Panthers v Cowboys: NYC preview
It's the dream match-up that has been 12 months in the making.
For the second year in a row, the Panthers and Cowboys finished the NYC regular season first and second, but for the first time in NYC history, they will meet in the finals.
They were tipped by all and sundry to face-off in last year's grand final, and while Penrith kept their end of the bargain, North Queensland were eliminated at the final hurdle, going down 25-24 to Manly.
Penrith booked their spot in the grand final qualifier courtesy of a 28-6 win over the Sharks a fortnight ago, while the Cowboys recovered from a golden point loss in their qualifying final to down the Wests Tigers 32-16 last week.
Panthers coach Cameron Ciraldo has made a couple of positional changes from the side that beat the Sharks with Tyrone May starting at five-eighth and Wayde Egan dropping back to the bench. Dean Blore switches from pivot to halfback in the only other change.
The Cowboys welcome back Kalyn Ponga in the No.1 jersey pushing Nathan Traill back to the bench while Ross Bella retains his spot in the back row after last week's outrageous 70-metre intercept try.
Watch out Panthers: In a side stacked with attacking talent, Enari Tuala has snuck under the radar to establish himself as North Queensland's best finisher in the finals. The 17-year-old right centre crossed for a hat-trick in last week's win over the Tigers to take his tally to four tries in the playoffs. He has now scored eight tries in his past six matches, and with Gideon Gela-Mosby on his outside, the Panthers left-edge will need to be on high alert.
Watch out Cowboys: It's hard to pinpoint just one weapon in Penrith's arsenal, but one man who can never be ignored is Braidon Burns. Bound for the Rabbitohs in 2017, Burns is arguably Penrith's most damaging ball-runner in their three-quarter line. In 18 matches this season he has scored 19 tries (including a five-try haul against the Warriors), broken the line 16 times, produced 23 offloads and busted 60 tackles to comfortably sit in the top five in each category for the club.
Key match-up: Dylan Edwards v Kalyn Ponga. A battle between two NYC Team of the Year members headlines this mouth-watering duel. Edwards has been one of Penrith's best this season despite only playing 15 matches. He has 123 tackle breaks (1st at the Panthers), 2,937 metres (1st), 13 try assists (2nd) and 11 tries (3rd). And while his NRL debut wasn't as memorable as this week's adversary, he managed to tick that off the bucket list in 2016 as well. Ponga will never forget his introduction to first grade as he more than held his own in last week's thrilling 26-20 Telstra Premiership semi-final win on the wing against Brisbane. Undaunted by his first taste of NRL, Ponga ran for 177 metres, made a line break and produced four tackle breaks to confirm his status as a star of the future. He already has 12 tries, 19 assists and a team-high 2,870 metres in the NYC and will be full of confidence after last week's performance.
The history: Played 12; Panthers 6, Cowboys 6. The Cowboys won five of the first six meetings between the sides, but it's been all Penrith since then with the Panthers winning five of the next six, including a 36-10 win at home back in Round 6. Victory would send the Panthers into their third NYC grand final in the last four years, while the Cowboys are hoping to reach their first decider since their 2011 golden-point loss to the Warriors. In fact, every time they've been eliminated from the NYC post-season, it has been in heartbreaking fashion. They were bundled out 22-18 by the Raiders in 2010, somehow lost in extra time the following season, and went down 25-24 in a massive upset to the Sea Eagles in 2015.
Match officials: Referee: Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski. Assistant referee: Drew Oultram. Sideline officials: Dave Ryan and Josh McGowan.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – live coverage from 2:45pm.
The way we see it: There is no better way to start a preliminary final triple-header at Allianz Stadium, and while all things point to a comfortable Penrith win, it would be foolish to count out the Cowboys. North Queensland's advantage in the halves could be telling, and you get the feeling that Penrith will eventually suffer without Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai to steer the ship. Cowboys by 1.
First published on NRL.com.