Jarrod Mullen analyses this week's NRL play-offs

SIGN OF THE TIMES: Home-crowd support got the Cowboys over the line against Brisbane last week. Picture: Getty Images

SIGN OF THE TIMES: Home-crowd support got the Cowboys over the line against Brisbane last week. Picture: Getty Images

IN theory, you could be forgiven for thinking Cronulla and Melbourne will hold a major advantage in this weekend’s grand final qualifiers.

After winning their opening play-offs, the Sharks and the Storm had the luxury of a week off while they waited to find out who their next opponents would be.

That’s obviously a bonus in that their players have had a chance to freshen up and overcome any niggling injuries. Paul Gallen, who missed Cronulla’s win against Canberra with a back problem, will especially have welcomed the chance for rest and intensive physio.

But I also wonder if having to wait two weeks between games might take an edge off both teams.

It’s a bit like when teams have the bye. You don’t always turn up for the next game full of energy and enthusiasm.

Quite often it feels like you’ve lost momentum and cohesion and everything is just slightly out of synch.

Weighing all that up, I’m tipping North Queensland to beat the Sharks in Friday’s semi-final at Allianz Stadium. 

The Cowboys will have gained massive confidence out of their win against Brisbane last week, after twice fighting back when they looked down and out.

Wins like that give everyone belief. Sure, they’ll be a bit battered and bruised after playing for 90 minutes, but they’re an experienced team and they’ll know how best to recover and prepare for their next challenge.

They also have the experience they gained in winning last year’s grand final, so they know what’s required, and that should allow them to stay relaxed and focused.

The Sharks, in contrast, have a fair bit of pressure on them. They have never won a premiership in their 50 years and naturally everyone in the Shire is asking whether this team can break the drought.

I’d also say the Cowboys have a slightly bigger pack, and Jason Taumalolo’s form against Brisbane was just ridiculous. With Johnathan Thurston in such great form, I can’t see them being beaten.

In the other semi, I reckon Melbourne might be slightly too professional and clinical, but I give Canberra a chance.

The Raiders are hard to defend against because they are so unpredictable.

Their best bet against Melbourne will be to off-load and keep the ball alive at every opportunity.

If you play safety-first football against the Storm, they will shut you down all game.

They’re the best defensive team in the competition, but second-phase play can cause them problems, and the Raiders have plenty of attacking options on the edges.

It should be a cracker of a game and, while I’m leaning towards Melbourne, an upset wouldn’t surprise me, especially if Canberra can score early. I don’t tend to watch a lot of footy, but I’ll be tuning in to these games, feeling a bit jealous that I’m not out on the field.

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