ICYMI, on Thursday the @NRL - National Rugby League released the 2018 #NRLDraw.
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The Bulldogs have been boosted just a few days ahead of their Grand Final qualifier against Brisbane with Kiwi international Roy Asotasi passed fit to play along with Reni Maitua. Asotasi injured his knee against the Broncos back in round 24 and at first analysis was ruled out until the Grand Final, but will play off the bench against Brisbane. Maitua also injured his knee but against the Panthers in round 26 and missed the side?s Qualifying Final victory over the Canberra Raiders. These two are the side?s only two changes while the team will have to overcome poor recent form against the Broncos with two losses this season to them 25-6 at Suncorp Stadium and 30-0 back in Sydney.
Broncos coach Wayne Bennett has name an unchanged line up for his side?s first visit to a Preliminary Final since 2002 when they were beaten by the Roosters who eventually went on to win the Grand Final. Although playing the whole game at fullback against the Knights last weekend, Karmichael Hunt has been named on the wing with Justin Hodges reverting to in the custodial role.
St George Illawarra welcome back Australian centre Mark Gasnier for their Preliminary Final showdown with the Melbourne Storm on Saturday evening. Daryl Millard has been relegated back to an extended interchange and it is most likely he will play in Premier League against Newtown in the curtain raiser to the First Grade. While it is likely coach Nathan Brown will opt for the same side who were big victors against Manly last weekend, alongside Millard on the extended bench are Michael Henderson and Sam Isemonger who will most likely drop back to reserve grade.
The Dragons will be eager to forget their last Grand Final appearance which was against the Storm in 1999 when the Dragons led all match before losing by two points on the back of a penalty try. Trent Barrett and Nathan Brown played halfback and hooker respectively that day whilst Shaun Timmins was in the centres.
Melbourne, who had the week off last weekend, will welcome rookies Greg Inglis and Brett White back from injury for their match with the Dragons at Telstra Stadium on Saturday. Like opposite coach Nathan Brown, Storm coach Craig Bellamy has also named a three man bench with Jake Webster, Jeremy Smith and Adam Blair likely to drop off this unless Inglis and White do not make it through late fitness tests. The match will be the Storm?s first Preliminary Final since 1999 when they defeated Parramatta at Aussie Stadium before going on to win the premiership.
Onto the officials as we head into the penultimate weekend starting on Friday night. Referees boss Robert Finch has kept with the same two who did their job last weekend in Paul Simpkins and Steve Clark. In fact, the only omission from last weekend, including touch judges and video referees, is Steve Nash who comes into the box this Friday night as he replaces Graeme West.
The Preliminary Finals kick off on Friday night at Aussie Stadium with Paul Simpkins in control of the Bulldogs and Broncos fixture. The last time Paul officiated in a Preliminary Final was in 2004 when the Roosters met the Cowboys at Telstra Stadium. He missed out on another one the year after his blunder in the first Semi Final ruling a try to Melbourne centre Steve Bell when he clearly knocked the ball on in front of the referee.
The Broncos and Bulldogs have met twice this season, although Steve Clark refereed both games, Simpkins has been given the match and one of the reasons for this could be that if Simpkins had have been awarded the Dragons and Storm match, it would have been his third straight time in charge of St George Illawarra.
Steven Clark is just one step away from refereeing his first ever Grand Final, as he has been appointed to the Dragons and Storm match at Telstra Stadium on Saturday evening. Just seven years ago, Clark was at the helm at this very ground in 1999 as the Dragons progressed through to the Grand Final against local rivals Cronulla-Sutherland.
Last year Clark had the Preliminary Final between the Eels and Cowboys, where the Minor Premiers were heavily defeated 29-0. Clark?s touch judges on the night will be Russell Turner who is alongside Steve Chiddy. The two video referees are Chris Ward and Phil Cooley with the standby referee being Tony Archer and Paul Holland as the standby sideline official.