Cronulla Sharks are aiming for their second Grand Final appearance in three years when they travel south to take on defending premiers the Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park tomorrow night.
The teams famously clashed in the epic 2016 decider, with Cronulla clinching a heart-stopping 14-12 victory and a maiden premiership. It instantly formed a bitter rivalry.
The Sharks hold a slight edge over the Storm heading into the preliminary final, having already beaten their Victorian counterparts twice this year. That includes a 17-14 win at AAMI Park in Round 22.
But the task for the injury-rocked Shire men is extremely tough given Melbourne enjoyed a week off to refresh after downing the Rabbitohs in the opening match of the finals.
In a huge blow, Sharks captain Paul Gallen joins back-rower Wade Graham on the sidelines after failing to overcome a shoulder injury.
The leadership duties now rest with retiring back-rower Luke Lewis in Gallen's absence.
Forward Joseph Paulo – who has never played a finals fixture in his 166-game NRL career – comes into the team. The starting side will be confirmed tomorrow.
On a positive note, coach Shane Flanagan today rated Josh Dugan a strong chance to line up after getting through training unscathed following a week-long layoff with a shoulder complaint.
But if the key outside back does lace the boots it will be on the wing, with Flanagan intending to leave boom youngster Jesse Ramien at centre.
Ava Seumanufagai and joins Galen as the players culled from the 21-man squad listed on Tuesday.
Adding to the immense pressure of the Grand Final qualifier, the game will be the last ever in the career of either veteran Lewis or legendary Storm fullback Billy Slater.
Although Lewis knows the ultra-competitive Slater will be spurred on by the occasion, he also plans to harness the emotion in his performance.
"I've built up a really good relationship with Billy over the years, especially having the opportunity to play with him [for Australia]," Lewis said.
"But in saying that, when we're out on the park we don't like each other for that 80 minutes. He's going to want to win more than ever, [but] I want to win more than ever as well."
It's common knowledge that the Storm can threaten from anywhere on the field. As always, their cunning captain and hooker Cameron Smith will be integral.
Five-eighth Cameron Munster is in imperious touch, as are lightning quick wingers Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vunivalu.
Representative centre Will Chambers, known for his niggling tactics, returns for Melbourne after suspension. Cronulla's reliable Ricky Leutele is tasked with shutting him down.
Lewis said the Sharks are prepared to handle the star-studded Storm outfit.
"You come up against probably the greatest side in the last decade, and I believe one of the best coaches who's ever coached the game [Craig Bellamy]," he said
"If we don't prepare right and we don't turn up, they'll make us stand behind our [try] line more often than not."
Sharks halfback Chad Townsend refused to be drawn into a war of words with the Storm after Bellamy accused the Sharks of being "holier than thou" and implementing dirty tackling techniques.
"We just worry about ourselves and I'm not too worried about how Melbourne tackle or how they do their business," Townsend said.
"At the Sharks we focus on what we can control ... We're not going out there to get under anyone's skin."
Flanagan mirrored his playmaker's approach of biting the tongue, saying the Sharks "respect the Storm more than any other team."
NRL Team List – Preliminary Final Sharks v Storm Friday, September 21
Kick-off – 7.50pm
1- Valentine Holmes 2- Sosaia Feki 3- Jesse Ramien 4- Ricky Leutele 5- Edrick Lee 6- Matt Moylan 7- Chad Townsend 8- Andrew Fifita 9- Jayden Brailey 10- Matt Prior 11- Luke Lewis 12- Kurt Capewell 20- Joseph Paulo Interchange 14- Scott Sorensen 15- James Segeyaro 16- Aaron Woods 17- Jayson Bukuya 18- Josh Dugan 21- Kyle Flanagan
Head-to-head in NRL era: Played 36; Storm 22 wins, Sharks 14 wins
Previous result: Sharks won 17-14 at AAMI Park in round 22
Points per game (regular season): Storm 22.3 (5th); Sharks 21.6 (6th)
Points conceded per game (regular season): Storm 15.1 (2nd); Sharks 17.6 (3rd)
Televised: Live on Nine, Fox League
(Stats via NRL.com)