Sports writer, JASON OLIVER, looks over all 4 teams and previews this weekend’s Rugby League action with his NRL tips for both Preliminary Finals.

North Queensland Cowboys v Parramatta Eels @ Queensland Country Bank Stadium
Friday 23rd September, 7:50pm

CowboysEels
Scott Drinkwater1Clinton Gutherson
Kyle Feldt2Maika Sivo
Valentine Holmes3Will Penisini
Peta Hiku4Tom Opacic
Murray Taulagi5Waqa Blake
Tom Dearden6Dylan Brown
Chad Townsend7Mitchell Moses
Jordan McLean8Reagan Campbell-Gillard
Reece Robson9Reed Mahoney
Reuben Cotter10Junior Paulo
Tom Gilbert11Shaun Lane
Jeremiah Nanai12Isaiah Papali’i
Jason Taumalolo13Ryan Matterson
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow14Bryce Cartwright
Luciano Leilua15Jakob Arthur
Coen Hess16Oregon Kaufusi
Griffin Neame17Marata Niukore


History:
Played 42, Cowboys 21, Eels 20

Last Meeting: Round 8, 2022: Cowboys 35 def. Eels 4

Form & Team News

The North Queensland Cowboys needed 93 minutes to beat the Sharks in Week 1 of the NRL Finals but have had a full week to rest and recover. Meanwhile, the Parramatta Eels won’t be feeling too bad after thrashing the Raiders 40-4 at CommBank Stadium in Week 2.

As expected, Todd Payten has named the same 17 Cowboys for this one. Meanwhile, Brad Arthur has made a change to his Eels bench. Makahesi Makatoa has lost his spot on the pine with Bryce Cartwright to come in. Tom Opacic has been named but is in doubt.

Where are the points coming from?

Maika Sivo missed out on a meat pie last week but he is the $9.5 favourite ($1.92 anytime) to cross the line first in this one. Kyle Feldt will be standing opposite the big Fijian and is next on the list at $9.75/$1.95. The Eels found success down the right edge last week with Waqa Blake ($12.50/$2.35) crossing the line. It’s on the left where there might be some value, though. Marata Niukore scored a double after replacing Opacic in the centres. He’s a strong runner of the ball and pairs well with Dylan Brown and Shaun Lane on the left edge. If Opacic isn’t good to go, Niukore’s $41 first and $7 anytime will appeal.

It’s Murray Taulagi that deserves the close look. He is a superb finisher in the corner and the Eels have struggled to defend on their right edge throughout the NRL season. The Cowboys winger doesn’t need a lot of room to get the ball down. If any of the Eels’ inside defenders bite and force Will Penisini and Blake into a quick decision, Taulagi will go close.

Tip: Anytime Try Scorer – Murray Taulagi @ $1.97

Final Thoughts

These two teams match up well to play out a thriller. Both are capable of getting into the grind across the 80 minutes. Playing tough early to pile up points late became a hallmark of North Queensland’s rise up the NRL ladder. Meanwhile, Parramatta has proven against the top teams in the competition that they can hang in games through to the end.

The packs both like to move the ball. While the Cowboys shift the ball through skilful middle forwards slotting in at pivot, the Eels offload the ball and look to generate a second phase. Either way promotes fatigue in the opposition and puts pressure on the defensive line. The key to stopping it is winning the middle of the field. Generate yardage and force the opposition into one-out footy to work from deep out of their own end. If we’re looking at the two packs, it’s advantage Cowboys – just. They have the size and strength in Jason Taumalolo and Jordan McLean to crash the ball up the field and the speed and footwork of Reuben Cotter to expose a big Eels pack. There won’t be a lot between these two by the end, but North Queensland’s superior defence throughout the NRL season, along with their superb pack, should get the job done at home in front of a bumper crowd.

Tip: Halftime/fulltime – Cowboys/Cowboys @ $2.37

Penrith Panthers v South Sydney Rabbitohs @ Accor Stadium
Saturday 24th September, 7:50pm

PanthersRabbitohs
Dylan Edwards1Latrell Mitchell
Charlie Staines2Alex Johnston
Izack Tago3Isaiah Tass
Stephen Crichton4Campbell Graham
Brian To’o5Taane Milne
Jarome Luai6Cody Walker
Nathan Cleary7Lachlan Ilias
Moses Leota8Tevita Tatola
Apisai Koroisau9Damien Cook
James Fisher-Harris10Mark Nicholls
Viliame Kikau11Keaon Koloamatangi
Liam Martin12Jai Arrow
Isaah Yeo13Cameron Murray
Mitch Kenny14Kodi Nikorima
Scott Sorensen15Hame Sele
Spencer Leniu16Michael Chee-Kam
Jaeman Salmon17Jed Cartwright


History:
Played 39, Panthers 23, Rabbitohs 16

Last Meeting: Round 23, 2022: Panthers 26 def. Rabbitohs 22

Form & Team News

The Penrith Panthers were forced to work hard in the first half of their Week 1 win over the Eels but have since been resting up preparing for this one. While the South Sydney Rabbitohs were forced to absorb a brutal Week 1 contest against the Roosters, things came easier in Week 2 to beat the Sharks 38-12.

No injury changes for the Panthers this week but they have been forced to replace Taylan May on the left wing. Charlie Staines comes into the squad but it remains to be seen on which side given Brian To’o is more than familiar with the left wing spot. The Rabbitohs haven’t been quite so lucky. Siliva Havili is a confirmed out with Alex Johnston and Jai Arrow also in doubt. Jed Cartwright comes onto the bench while Josh Mansour is named among the reserves as a possible replacement for Johnston.

Where are the points coming from?

There is some uncertainty around the shortest-priced try scorers heading into this one. Unsurprisingly, Alex Johnson is an $8.50 favourite to score first and $1.78 any time. However, the NRL’s leading try scorer is under an injury cloud. If he does get out onto the field, he won’t be at 100%. As for the Panthers, there is some uncertainty around which side of the field To’o ($9/$1.81) and Staines ($9/$1.90) will line up on.

Viliame Kikau is scoring tries at the best rate of his career this season. The Panthers left edge will be a prominent feature of their attack on the night and the Fijian’s $14 to score first and $2.70 anytime is worth considering with how the Rabbitohs jammed in defensively last week. Latrell Mitchell is the major focus, though. He waits for the right moment to inject himself and did so to score a destructive try in Week 1 of the NRL Finals. He’s at $2.85 to do it again in this one.

Tip: Anytime Try Scorer – Latrell Mitchell @ $2.85

Final Thoughts

In a rematch of the 2021 NRL Grand Final, these two go head-to-head for a place in the 2022 edition. The Panthers are well-rested following a convincing win in Week 1. Nathan Cleary has only played one game in almost two months but if his last is anything to go by, we don’t need to be concerned about possible rust or fitness issues. Meanwhile, Latrell Mitchell is the key for the Rabbitohs. His Finals record has done the rounds this week but his time with the back-to-back Roosters three years ago means little for this one. Instead, we look to his recent performances in which he has dominated in attack. It doesn’t show in the numbers, but Mitchell is crucial to how Souths function with the ball and if he’s getting involved early on Saturday night, the Panthers are in some trouble.

We know what to expect from the Panthers. They’re going to play tight up the field and look to build pressure in good ball. Patience is how they begin to break the defence down and Penrith have weapons on both sides of the field. For the Rabbitohs, they will look to play a little bit more expansive. Panthers will defend all day if they’re only being asked to tackle one-out runners off the ruck. Instead, look for the Bunnies to play the edges and use Mitchell’s quick hands to send centres and wingers down the sideline in yardage. Their left-edge attack in good ball will find points if given enough opportunities inside the Penrith 20-metre line. While the Panthers are rested and ready for this one, the Rabbitohs are peaking at the right time. It’s going to take something special for Souths to upset the defending premiers, but expect them to be in it to the end.

Tip: Handicap – Rabbitohs +8.5