Preview: Grand Final Qualifiers

Following on from last week?s conflict which saw North Queensland stumble past the Storm and Wests Tigers brutalise the Broncos, we line up for the penultimate week of Rugby League in the 2005 Premiership race.

And wouldn?t you know it, in typical league fashion the controversy surrounding this week?s match scheduling has managed to overshadow the contests themselves. Sure, if you?ve been following the Tigers this year and have been to your fair share of games then you?ve got every right to be a little miffed that this one is being played at the SFS instead of Homebush.

But this week I?ve been getting emails from outer-Mongolia suggesting that it?s time the NRL have a closer look at their ground allocations. This behaviour has galvanised my theory that Rugby League is the only sport in the world where anyone can feel traumatised by the failings of the administration regardless of their persuasion to the game.

It?s obviously up to me to remind everyone that we?ve got one hell of a weekend of footy coming up.

Dragons v Tigers - Saturday 8pm

Played 11 - Dragons 7, Tigers 4. Last met: Round 16 2005 at Oki Jubilee. Tigers won 32-24.

Plenty of people credit the Tigers with sending the Dragons a wake up call back in Round 16. Saints lost their next encounter to Parra but went on to win eight in a row leading into this match. Strangely, Wests also cranked up an eight game winning streak off the back of that victory at Kogarah. But this will be a very different game. At stake is a place in the Grand Final that both teams so dearly covet.

For the Dragons, it is a time for redemption. They can finally march one step closer to their maiden premiership and swathe themselves in glory if they claim the ultimate prize, sending their legion of fans into raptures after years of angst.

For the Tigers, it is a coming of age. Their early difficulties in merging seem like a distant past. They have an exciting playing roster that is keen, exuberant and venturing into territory unknown.

This game is hard to pick with both sides young and primed for victory. Indeed, this could be the beginning of something special for the winner. If either go on to win the big one they are also looking very good for next year.

One gets the feeling that Saints need to win this more that Wests. The Dragons have been living with high expectations for so long that it?s time for them to be fulfilled. Whilst Tim Sheens and his Tigers would be bitterly disappointed with a loss considering the undeniable momentum they have, I think they would still be proud of their accomplishments. But like Penrith of 2003 who have since slipped off the radar, you cannot afford to let an opportunity pass you by.

The momentum of the Tigers is compelling. They have 11 of their past 14 encounters and boy can they score some points. But the Dragons have won 16 of their past 19, albeit with a few close ones in there. However, in a game like this you look for big match experience and this is firmly weighed in St George?s favour. I think they?ll get the chocolates this Saturday night.

Eels v Cowboys - Sunday 4pm

Played 16 ? Eels 10, Cowboys 5, 1 draw. Last met: Round 9 2005 at Parramatta Stadium. Eels won 50-12.

The last time these two clubs met the Eels knocked them for six. North Queensland also failed to recover the following week at home against Brisbane, such was the depth of the defeat.

Once again though, this counts for nought. The Eels will be taking on the plucky Cowboys out at the cavernous surrounds of Stadium Australia. The psychology of the game presents an interesting sub-plot to the physical confrontation.

Parramatta, minor premiers and powerhouse of the west, are expected to win this one. This could well be their undoing. Brian Smith has surely warned his team of how dangerous the Cowboys can be from broken field play and even without Carl Webb their forward pack is menacing.

The Cowboys will prey upon this. Parra are unwilling favourites at the best of times and North Queensland will relish the underdog status afforded to them in finals footy. Could the demons of 2001 come out of the closet for the Eels as they chase their first premiership since 1986? While the bulk of the team is relatively free of baggage, the brains trust in coach, captain and star player (Hindmarsh) still bear the hideous scars.

On Hindmarsh, it is interesting that he?ll play. In 2000 when Brisbane prop Shane Webcke broke his arm the week before the finals people started saying he?ll be back for the GF. Wayne Bennett thought it was a little unfair on others who?d performed until then and he made Webcke play the week prior if he wanted a part on Grand Final day. So he played and they won. I?m not sure if Brian Smith is on the same wavelength here or whether he was waiting on the outcome of Moi Moi?s judiciary challenge, but either way it?s encouraging news for Parra fans.

Whilst I think this contest is far from an open and shut case, I do believe Parramatta will win. Across the park they have different players for all different situations and their game resembles the movements of white-blood cells that rush to the scene of any cut in their defence, so as to heal the wound. The Cowboys will play hard and be gallant in defeat.

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