Will Penrith rest ploy backfire? Latrell in Hayne frame? Cowboys go troppo? Eels left out?

NRL Prelim Finals are usually better than the Grand Final.

There’s not quite the same intensity as a premiership decider when everything is on the line and the football can be a little bit freer.

The 2022 playoffs have featured high scores pretty much across the board and that will probably be reined in a bit this weekend, particularly in rainy old Sydney town for Saturday’s Panthers vs Rabbitohs Grand Final rematch/qualifier.

Hot and humid conditions are forecast for Friday night in Townsville which could be a massive advantage for the Cowboys against Parramatta. 

Here are the burning questions for the four teams heading into the Preliminary Finals.

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Preliminary Final: (3) Cowboys vs (4) Eels 7.50pm at QCB Stadium

Will tropical conditions get Cowboys home? North Queensland have won nine of their 13 matches in Townsville this season – not a bad record but one that needs two asterisks. One of those wins was achieved only after they were awarded a penalty after the siren against the Wests Tigers which the NRL later admitted was not even close to correct. The other was in Round 25 against Penrith’s NSW Cup side masquerading as the NRL team.

DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 30: Coen Hess of the Cowboys looks to pass as he is tackled during the round eight NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the North Queensland Cowboys at TIO Stadium, on April 30, 2022, in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Cowboys played one other match north of the Tropic of Capricorn this year – against Parramatta at Darwin when they thrashed them 35-4 in Round 8. That match was close for the most part before the Cowboys blew the Eels away with three tries in the final six minutes but there’s a fair chance Parramatta will not choose the same opponent next year when it comes to their contractually obliged match in the Northern Territory. Maybe it’s best not to take on the only team in the NRL that lives, trains and plays in the tropics. 

Can Parra’s left-edge muscle up? Much has been made of the Eels’ efforts to score down that side of the field but it was their defence which let them down when they got dominated in Darwin by the Cowboys. 

Thankfully for Eels fans, it’s a different quartet this time around. In Round 8, Kyle Feldt exposed Hayze Perham on the wing three times to score in the first hour and then the Cowboys broke the line three more times down their right in the closing stages.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 03: Dylan Brown of the Eels celebrates with his team mates after scoring a try during the round four NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the St George Illawarra Dragons at CommBank Stadium, on April 03, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Dylan Brown was out of position in the centres that night with Jake Arthur at five-eighth inside Shaun Lane.

Tom Opacic is out with a hamstring strain but coach Brad Arthur ended the Brown to centre experiment after that loss so with him being ruled out, Bailey Simonsson has been named at centre but don’t be surprised if Marata Niukore slots in out wide alongside Maika Sivo to give them extra defensive clout.


Preliminary Final: (1) Panthers vs (7) Rabbitohs, 7.50pm at Accor Stadium

Will Panthers’ resting policy backfire? Of the 17 players selected to run out on Saturday night, the vast majority have only lined up once since the Round 24 cakewalk over the Warriors on August 26. 

Nathan Cleary has played just once since he was suspended at the end of July although to be fair, it was a pretty fine performance in the Qualifying Final win over Parramatta. His halves partner, Jarome Luai, sat out a month before the Warriors clash with a knee problem, so he is also heading into the Prelim Final with not much in the way of recent game time under his belt.

Ivan Cleary’s decision to rest his first-choice side for the last round of the regular season means that most of his squad has gone week off, game, week off heading into this match. It’s like the situation the minor premiers used to have in the old final five format heading into a Grand Final if they won their first playoff.

Bench forward Scott Sorensen and hooker Mitch Kenny are the only two Panthers in action on Saturday night who have played twice in the past month.

Is comparing Latrell Mitchell to the Hayne Plane of 2009 accurate? Not really. There are similarities – Parra burst into the Grand Final from eighth spot that year with their star fullback, Jarryd Hayne, in the form of his life. Souths, who have upset the Roosters and Sharks from seventh spot, are looking to their No.1 gun to power their attack but they are not solely reliant on Mitchell. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs is tackled during the NRL Elimination Final match between the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allianz Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The other three members of the Eels’ spine 13 years ago were rookie Daniel Mortimer, the journeyman’s journeyman in halfback Jeff Robson and a solid hooker in Matt Keating but one who rarely initiated line breaks. 

Souths have genuine class in veterans Cody Walker and Damien Cook while rookie halfback Lachlan Ilias has improved significantly as the year has worn on without overplaying his hand.

In short, Latrell is clearly important to the Rabbitohs’ chances but shutting him down won’t necessarily guarantee Penrith the victory.

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