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NRL Finals: Can the Roosters and Cowboys keep premiership hopes alive against the Bulldogs and Sharks?

After a thoroughly entertaining first four games, two premiership contenders will line up in the second week of the finals with the Bulldogs and Sharks tasked with trying to stop them.
Canterbury and Cronulla had vastly different experiences in their respective elimination finals, with the former just edging the lowest-ranked team in the post-season and the latter embarrassing the defending premiers.
But now the real test begins as they face off against the Roosters and Cowboys, both of whom are looking to bounce back after heartbreaking week-one losses.
With the NRL season now at a stage where all games are do-or-die, Grandstand looks at whether that will bring the best out of the favourites or give the underdogs the inspiration they need to get over the top.

Sydney Roosters v Canterbury Bulldogs - Friday at SFS, 7:55pm AEST

The Roosters are no longer on their pedestal and the Bulldogs are perhaps lucky to be here.
The minor premiers fell to a quality premiership contender in week one but should have enough firepower to overcome the Bulldogs, who barely scraped home against the eighth-placed Dragons.

Eighth-placed St George Illawarra was considered one of the easy-beats of this finals series and lost half-back Benji Marshall early in the game, but still pushed the Bulldogs into golden point, only just losing on the back of a Josh Reynolds field goal.
Meanwhile, the Roosters were outlasted in a brutal battle with the experienced Storm, ending their 12-game winning streak, but losing consecutive games is not something to which the tricolours are accustomed - they haven't done so since rounds five to eight.

Pritchard's attack on the left side of the field has taken on extra significance since Trent Hodkinson's injury and his combination with Josh Morris and Curtis Rona could cause problems for Jackson Hastings, Blake Ferguson and Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who haven't clocked extended periods defending as a unit.
But coach Trent Robinson can take a similar tack at the other end, with Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou, who could have a field day in the air over Sam Perrett.
The possible return of Mitchell Pearce dominated the pre-match conversation before Robinson wisely opted against bringing him back too soon, having a less than fit player in a vital position and risk losing him for even more important games.
Snapshot: Based on recent form and results, the Roosters can beat the Bulldogs even without Pearce and with Hastings in at half-back. Greg Inglis's performance on a bum knee in week one should be more than enough evidence for Robinson to hold back his star for one more week.

North Queensland Cowboys v Cronulla Sharks - Saturday in Townsville, 7:40pm AEST

North Queensland is in a similar position to the Roosters, having gone down narrowly to a team that now looks grand final-bound.
The Cowboys' loss in Brisbane can hardly be counted against them considering the quality of opposition and the game, while the Sharks looked formidable in destroying an admittedly lacklustre (read: utterly woeful) South Sydney side.

So, form suggests these two teams should be pretty evenly matched and the teams' recent history backs that up.
The Cowboys won 15 games from round four to round 22, climbing to the top of the table and some pundits' premiership calculations in the process. The only team to beat them during that stretch? Cronulla, twice. (It is also worth noting the Sharks beat the Roosters in both their encounters this season).
The Sharks travelled up to Townsville in round 16 with the Cowboys riding high after a record 11-game winning streak. They looked set to continue apace after storming out to an 18-0 lead at the half before the Sharks ran in four unanswered tries to score the 24-18 win.
After that heartbreaking loss, the Cowboys rattled off four straight wins before a trip to Shark Park saw a total role reversal, with the Sharks taking an 18-0 lead shortly after the break, only for the visitors to come back with a pair of tries in two minutes, but the supposed comeback kings ultimately fell short, losing 30-18.

But, for all the history and as good as the Sharks were last week, the Cowboys finished three places ahead of them for a number of reasons, primarily the presence of the game's greatest half-back.
Johnathan Thurston was typically influential against the Broncos and did everything but win them the game. Sick of losing in the finals, Thurston has the biggest of chips on his shoulder and will be at his game-breaking best on Saturday night, but the bigger point may be Michael Morgan.
The pivot looked underdone against the fast-paced Broncos but will be better for the run. He didn't look too hobbled by the ankle injury that saw him miss two weeks and should have regained some match fitness from the hit-out.
Unfortunately, he will be coming up against an in-form Sharks unit that looked great last week on the back of a powerful performance from team leaders Paul Gallen and Michael Ennis.
Gallen was particularly strong after earning criticism from some corners for his play in the round-26 loss to Manly, and the Sharks' fringe runners like Luke Lewis and Wade Graham will be testing the defence with their power and ball-playing ability.
Andrew Fifita, if he recovers from the back problems that plagued him against Souths, will be a huge addition for the dominant forward pack.


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