Collegians are irresistible favourites to claim a third straight Illawarra League crown, with the reigning premiers producing a defensive masterclass in 24-6 win over De La Salle on Saturday.
De La started fast with the opening try of the major semi-final eight minutes in, but couldn't get on the board again for the remainder of the match despite a mountain of ball on Collies' line through the second half.
Combined with a three-try blitz in the 11 minutes before halftime, including a try to back-rower Campbell Rubie just 14 seconds before the break, it was enough to get the Dogs into the decider in a fortnight's time.
It's a trip the club's made in three of the last four seasons, but they've not carried favouritism as pronounced as they will in two week's time despite claiming the prize on all three occasions.
Peter Hooper's side will enjoy a week off as De La and Thirroul battle it out for the second berth, with the latter seeing off Wests 18-16 in the earlier minor semi-final on Saturday.
"I didn't see the score-line coming, I expected it to be bit closer, but you could see the experienced blokes really getting excited about this time of year," Hooper said following the win.
"Blake Phillips, the Dowel brothers (Josh and Blake), Zieky (Foster), they all know what it's about and they delivered that today. In that second half we weren't real great with the footy, but defensively we just kept turning up and turning up.
"The experienced blokes that have been around this time of year, know what it takes and they enjoy that. I've never met a bunch of blokes that are going to work harder for one another.
"We were joking in there that we were hoping to make errors so we could even defend more. They're excited about the fight, the arm wrestle and the contest.
"It's really enjoyable to coach the side like that. I don't have to set standards, they do it all themselves. They were resilient, they were tough and they just hung in there and we got what we deserved today."
While defence rightly won praise, the Dogs were equally slick with the ball despite a score-less second stanza, with a long-range team effort to put Callum Gromek over the highlight of a four-try onslaught.
"We had to dig deep through that first 20 minutes to get to 6-all, and then in that second 20 minutes we took control of the game," Hooper said.
"I felt really comfortable for the whole 80 minutes. That try from Cal Gromek was a special one and I really like the way we're turning defence into attack. We've got a lot of energy in that part of the game and I think that showed today."
"We know we've got to turn up in two weeks ready to go, but it's been a long season of back to back weeks. I don't think we needed it, but there's a couple of blokes in there with some niggles so it's handy to have the week off."
Having claimed the minor premiership on a seven-game winning run heading into the major showdown, De La coach Luke Manahan said the defeat is a reality check for his side.
"Our expectations weren't ever to come here and run over them," Manahan said.
"We know what they've done over the last couple of years and we know the type of team they are, they're going to turn up in finals footy. I thought their defence was outstanding and they turned up today, they were very, very good.
"I wasn't worried about them being two tries in front, we know we've got points in us with Jack (Williams) and Eli (Lovido) there and the power we have on the edges, we just took wrong options and didn't execute.
"We're lucky that we get to come back next week and get another chance. We've been on an up for so long with those seven wins and it's very hard to sustain that and not have a little patch where you lapse.
"We lapsed for probably about 15 minutes today in that first half and we just couldn't claw it back."
While Thirroul finished fourth with a losing record heading into the finals, Manahan expects the Butchers to be as tough a prospect as any side in next week's grand final qualifier.
"Thirroul's probably the biggest worry in the comp to be honest," Manahan said.
"They put up the biggest dog-fight when we play them and there's a little bit of rivalry there going now between the clubs. It's good rivalry and they're going to be very tough next week.
"They'll be primed and ready to go and we will too so we'll see how we go."
The Butchers led 14-0 after 20 minutes, and 14-6 at the break, with the second of two tries to halfback Tarje Whitford with 13 minutes left seemingly putting the game beyond the Devils reach at 18-10.
Wests emptied the tank in pursuit of a late comeback, managing the third try in a hat-trick to winger Jye Hitchcox, who also broke the Butchers open in the dying seconds only for the final pass to hit the deck.
It was the Butchers first finals win since 2018, with coach Jarrod Costello saying belief is high as his side looks to time a dream run at the crown.
"There was just a different feel in the sheds before the game, one I haven't experienced actually," Costello said.
"I could just tell they were really on and that second half showed that. It wasn't pretty, but we were able to get it done and move on to next week.
"Tarje was really good, he ran the ball and kicked the footy well. 'Unit' (Caleb Hocking) and Ammon (Cairney) were outstanding. They had to play really big minutes but they were really good and they'll be better again next week.
"We made it tough, we didn't complete really well and gave him field position, but I was really happy with the way we dug in there and how we were able to get it done in the end. It was a real battle, so I'm really proud of the guys."
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