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Will we see a battle of the west for the top prize?

Only four teams remain in the race for this year’s NRL premiership, with the Eels, Panthers and Rabbitohs to carry the hopes of the state of New South Wales into this weekend’s preliminary finals, while the Cowboys will continue to fly the flag for Queensland.

First off, the Cowboys will start favourites in their home preliminary final against the Eels, who will go into the final four on a high after thrashing the Raiders by 40-4 in their semi-final last Friday night.

The other preliminary final is a rematch of last year’s Grand Final, between the Panthers and Rabbitohs, with this to be the third consecutive year they meet inside the final two weekends of the year.

A win by the Eels in Townsville this Friday night will guarantee that the premiership trophy will remain in Sydney, and also edge them closer towards ending a 36-year premiership drought – currently the longest by any side in the NRL (excluding the Titans and Warriors).

However, the Cowboys will be determined as ever to bring some premiership joy back to north Queensland, which tasted the ultimate success just seven years ago.

Here is your preview to the two preliminary finals this weekend.

North Queensland Cowboys (3rd) vs Parramatta Eels (4th)
Friday, September 23, 7:50pm
Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville

This season: Cowboys defeated Eels 35-4 at TIO Stadium, Darwin in round eight.

Last meeting in a final: Cowboys won 24-16 at Accor Stadium, first semi-final, 2017.

North Queensland will be buzzing when the region hosts its first ever NRL preliminary final this Friday night and it is the Parramatta Eels who will be thrown to the wolves against the Cowboys as they attempt to edge closer to ending a 36-year premiership drought.

Any doubts over the Eels’ finals credentials were emphatically quashed as they thrashed the Canberra Raiders by 40-4 at Commbank Stadium last Friday night, the result sending them through to the final four for the first time since 2009.

There had been speculation that Brad Arthur would be dismissed as coach if the Eels suffered yet another straight-sets exit from September, but after the weekend will be breathing a bit easier ahead of the always-arduous trip to Townsville where the Cowboys await.

The northerners qualified straight for the preliminary final for the first time after one of the most intense finals matches ever, being level with the Sharks at 18-all at half-time, and then 30-all at full-time and the end of extra time.

In the end, it was ex-Shark Valentine Holmes who sunk the side with whom he won the 2016 premiership with a field goal from more than 40 metres out, giving his side a 32-30 win and putting them within one match of their third Grand Final in eight years.

Valentine Holmes (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

With the Broncos and Titans both missing finals, and neither of their women’s sides in contention for the NRLW premiership, Todd Payten’s Cowboys will carry the hopes of the state of Queensland into Friday night’s Grand Final qualifier.

Their fans should have reason to believe, as they are 2-0 against the Eels in finals matches, including a crushing 29-0 win in the 2005 preliminary final which broke the hearts of millions of blue and gold fans around the country.

It was considered to be a spectacular choke by the Eels, who had finished that season as minor premiers and were poised to go all the way after being beaten by a Newcastle machine led by Andrew Johns four years earlier.

This time, it’s the Cowboys who start as favourites and therefore should ride all the momentum into the Grand Final.

For the winner: a berth in next week’s Grand Final; for the Eels the chance to end a 36-year premiership drought or for the Cowboys the opportunity to add a second premiership trophy to their cabinet to go with their 2015 success.

For the loser: season over and a long summer to ponder what could’ve been.

Prediction: Cowboys by 18 points.

Penrith Panthers (1st) vs South Sydney Rabbitohs (7th)
Saturday, September 24, 7:50pm
Accor Stadium, Sydney

This season: Panthers won 26-12 at Bluebet Stadium in round four; Panthers won 26-22 at Accor Stadium in round 23.

Last meeting in a final: Panthers won 14-12 at Suncorp Stadium in the 2021 Grand Final.

Last year, the Panthers and Rabbitohs squared off for the premiership.

But this year, they’ll be fighting it out for a place in the Grand Final, with both sides facing each other one weekend earlier than many had hoped for.

The Panthers go into their preliminary final fresh off a week’s break after dominating the Eels 27-8 in their qualifying final at the foot of the mountains, the victory led by Nathan Cleary’s towering bombs in his first match back from a five-match suspension.

There were some doubts over their premiership credentials after they lost to the Eels and Storm within a three-week period, but a win over the Rabbitohs in round 23 ensured they could not be caught in the race for the minor premiership.

 (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

They had also lost to the Cowboys by 38-8 in the final round but coach Ivan Cleary spared most of his side from the trip to Townsville with a view of fielding his best possible side as their premiership defence starts to ramp up.

But with their best side back on deck, they are now just 80 minutes away from reaching yet another Grand Final and again it’s the Bunnies who stand in their way.

After finishing seventh following a 26-16 loss to the Roosters in the final round, Jason Demetriou’s side managed to turn the tables in the elimination final, knocking their bitter rivals out of September before producing a dominant performance from start to finish to send the Sharks crashing out last week.

For Latrell Mitchell, the fire in the belly still burns, especially after he missed his side’s run to the Grand Final owing to a long suspension incurred for knocking out Joseph Manu in the match against the Chooks at Suncorp Stadium late last season.

On the minds of the Rabbitohs players will be redemption; not only did they lose last year’s decider to the mountain men, they were also on the receiving end of two defeats against them in rounds four and 23.

This will be the fifth consecutive year that the Rabbitohs have played in the penultimate weekend of the season, which is second only to the Melbourne Storm’s run of seven straight between 2015-21.

It is also the fourth year in succession that a pair of Grand Finalists from the previous season have met again the following September, albeit before the decider.

Fresh off a week’s break, the Panthers should win through to another decider, and the stakes would be even higher if the Eels win their preliminary final the previous night, as it would set up a Battle of the West for the ages.

For the winner: a berth in next week’s Grand Final; for the Panthers the opportunity to go back-to-back or for the Rabbitohs the chance to put an end to an eight-year premiership drought.

For the loser: season over and a long summer to ponder what could’ve been.

Prediction: Panthers by two points.

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