The Penrith Panthers, Melbourne Storm, Canberra Raiders and South Sydney Rabbitohs are left remaining in this year’s race for the NRL premiership, with a Sydney-based side and an out-of-towner guaranteed to be represented in the grand final.
Having both enjoyed the week off after winning their qualifying final matches in week one, the Panthers and Storm will attempt to set up a one vs two grand final for just the third time in the past decade, after 2012 and 2018.
The first preliminary final, to be played at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night, sees the Storm face the Raiders, who knocked out the Roosters in the grand final rematch last week and are aiming to reach just their second decider in the past quarter of a century.
The other sees the Panthers face the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium, which will expose a quirk in the finals system as Penrith will actually be playing on the Bunnies’ home turf, which will swing the pendulum the way of the men from Redfern.
So, who will move into next week’s decider, which will be played at the Olympic stadium? Here is your preview to the two preliminary finals.
 Storm vs  Raiders
Friday, October 16 at 6:50pm (AEDT)
This season: Raiders won 22-6 at AAMI Park in Round 3; Storm won 20-14 at GIO Stadium in Round 9.
Last meeting in a final: Raiders won 12-10 at AAMI Park, first qualifying final, 2019.
After being forced out of Victoria due to the second wave of COVID-19 cases in the state, the Storm have adapted to their temporary Sunshine Coast surroundings well, winning all of their matches there as well as three at Suncorp.
Craig Bellamy’s side are fresh off a week’s break, which was earned when they came from 10-0 down in their qualifying final against the Parramatta Eels to prevail 36-24.
It will be their sixth consecutive preliminary final, 12th in the past 15 years and their second against Canberra in the past five years.
The Green Machine go into this match off the back of an upset win over the Roosters in the semi-final at the SCG, which not only avenged last October’s heartbreaking grand final defeat but also put to an end the Chooks’ hopes of a hat-trick of premierships.
A try to Jack Wighton ten minutes from time saw Ricky Stuart’s side take the chocolates. The Raiders can also take some heart that they beat the Storm in last year’s qualifying final, which set them up to ultimately reach last year’s decider, which was their first since 1994.
The stakes will be higher for the Storm to reach the grand final, which would be their ninth in the past 15 years and tenth overall, because it is expected that Cameron Smith will announce his imminent retirement, with Friday night’s game to be his last at Suncorp Stadium.
The ground has been a second home to the Storm skipper given what he has achieved in State of Origin, leading Queensland to countless victories, as well as leading Australia to the World Cup in 2017.
But can the Raiders send him into retirement early, or will Smith’s career go on for at least one more game – the biggest of them all?
For the winner: a berth in the grand final.
For the loser: season over.
Prediction: Storm by six points.
 Panthers vs  Rabbitohs
Saturday, October 17 at 7:50pm (AEDT)
This season: Panthers won 20-12 at Kogarah Oval in Round 7.
Last meeting in a final: this is their first.
Ivan Cleary’s side have been the best team all year, having not been beaten for over four months, with their most recent and defeat of the year coming against Parramatta in Round 5.
From that point they proceeded to win their final 15 matches of the regular season to claim their first minor premiership since 2003, then beat the Roosters 29-28 in the qualifying final.
But if they are to make it 17 in a row, which would match the Bulldogs for the longest winning streak this century, they’ll have to do it without backrower Viliame Kikau, who copped a one-match suspension for a lifting tackle in the win over the Chooks.
Further, because the NRL’s finals contract requires them to play second-or-third week venues at ANZ Stadium, they’ll actually be playing in the Bunnies’ backyard.
The Rabbitohs advanced to their third consecutive preliminary final after coming from behind to defeat the Eels 38-20.
It was their third consecutive victory, which has seen them score 144 points in that streak, including defeating the Roosters by a record 60-8 in the final round of the regular season.
But they will have to raise their game a notch against the Panthers, to whom Wayne Bennett’s men lost in Round 7 by 20-12.
In the same vein that Nathan Cleary holds the key to the Panthers reaching the grand final, Adam Reynolds is the man whom the Bunnies and their fans will be leaning on as they look to score a finals boilover.
For the winner: a grand final against either the Storm or Raiders – and for the Panthers, premiership favouritism.
For the loser: a wasted opportunity.
Prediction: Panthers by 14 points.