NRL preliminary finals preview: Storm, Sharks tipped to meet in grand final

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Storm coach Craig Bellamy and his opposite Ricky Stuart are good mates and often see eye-to-eye on football issues, but this is a match-up of competing rugby league philosophies. This season's most miserly defensive unit Melbourne go head-to-head with by far the competition's greatest offensive team.

FRIDAY, Sept 23
Cronulla Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys at Allianz Stadium, 9.55pm (NZT)
Head to Head: Sharks 24 Cowboys 16
Last clash: Round 14 2016 - Sharks 13 bt Cowboys 10 at Southern Cross Group Stadium

Buoyed by their upset qualifying final win over Canberra two weeks ago without stars Paul Gallen and Wade Graham, the Sharks have to get past the premiers to earn their first grand final berth in a unified competition since 1978.

The week off has been vital for the Sharks, who welcome back skipper Gallen from a back injury and Graham from concussion. However, bench forwards Sam Tagataese and Joseph Paulo have been ruled out as they continue to battle respective shoulder and knee injuries. Jayson Bukuya moves back to the bench for Gallen, and Jesse Sene-Lefao is out of the home side's 17.

The Cowboys come off their win over Brisbane with fatigue a major concern after their enthralling 90-minute semi-final. But Johnathan Thurston has recovered from the sickness he took into that game and centre Kane Linnett returns from a hamstring injury. That shifts Javid Bowen to the wing and pushes Kalyn Ponga out of the visitors' side.

The confidence and form of halfback Chad Townsend is the Sharks' major concern after he was hooked against the Raiders. He's sure to be sledged relentlessly by the Cowboys - in particular by his opposite, Thurston, - and can expect plenty of traffic in defence. Thurston's edge combination with Gavin Cooper will be crucial here.

The same goes for Thurston's relationship with man of the moment Jason Taumalolo. The Cowboys rely greatly on Taumalolo's charges and quick play-the- balls to set up their big plays. The Sharks know this and will look to slow down the ruck at every opportunity.

The Sharks can score points but they can scrap, too. They will want a stop-start affair. The Cowboys, playing at a venue where they've lost six-straight games, will want a free-flowing match.

The teams are 1-1 in clashes this year. The Cowboys won in Townsville and the Sharks won in Sydney. The Cowboys have won 4/13 away games this season. The Sharks were belted 39-0 in Townsville the last time the sides met in a finals match.

Key: The Sharks have to at least contain Taumalolo and his fellow Cowboys forwards if they are to triumph.

Tip: Sharks

SATURDAY, Sept 24
Melbourne Storm v Canberra at AAMI Park, 9.40pm
Head to Head: Storm 26 Raiders 11
Last clash: Round 23 2016 - Raiders 22 bt Storm 8 at GIO Stadium

Storm coach Craig Bellamy and his opposite Ricky Stuart are good mates and often see eye-to-eye on football issues, but this is a match-up of competing rugby league philosophies. This season's most miserly defensive unit Melbourne go head-to-head with by far the competition's greatest offensive team.

The Raiders have struggled to score points in their two finals matches, managing 14 in their loss to the Sharks and 22 in the win over Penrith, as opposed to their season average of 29 points a game.

The Storm, who conceded just 13 points a game during the regular season, will be hard to crack.

Ever since their preliminary final loss to North Queensland this time last year, the Storm, led by Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, have played with a steely determination.

At the start of the season, few would have picked Canberra to be playing this weekend and, win or lose, Stuart deserves coach-of-the-year status for the force he has turned the Raiders into.

But for Bellamy, nothing short of another grand final will suffice.

The Storm's controversial ruck tactics are key to their suffocating defence, and Stuart has turned the spotlight on that this week. But of even more concern to him will be his side's successive second-half fades. A lack of finals experience has hurt the Raiders and they can't afford to peter out against the minor premiers.

Rain greatly helped the Storm in their qualifying final win over North Queensland, and if the heavens open again, - there's a 40 per cent chance of rain - they will be very hard to beat.

Like the Cowboys, Stuart's Raiders hope for an open game. Bellamy wants the opposite.

The Raiders have youth on their side, but it's hard to see that being enough for the guile of Smith and Cronk.

Canberra beat Melbourne 22-8 at GIO Stadium in the side's only clash this year, which was one of the games of the season.

The Raiders are unchanged after their win over Penrith. Matt White will likely go in for the injured Nelson Asofa-Solomona (elbow) for the Storm.

Key: Leipana. If Canberra's slashing right-side combination of Joseph Leilua and Jordan Rapana can have the games of their life, the Raiders can win.

Tip: Storm

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