CRONULLA V NORTH QUEENSLAND Friday night, Allianz Stadium

Cronulla fans can smell a first Grand Final appearance since 1997 but they will have to get through the defending champions in order to be this year's decider.

The Sharks have been one of the best teams all season and strung together a remarkable 15 straight wins at one point to eventually wind up third at the end of the regular season. Fresh from having the week off they won't get a better chance to progress through to the Grand Final, however, standing in their way are North Queensland.

Last season's champions were on the ropes last week against the Broncos but they somehow managed to get past their arch rivals to set up a Preliminary Final showdown here. This game could go either way as both teams have won playing at home against each other in 2016.

REST UP
Enjoying the week off after beating Canberra in Week 1, the Sharks will be buoyed by the return of influential skipper Paul Gallen while huge forward Sam Tagataese has been named to return to return from injury for the first time since Round 22.

The addition of those two will be a huge boost for the Sharks as it enhances their chances of winning the battle in the middle. Should they be able to stop the Cowboys' go-forward then they will go a long way to winning this game.

A CHAMPION TEAM
You can never discount a champion team and when the Cowboys were trailing 14-6 midway through the second half last week, many were thinking their title defence was over.

Influential co-captain Matt Scott went down late in the first half while the rest of the team looked tired after such a long season. Off the back of a brutal forward pack headed by Jason Taumololo, they built forward momentum which then allowed Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan and co the room needed to stretch the Broncos.

Scoring back-to-back tries to take the lead before again falling behind, they tied the game late off the back of a penalty. They then got up in Extra Time 26-20.

AWAY CONCERNS
We have highlighted it all year but the Cowboys performances away from Townsville have been concerning. They have just four wins on the road in 2016 - by far the worst away record of any of the four teams left in finals contention.

Making their task this Friday even more difficult is their shocking run at Allianz Stadium in which they are on a current five-game losing streak.

UP, UP CRONULLA
The Sharks have enjoyed their trips to Allianz in recent seasons by winning four straight at the venue. Funnily enough, they boast a win in finals footy over the Cowboys at this venue back in 2013 even though they were assisted by a seventh-tackle try.

Shane Flanagan's side have been ultra strong at home this season and only lost once at Shark Park. Even though this game isn't at their spiritual home you can tell they like to play in Sydney as five of their six losses were away.

A GAME OF CLOSE CALLS
History between these sides suggests we are in for a close encounter. Taking the 39-0 thrashing in last year's semi out of the equation, the average winning margin when these sides have played is just 5.6 points.

HOW IT PANS OUT
Attack will play a big part in this one because defence is going to be the key. Cronulla's pointscoring is of some concern because they have only scored more than 20 points just once in their last seven outings. Their halves, Chad Townsend and James Maloney, really need the forwards to give them the time and space needed to launch their attacking raids.

It won't be easy because the Cowboys have just enjoyed their best defensive season to date, conceding an average of 15 points per game throughout the year.

North Queensland were also the second-best defensive outfit all season with only the Melbourne Storm being better.

THE VERDICT
We think this one will go right down to the wire considering the two times they played this season were decided by three and six points respectively. If Cronulla are ever going to make another Grand Final then we think it will be this season.

North Queensland were out on their feet last week and could be prone for a bit of an emotional letdown going to Allianz as opposed to their bumper home crowd in Townsville last week.

Add to that their poor record away from home in which they have scored an average of approximately two tries per match, and only scoring more than 20 points once in those games, we are tipping their title defence will end here.

HEAD TO HEAD tip: Cronulla ($2.20 Bet365)

MARGIN: 1-12 all the way! ($3.40 Ladbrokes)

EXOTIC BET: North Queensland Try - First Scoring Play ($2.60 Sportsbet). They are the best starting team in the competition while the Sharks have given away starts in their last four games.
Sharks - 1pt @ 2.20
Sharks 1-12 - 1pt @ 3.40
Cowboys Try - First Scoring Play - 1pt @ 2.60