Saturday night sees the first ever NRL finals double header at the same venue. Allianz Stadium plays host tonight to the Elimination Final between Cronulla Sharks and North Queensland Cowboys, and this is followed immediately by the Qualifying Final between Sydney Roosters and Manly Sea Eagles. Ultimately the NRL had no choice but to do this after the AFL pre-booked ANZ Stadium a long time ago for a potential final involving the Swans. However, there is some talk that this double header was always under consideration as the Roosters, Sea Eagles and Sharks were all due to play home finals at the venue.
While the double header provides undoubted value and excitement for fans, there are some logistical issues for the clubs. Cronulla and the North Queensland Cowboys will have to use the changing rooms across the road at the SCG as they prepare for the first of the two matches, while the Sea Eagles and Roosters will not get full use of the main rooms until half time.
The Sharks will be hoping Todd Carney overcomes a niggling hamstring problem and is able to play at his best. Their finals campaign derailed last year when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon against the Raiders. Paul Gallen and Wade Graham are among a group of other high profile players to return this week. Gallen has only played 14 games for Cronulla in 2013. This has had a positive effect on the team as others have had to step up, while Gallen has been fitter and fresher when he has played. It is clear that this Sharks team is full of effort and desire – they have won six games in 2013 by four points or less.
Cowboys captain Matt Scott is hoping to make an earlier than expected return from finger surgery. His team have won six in a row to sneak in to the finals at the death, and some have recalled a similar run that took the Eels all the way to the Grand Final in 2009. The Cowboys have effectively been playing finals football for six weeks already, each week knowing a loss would end their season.
Historically the Cowboys struggle in Sydney, but this year they have won on three of their five visits. They have also already beaten the Sharks twice in 2013. They will be hoping to avoid exiting the finals tonight at Allianz Stadium, the same venue that has brought the curtain down on their finals campaigns in the past two seasons.
The main concern for the Roosters this week has been the loss of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, who received a one game ban for a raised forearm to Souths forward Chris McQueen in last week’s Minor Premiership decider. Having opted not to take the early guilty plea and losing the appeal at the judiciary, there are now extra carryover points that Waerea-Hargreaves has to be mindful of in the remaining games. Luke O’Donnell returns from suspension to cover the loss, and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Mitchell Aubusson are also available again.
Manly have recalled Anthony Watmough after injury, while Jorge Taufua returns from a club imposed suspension. Brett Stewart was named in the side earlier in the week, but has since been ruled out with a hamstring injury. The Sea Eagles are appearing in their ninth consecutive finals campaign, the longest current streak in the NRL. Not too much should be read into last weekend’s loss to Penrith. The Sea Eagles had clearly taken their foot off the pedal knowing they were secure in the top four, and prior to that game they had only lost once in the previous nine.
Saturday 14th September, Allianz Stadium Moore Park from 16:00
Cronulla Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys, followed by Sydney Roosters v Manly Sea Eagles
Also includes Panthers v Roosters Holden Cup Qualifying final kick off 13.30.