Cameron Smith has labelled North Queensland the team to beat for the NRL premiership.
Captain Smith’s minor premiers Melbourne meet fourth-placed North Queensland in a qualifying final at AAMI Park on Saturday.
The game is a rematch of last year’s preliminary final at the venue, won by eventual premiers the Cowboys.
“No doubt it is a massive challenge for us,” Smith said at the launch of the NRL final series at Allianz Stadium on Monday.
“They are the minor premiers and we believe they are still the benchmark of the competition.
“We played them twice this year, both in Queensland and we have come away with two victories but it is a different prospect come finals time.
“Whatever has happened in the last 26 weeks is out the window.
“These guys don’t have any fear coming to Melbourne. They beat us in the prelim final down there last year.
“They are a world-class side and they have the best player in the world playing for them (in Johnathan Thurston).”
The NRL playoffs kickoff on Friday night at Suncorp Stadium as fifth-placed Brisbane host eighth-placed Gold Coast in an elimination final.
“It is a good way to start the finals with a local derby,” retiring Broncos skipper Corey Parker said.
“Fortunately I get to play one more game there (at Suncorp Stadium). The Titans have played some really honest football this year.”
Second-placed Canberra host third-placed Cronulla in the nation’s capital on Saturday afternoon.
It pits the competition’s form side in Canberra, who have won 10 games in a row, against the side with the worst recent streak. The Sharks have won just one of their last six games.
“We need to fix our ball control up,” Sharks skipper Paul Gallen said.
“We know we can score points and we can defend. We just need to make sure we hold onto the ball.”
The first week of finals conclude with sixth-placed Penrith hosting seventh-placed Canterbury at Allianz Stadium on Sunday in the other elimination final.
The Bulldogs will be without fullback Will Hopoate who will sit out the game due to his religious beliefs.
Bulldogs skipper James Graham said he supported Hopoate’s decision.
The Dogs lost their last three matches to drop out of the top four. Graham said they needed to embrace sudden-death football.
“The most important thing is that we are playing finals football, it is something we have worked so hard for,” he said.
“It is an exciting time to be playing football and we need to take that energy out there.”
“We have to put the last few weeks behind us and remind ourselves why we are here.”