Five Players Who Could Have the Most Impact on the NRL Preliminary Finals

Embed from Getty Images

The NRL Finals have lived up to their billing so far by serving up an exhilarating blend of drama, intrigue, passion, flair, grit, joy and heartbreak. Cronulla scraped past Penrith in a ferociously competitive semi-final last time out, and Souths edged Rabbitohs in another tense contest.

NRL fans are now eagerly anticipating the Preliminary Finals, which will see the Roosters and Rabbitohs contest the last ever match at Allianz Stadium. The other game sees the Storm take on a Cronulla team that has had their measure over the course of the season, and we should be in for another pair of thrilling contests. Here are the top five individually brilliant players most likely to have the most impact on these Preliminary Finals:

Cooper Cronk

All eyes will be on the legendary Cronk as he bids to lead his Roosters side past their fiercest rivals, with a Grand Final place up for grabs. He was specifically brought to Sydney to deliver a premiership, and the weight of expectation is huge. Yet Cronk insists he feels no pressure, taking inspiration instead from the talent and diligence of his teammates and coaches. He stepped up and put in a colossal performance to see the Roosters comfortably past the Sharks in the Qualifiers. Cronk kicked 688 metres, the most by any Sydney player all year, and that was vital in the territorial fight against a physically intimidating Cronulla pack. He then booted the field goal to seal the win with consummate composure, and that coolness under pressure can inspire his teammates. He is the primary playmaker in his team and he will need to put in another commanding performance if the Roosters are to prevail when rugby league's oldest rivalry flares up again on Saturday night. He will have his work cut out against the ice cool Adam Reynolds, but this is the sort of game Cronk relishes and it will surprise nobody if he thrives on the big stage.

Damien Cook

Cook's intelligent service has provided the springboard for many of the Rabbitohs' successes this season. He has blistering pace and makes astute darts into space before laying off superb passes to marauding teammates. He has also been reliable defensively, making more than 40 tackles per game, and he continues to add more strings to his bow. He is certainly the most improved star in the NRL this season, and he is starting to top fan polls as the player of the season. He was the catalyst for Souths' stirring comeback in their victory over the Dragons in the Semi-Finals. He had a relatively quiet first half, but roared back to form after the break, running at the Dragons defence with brutal speed, dynamism and unpredictability, totally dictating the pace of the game and ripping the opposition apart. It is a toss up between Cook and Reynolds for the title of the Bunnies' most important player, but when the going gets tough against the Roosters it is Cook they will be likely to turn to for inspiration.

Cameron Smith

Once more unto the breach heads the battle-hardened Melbourne captain, who led his team to a hard fought win over the Rabbitohs in the semis. You will see that the Storm are the new outright favourites in the NRL Finals betting, but they face the considerable challenge of getting past the Storm first in their Preliminary Final clash. Smith won a second Dally M last year, drove the Storm to victory in the Grand Final and led the Kangaroos to World Cup glory, so Smith is definitely the man for the big occasions. Even more expectation has rested on his shoulders since Cronk departed, but the 35-year-old has once again stepped up with some big performances. He took a poke in the eye early on in the Rabbitohs game, but rallied to produce strong passing numbers, 38 tackles and important conversions. The stage is now perfectly set for him to add to the legend, dominate this game against Cronulla and kick the vital goals that send the Storm to another Grand Final.

Valentine Holmes

The Cronulla star leads the league for line breaks this season and he was second only to David Fusitu'a in tries scored. His Sharks team are underdogs in this game against Melbourne, but with potent weapons like Holmes, Chad Townsend, Matt Moylan and Andrew Fifita in the team they have every chance of springing an upset. Holmes has barely put a foot wrong all season. He comes into this match in superb form, and he produced an intriguing, game-changing moment of magic to swing the momentum pendulum back in the Sharks' favour as they eked out a one-point victory over the Panthers in the semis. At just 23 years of age, he is a maverick, exuding a huge amount of confidence, and he certainly has the ability to deliver victory for Cronulla at the weekend.

Billy Slater

Holmes grew up idolising the Storm's iconic fullback, and now he will bid to end Slater's career in the Preliminary Final. But Slater is arguably the greatest fullback of all time and he will give his former Queensland Origin teammate a terrific battle. Cronulla have beaten the Storm in both of their meetings so far this season, so Slater - who is playing his final Melbourne match before he retires - will need to deliver more heroics. He has tried to deflect attention away from himself, but he is so close to a fairy-tale farewell and he will be determined not to allow Holmes to spoil the party. Cronk may be gone, but Slater and Smith are still standing tall, and the Storm deserve their status as Grand Final favourites. If their club record tryscorer can turn it on once more, the Melbourne fans can start daring to dream of further glory.