NRL Preliminary Final – Storm v Cowboys: 5 Key Match-ups

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Cooper Cronk v Johnathan Thurston

In 2004, Thurston – then playing for the Bulldogs – and Cronk were opposing bench utilities in the youngsters’ respective maiden finals campaigns. Eleven years later, the all-time great No.7s go head-to-head for the first time in the post-season as starters, and they both undeniably hold the key for their teams in what shapes as a gruelling showdown that will be decided by flashes of individual brilliance. The talismanic Thurston, with his overflowing bag of tricks, and the master technician Cronk have combined many times for Queensland and Australia, but their duel is set to decide which team goes through to the 2015 grand final. It shapes as one of the most fascinating sidelights of an incredibly intriguing contest.

NRL games: Cronk – 274; Thurston – 266.
Representative: Cronk – 16 Origins for Qld, 27 Tests for Aus; Thurston – 33 Origins for Qld, 32 Tests for Aus.
Finals experience: Cronk – 25 (won 16, lost 9); Thurston – 17 (won 9, lost 8).
Head-to-head record: 19 games – Cronk won 12, Thurston won 7.

Cameron Smith v Jake Granville

At opposite ends of the experience scale, but Smith and Granville bring very important – and different – elements to the table for their respective sides. Smith, the unrivalled puppeteer, produced a dummy-half master-class in the Storm’s defeat of the Roosters a fortnight ago, while his goalkicking was exemplary. Granville has enjoyed a breakout year, scoring 10 tries and emerging as one of the finest support players and dummy-half runners in the NRL; he was found wanting against the Broncos in week one, but bounced back strongly in his showdown with Michael Ennis and shapes as a potential game-breaker for the visitors.

NRL games: Smith – 308; Granville – 36.
Representative: Smith – 36 Origins for Qld, 43 Tests for Aus; Granville – none.
Finals experience: Smith – 26 (won 17, lost 9); Granville – 2 (won 1, lost 1)
Head-to-head record: 2 games – Smith won 1, Granville won 1.

Jesse Bromwich v Matt Scott

Scott has been regarded as the best prop in the game in recent years, but most pundits now contend Bromwich has taken over that mantle. A Golden Boot nominee in 2014, the 26-year-old Bromwich has taken his game to another level this season, but old bull Scott continues to provide reminders of his tremendous work-rate and tenacity. Kiwi gun Bromwich is the new-age, athletic, mobile and skilful front-rower, with a hint of Arthur Beetson about his footwork and deft ball-playing; his Test rival Scott is very much in the Shane Webcke mould, never taking a backward step – as he proved once again in a barnstorming display against Cronulla. In 2015, Bromwich has averaged 33.3 tackles and 161.4 metres per game, while Scott has produced 28.9 tackles and 136.3 metres per game. Both rep stars will be relied upon to lay the platform on Saturday night.

NRL games: Bromwich – 131; Scott – 206.
Representative: Bromwich – 14 Tests for NZ; Scott – 19 Origins for Qld, 17 Tests for Aus.
Finals experience: Bromwich – 9 (won 5, lost 4); Scott – 11 (won 5, lost 6).
Head-to-head record: 12 games – Scott won 8, Bromwich won 4.

Cameron Munster v Lachlan Coote

The 21-year-old Munster’s progress at fullback has been phenomenal, developing into a genuine X-factor at both ends of the field for the Storm after it appeared Billy Slater’s season-ending injury would derail the club’s campaign. Meanwhile, Coote’s 2015 renaissance after missing all of last year through injury has been one of the NRL’s feelgood stories. Munster averages 175 metres per game and Coote 138, while both provide vital ball-playing options from the back. If the Storm win on Saturday, Munster – who outpointed Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on finals debut a fortnight ago – will become the first rookie to play fullback in a grand final since St George’s Dean Raper in 1996.

NRL games: Munster – 19; Coote – 107.
Representative: Munster – none; Coote – 2 matches for City Origin.
Finals experience: Munster – 1 (won 1); Coote – 4 (won 1, lost 3).
Head-to-head record: 1 game – Munster won 1.

Kevin Proctor v Gavin Cooper

The Storm will be focusing plenty of attention on shutting down rampaging Cowboys lock Jason Taumololo, but they will be equally wary of second-rower Cooper’s lethal combination with Thurston on the left-edge. The underrated club stalwart has scored nine tries in 2015 (and 38 over the past five seasons) – largely thanks to his understanding with JT. Kiwi Test star Proctor plays a similar role alongside Cronk on Melbourne’s right side, with the pair’s pet plays ultra-dangerous near the try-line. Cooper and Proctor will be just as determined to shut each other down when they don’t have the ball as they will be when they run with it.

NRL games: Proctor – 154; Cooper – 208.
Representative: Proctor – 8 Tests for NZ; Cooper – none.
Finals experience: Proctor – 9 (won 5, lost 4); Cooper – 10 (won 3, lost 7).
Head-to-head record: 7 games – Proctor won 4, Cooper won 3.

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