REIGNING champions Melbourne Storm will kick-off the NRL finals series with an AAMI Park showdown against South Sydney Rabbitohs on Friday in the wake of the tightest finish at the top of the NRL ladder in Premiership history.
The leading four teams all finished on 34 points, and the next four on 32.
After pipping Melbourne to the Minor Premiership thanks to a 44-10 win at Parramatta on Saturday, Sydney Roosters will host fourth-placed Cronulla Sharks at Allianz Stadium this Saturday in the other match where the winner advances to week three of the play-offs and the loser lives to fight another day.
Melbourne missed the chance to secure top spot on Friday, when they were beaten 22-16 by Penrith Panthers at AAMI Park.
In the sudden-death elimination finals involving the teams that finished from fifth to eighth, Penrith will host New Zealand Warriors at ANZ Stadium on Saturday while Brisbane Broncos will take on St George Illawarra Dragons at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday.
The regular season reached a thrilling climax with the final order of the top eight not decided until Sunday’s two matches.
Cronulla locked up fourth spot with their win over Canterbury and, while Brisbane thrashed Manly Sea Eagles at Suncorp, they fell agonisingly short of the 33-point margin needed to take fifth spot from Penrith.
NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg said the opening weekend of the Finals Series offered some mouth-watering match-ups.
“Based on how the top eight unfolded, our Finals Series is likely to be incredibly close,” he said.
“Just two points separated the entire top eight, which highlights how open the Finals Series will be.
“Anything can happen on any given day and I’m sure we will see the closeness of the regular season replicated.”
Friday: Qualifying Final, 7.50pm, AAMI Park (2) Melbourne Storm v (3) South Sydney Rabbitohs
Saturday: Elimination Final, 5.40pm, ANZ Stadium (5) Penrith Panthers v (8) New Zealand Warriors, Qualifying Final, 7.50pm, Allianz Stadium (1) Sydney Roosters v (4) Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
Sunday: Elimination Final, 4.10pm, Suncorp Stadium (6) Brisbane Broncos v (7) St George Illawarra Dragons