2017 NRL finals series: Week 2 preview

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    The race for the NRL premiership is now down to six teams, with four of them to fight for their survival in this weekend’s semi-final matches.

    In what will be their final game in front of their fans for 2017, the Brisbane Broncos will look to keep their premiership hopes alive when they welcome the Penrith Panthers to the Cauldron for the second time this year.

    The other semi-final will see the Parramatta Eels look to bury some demons of their own when they host the North Queensland Cowboys in the other semi-final at ANZ Stadium.

    The winners of those matches will go on to face the Storm and Roosters in the preliminary finals, respectively.

    Here is the full preview of both the semi-final matches.

    [3] Broncos vs [7] Panthers
    Friday, September 15
    7:55pm
    Suncorp Stadium

    This season: Broncos 32-18, Round 9, Suncorp Stadium.

    Last meeting in a final: Panthers 28-18, fourth qualifying final, 2003, Pepper Stadium.

    It’s now all or nothing for the Brisbane Broncos in their bid to break a frustrating premiership drought.

    Their 24-22 loss to the Roosters in Friday night’s qualifying final has sent them to the same side as the Storm in the finals draw, and it has made their path to a seventh title all that much harder.

    Winger Jordan Kahu said that the team failed to live up to the hype in the match against the Roosters, in which they were without captain Darius Boyd due to a hamstring injury he suffered in the final round win over the Cowboys.

    The Maroons backman remains a 50-50 chance of returning for the Broncos, being named in the number 18 jersey with Kodi Nikorima set to retain his place at fullback.

    Now, they need to beat the Panthers at home if they are to keep their title hopes alive, and they will draw all the confidence from their 32-18 win at Saturday night’s venue, Suncorp Stadium, from earlier this year.

    However, it’s the westerners which won their most recent finals meeting, by 28-18, en route to their 2003 premiership which came two years after they’d finished with the wooden spoon.

    And while they will still be without captain Matt Moylan for the daunting trip north, they will still be brimming with confidence after defeating the Sea Eagles by 22-10 in their elimination final last Saturday night.

    It continued their amazing revival after a poor start to the year, the nadir of which was their most recent meeting against the Broncos where they were beaten quite convincingly.

    This semi-final will also pit Anthony Griffin up against Wayne Bennett for the first time since the 2011 semi-final between the Broncos and Dragons, which the former won thanks to a field goal from Darren Lockyer in golden point.

    Sadly, it proved to be his final NRL game (as well as that of Bennett as Dragons coach), as he had suffered a facial injury earlier in the match that eventually forced him to miss the preliminary final loss to the Sea Eagles.

    Six years on, it will remain to be seen whether Griffin can repeat the dose, or whether Bennett, who returned to the Broncos in 2015 after a three-year stint as Knights coach between 2012 and 2014, can get his revenge.

    For the winner: a trip to Melbourne to face the Storm in the preliminary final, very likely to be played on a Friday night.

    For the loser: season over, and for the Broncos, a twelfth straight year without a premiership, further extending their premiership drought, or for the Panthers, a long and painful flight back home to Sydney.

    Prediction: Broncos by 18 points.

    Josh McGuire Brisbane Broncos NRL Rugby League 2017

    (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    [4] Eels vs [8] Cowboys
    Saturday, September 16
    7:40pm
    ANZ Stadium

    This season: Eels 26-6, Round 9, 1300SMILES Stadium; Cowboys 32-6, Round 14, TIO Stadium.

    Last meeting in a final: Cowboys 29-0, second preliminary final, 2005, ANZ Stadium.

    The other semi-final will see the Parramatta Eels face a North Queensland side still brimming from their thrilling extra-time win over defending premiers the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks last week.

    The Eels, playing in September for the first time since 2009, may have pushed the Storm all the way before going down by 18-16 last week, but coach Brad Arthur insists the defeat was an opportunity gone missing.

    Still, they have a second chance in the finals but they will not want it to go to waste against the Cowboys at ANZ Stadium this Saturday night.

    Paul Green’s men overcame a slow start to end the Sharks’ premiership defence last Sunday, doing so at a venue which has proven to be their finals graveyard in recent years.

    It is the fifth time in the last six years in which the Cowboys have lasted until at least the semi-final stage, and to do it this year without both their co-captains in Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston, both of whom suffered long-term injuries during the regular season, is a massive achievement in itself.

    Now they have the chance to end the Eels’ season at a venue where they did it before – all the way back in 2005.

    Despite starting as heavy underdogs, the Cowboys stunned the Eels with a 29-0 victory, which sent them through to their first Grand Final which they would ultimately lose to the Wests Tigers.

    To this day, many Parramatta fans still have nightmares about that match, as they pondered what certainly could have been (for the record, they beat the Wests Tigers in both regular season matches that season).

    Saturday night’s clash between the two sides will be the first at ANZ Stadium since then, and the Eels will be desperate to bury the demons of that humiliating defeat which ended their best hope of claiming the premiership while Brian Smith was their coach.

    Parramatta Eels NRL Rugby League Finals 2017

    (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

    The only on-field link remaining from that match is through Cowboys winger Javid Bowen, whose nephew Matt was an integral part of the side that was starting to gel in what was Johnathan Thurston’s first year at the club.

    Thurston, of course, won’t play in Saturday night’s semi-final clash due to a shoulder injury, however, he was instrumental in steering his new club to their first Grand Final in their eleventh year in the competition.

    Twelve years on, can the Cowboys repeat the dose, or will the lure of a preliminary final showdown against the Roosters spur the Eels onto victory at ANZ Stadium?

    For the winner: a date with the Roosters at their Allianz Stadium fortress in the preliminary final, likely to be played on the Saturday night.

    For the loser: season over.

    Prediction: Eels by eight points.