Shane Flanagan has a message for those finals sides who may have written off the reigning premiers – the Sharks are circling.
If the Sharks are to defend their 2016 title they will have to do it by winning four do or die finals matches in a row, starting with an elimination final against North Queensland.
Cronulla will host the Cowboys at Allianz Stadium on Sunday for a place in week two of the finals after the Sharks secured a fifth-placed finish with a win over last-placed Newcastle in the final round.
And while most of the spotlight has been on the Sydney Roosters and Brisbane as the most likely to challenge minor premiers Melbourne, Sharks coach Flanagan believes his side are primed for an assault on back to back titles thanks to the experience they gained lifting the trophy last season.
“I think we’re in a position now where it’s different to last year. It was a different feel,” Flanagan said.
“We’ve sort of known it for a couple of weeks so you get used to it. We’ve probably known that we were going to come fifth.
“We’ve got our best footy in front of us as a team and a club. I’m confident that we can win three or four games, whatever it needs to be, to get to a grand final. We’ve got to challenge ourselves to get that done now. Semi-finals are different and I feel like I’ve got a semi-final team in there that will step up next week.
“I don’t believe any of that [talk that the] Cowboys are gutted, Cowboys have got injuries. It’s a semi-final. They’ll come down ready to go. We don’t take any notice of that.”
Flanagan opted to rest State of Origin back-rower Wade Graham and delay Jack Bird’s return from a shoulder injury for a further week but indicated both would be certain starters to face the Cowboys.
While the Sharks will take on the Cowboys on Sunday, Manly will host Penrith in the other elimination final at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.
Second-placed finishers the Roosters host the third-placed Broncos at Allianz Stadium to kick-off the finals on Friday night before Melbourne host Parramatta on Saturday afternoon. The winners of those matches advance straight to the preliminary finals in week three.
2017 NRL Finals Week One
Friday – Sydney Roosters vs Brisbane Broncos. Allianz Stadium. 7.55pm
Saturday – Melbourne Storm vs Parramatta Eels. AAMI Park. 4.10pm
Saturday – Manly Sea Eagles vs Penrith Panthers. Allianz Stadium. 7.40pm
Sunday – Cronulla Sharks vs North Queensland Cowboys. Allianz Stadium. 4.10pm