While many will be tuning in to watch the mouth-watering battle between in-form fullbacks Valentine Holmes and James Tedesco, Shane Flanagan and Paul Gallen believe the biggest battle will be in the middle of the field.
Cronulla will meet minor premiers the Sydney Roosters at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night for a chance to advance straight to the preliminary final.
Only for and against split the two teams after they finished on 34 competition points. The sides only met once in 2018 with the Roosters scoring a comprehensive 28-10 win at Shark Park in round five.
Holmes has arguably been the form player of the competition over the last month, helping Cronulla to four consecutive victories heading into the finals.
NSW fullback Tedesco was outstanding for the Roosters in their final round demolition of Parramatta which saw them climb above Melbourne to the top of the table.
But Sharks captain Gallen said an epic forward battle between two of the best packs in the competition could negate the influence of Holmes or Tedesco, depending on who got on top.
“I think at the end of the day whoever wins that battle in the middle can eliminate some of what either one of those two blokes can do. So it’s going to be a big challenge for us coming up against a star-studded team,” he said.
“They were pretty slick [against Parramatta]. They’ve got all the names in their side. And they’re a good side.
“It’s just up to us. I’m not going to say form goes out the window but it’s a new competition next week. We’ve just got to turn up and do what we can do.”
Sharks coach Flanagan agreed.
“We’ve definitely got to win that battle,” he said.
“Obviously they’re without [Dylan] Napa (suspended) but they’ve got some powerful forwards that create a platform for [Luke] Keary and [Cooper] Cronk to get over the advantage line and play their shapes.
“We need to be able to make sure we’re winning that battle in the middle part of the field and that we’re going forward defensively so they don’t have all the time that they had [against Parramatta].
“They ran pretty hard and they got their nose through the line against Parra. They’re just too hard to stop and the skill in their halves and their outside backs took advantage of it.
“It’s going to be exciting, it’s probably our strength as well.”
As good as his team have been over the last month of the season, Flanagan denied the Sharks were the form team of the competition, looking to ramp up the pressure on the Roosters, South Sydney and Melbourne as title favourites.
“I thought the Roosters were really skillfull and really professional in what they had to do [against Parramatta],” he said.
“They were in a very similar position to us in that they knew they were in the top four but they went out and showed some really classy footy. Scored some really good tries and put some points on and defended pretty well.
“And I thought Souths, there was a period just before half-time that Souths just put their foot down [against Wests Tigers] and the Burgess boys were coming off the back fence and they were powerful. So those two teams for me are in form.
“Melbourne just had too many out [against Penrith] and I know Craig [Bellamy] will have his team ready to play. They know all about semi-finals so don’t write them off.”
Flanagan also confirmed negotiations about extending Holmes’ contract were on hold until after the finals series.
Reports have suggested North Queensland will look to sign former Shark Ben Barba on a one-year contract, opening the door for Holmes to arrive in Townsville for the 2020 season.
But Cronulla are keen to extend Holmes’ stay in the shire indefinitely.