go through all of that and come away with nothing, it takes more out of you than you'd think.

Throw in injuries on top of that because they lost Shaun Johnson in warm-up, Josh Dugan to a head knock, Matt Moylan is still out, they'd have plenty of other bumps and bruises, that can also take a bigger toll than you'd think.

Plus they had all the emotional build-up of Gal's last game at his home ground and the club's last game there before the redevelopment and now they will be facing something similar at the Tigers' spiritual home at Leichhardt and Robbie's last appearance there (whether he plays or not) and all the fanfare that goes with that.

Benji does it all himself

It will be tough for the Sharks to get up again.

So based on all that you'd think the Tigers should be heavy favourites but the counterargument to all that is the style the Sharks play. If any team can grind out a win at a suburban footy ground it's the Sharks.

The Tigers are coming off two blowout wins in a row so it's possible they're not really prepared for a gritty, grinding game.

The Sharks love a tough, grinding, backs-to-the-wall game and if they can turn this into a grinding affair that will be perfect for them.

But if the Tigers get a roll on early and those attacking players like Benji Marshall, Luke Brooks and Josh Reynolds get on the front foot and have some space to work in they could run away with it.

If I'm a gambling man my money is on the Tigers and I'd love to see them get their first finals shot in eight years but you can never rule out a team like the Sharks.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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