Sport Rugby League Dressed to the Nines: NRL hits Auckland
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Dressed to the Nines: NRL hits Auckland

Auckland Nines
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The inaugural NRL Auckland Nines tournament, set to unfold this weekend at the iconic Eden Park, will herald a pre-season Rugby League revolution in spite of the predictable waves of skepticism the concept has endured.

The media and wider Rugby League public are notorious for being overtly critical of any developing or unique competition, with the widespread marginalisation of last year’s World Cup a glaring and disappointing recent example.

We have been spared a fifth edition of the All Stars game, for one year at least. It is a nice concept and a wonderful celebration of Indigenous Australian culture, but the games themselves have started to rival the 1993 Grand Final in the snooze-fest department. It would be un-PC to cheer against the Indigenous All Stars; consequently, the NRL All Stars have as much chance as building up a supporter base as Steve Matai.

Its replacement is the inaugural NRL Nines tournament: nine players per side, nine-minute halves of explosive, fast-paced, high-scoring action featuring all 16 clubs in bright new strips – some tasteful, some garish. A $2.25 million prize pot is up for grabs.

Long-time rugby league supporters will be familiar with abbreviated forms of the game, with a Sevens tournament staged 11 times from 1988-2004. Pre-season 13-a-side, four-quarter knockout tournaments such as the Tooheys Challenge were scrapped in 1996 in favour of meaningless trials. It’s about time something was at stake prior to the season proper again.

Minor rule changes have been introduced to speed up the game, while there will be a bonus zone behind the posts for five-point tries. Players butchering certain scoring chances in search of that extra point shapes as one of the highlights of the weekend.

The absence of many of the code’s finest is a valid complaint – only nine Australian and a measly five New Zealand World Cup players will partake – but there is still a liberal smattering of NRL superstars. The shock selection of retired greats Brad Fittler and Steve Menzies provides another fascinating subplot to a bumper weekend.

The killjoys and insufferable purists will continue to label it a Mickey Mouse affair – not up to State of Origin or finals intensity; it’s not meant to be. So enjoy it for what it is: an entertainment spectacular, an indulgence, a guilty pleasure. Those dismissing the Nines as the black sheep of the family will soon be lauding the tournament as one of the NRL’s flagship events.

YELLOW POOL

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Gun: Shaun Johnson. Photo: Getty

New Zealand Warriors

Hometown team the Warriors will start overwhelming favourites, largely due to the presence of Shaun Johnson – arguably the most gifted playmaker and fastest player in the NRL – and British recruit Sam Tomkins. The Warriors have spent half of New Zealand’s GDP getting Tomkins over from Wigan – they will be seeking an Ellery Hanley-like return on their investment. The Nines will be Tomkins’ first hit-out for his new club. Speed and power in the shape of Konrad Hurrell, Glen Fisiiahi, Ngani Laumape and NYC sensation Tuimoala Lolohea should see the Warriors set Eden Park alight.

Former Origin centre Dane Nielsen is a defensive specialist, but in attack resembles an eight-year-old running around on a newly-polished basketball court in socks. Mercifully, he has been left out of the Warriors’ Nines squad, and coach Elliott should consider doing the same when 13-a-side footy resumes. A strong performance this weekend could kick-start the flighty Warriors’ bid for an NRL finals berth in 2014.

Canberra Raiders

The Raiders have shown little interest in progressing past the pool stage, leaving out hot-stepping teenager Anthony Milford, who would have been one of the stars of the tournament. Jarrod Croker’s captaincy honour reflects the overall quality of the squad, which contains few notables other than the electric Reece Robinson. They are deservedly on the last line of betting. After controversially quitting Parramatta, club legend Ricky Stuart is expected to have a messianic presence in his first season as coach in the capital. Canberra officials would have been prudent in considering Stuart’s recent first grade record – 15 wins in his last 66 games. Barring a major upset, the Raiders’ Nines campaign will end at approximately 2.30pm Sunday, and ‘Sticky’ will need every spare second to prepare his side for the upcoming NRL season.

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Old dog: Steve Menzies. Photo: Getty

Manly Sea Eagles

There’s no Lyon, Foran, Stewart or Watmough, but Manly will still field one of the strongest sides in Auckland. The Sea Eagles will be spearheaded by Daly Cherry-Evans, Jorge Taufua and Justin Horo, but the most newsworthy inclusion is retired 40-year-old club great Steve Menzies. Unlike his long-time rep teammate Brad Fittler, however, ‘Beaver’ was still playing very good footy in Super League only last year. Manly should progress to the knockout stages of the Nines, before aiming to go one better than last year in the premiership – a task made more difficult by the exodus of most of their front-row talent.

North Queensland

The ubiquitous Johnathan Thurston has been rested for the Nines after a hectic 2013 – and much like the full form of the game, no ‘JT’ means no win for the Cowboys. The northerners’ squad is serviceable, but uninspiring. Giant Kiwi forward Jason Taumololo could do some damage and fullback recruit Lachlan Coote will thrive in the open spaces, but there’s little else to get excited about. There are high hopes for the upcoming NRL season with new coach Paul Green on board, but paranoia about finals conspiracies and Coote’s dubious prospects of adequately replacing the brilliant Matt Bowen already have the club on the back foot.

GREEN POOL

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Brad Fittler. Photo: Getty

Sydney Roosters

The Roosters’ biggest Nines story – and arguably the most intriguing of the weekend overall – is the far-fetched comeback of all-time great Brad Fittler, who retired in 2004. Most have been sceptical, some optimistic, but everyone will be watching the 42-year-old’s progress with morbid fascination. SKD will be the only well-known Roosters acronym partaking, with Shaun Kenny-Dowall making his first appearance since his heroic Grand Final display with a broken jaw; Sonny Bill Williams, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and co. have been rested.

With a World Club Challenge to prepare for, the NRL premiers have named a conservative squad. But with playmakers Mitchell Pearce and Jake Friend (who have been named co-captains) combining with Daniel Tupou, Aidan Guerra and a host of unheralded youngsters keen to push their first grade claims, the Roosters are an outside chance of adding another piece of silverware to a bulging trophy cabinet.

Parramatta Eels

Hapless Parramatta could have given the Nines a genuine shake, but superstar recruit Will Hopoate was ruled out injured and World Cup hero Jarryd Hayne is still being rested. The naming of Willie Tonga as the squad’s captain reflects the overall leadership void at the club, but the Eels could still surprise a few at the Nines via the inclusion of Chris Sandow, the errant but gifted No.7 in search of redemption, and new faces Corey Norman and Nathan Peats.

The Eels are desperate to shed their status as the NRL’s laughing stocks by climbing off the bottom of the ladder in 2014, and they will have a much better show of that with long-serving assistant Brad Arthur in charge than they did with Ricky Stuart at the helm. Another wooden spoon would see Parramatta become the first club since the diabolical Gold Coast (1991-93) to finish last three years in a row.

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New home: Ben Barba. Photo: Getty

Brisbane Broncos

The Broncos appear determined to make a real charge at winning the inaugural Nines, unveiling star recruit Ben Barba and naming representative backrow quartet Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday, Matt Gillett and Alex Glenn. Nines is custom-made for the troubled but brilliant Barba, whose counterattacking ability makes him one of the most dangerous players in any incarnation of the code. The tournament gives five-eighth prospects Zach Strasser and Kodi Nikorima an opportunity to solve the Broncos’ halves crisis after injury cruelly struck luckless Jordan Kahu in last week’s trial.

Their Nines squad reflects the lack of three-quarter line talent at the club – perhaps investing in a quality centre/winger rather than snapping up every journeyman and fringe first grader on the market (Mills, Vidot, Atkins) would have been more astute. Unless error-prone winger Dale Copley spent his injury-wrecked 2013 season installing ball magnets in his hands, he is destined to cost the Broncos any chance of Nines glory, but the likes of Josh Hoffman and Ben Hunt could help them through to the tournament’s latter stages.

Canterbury Bulldogs

It’s almost as if the Bulldogs have set out to deliberately exit the Nines after their pool stage obligations are fulfilled. Tenacious linchpin Josh Reynolds, one the NRL’s great competitors, has been left out, while Kangaroos centre Josh Morris and the club’s four New Zealand World Cup players have also been rested. Look for diminutive livewire Drury Low to be Canterbury’s standout, although expensive dud Tony Williams could be devastating in this form of the game if he revives his Manly form. The 2012 Grand finalists are at a crossroads in the wake of a lacklustre campaign last season, exacerbated by Ben Barba’s off-field dramas and eventual departure.

BLUE POOL

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Todd Carney. Photo: Getty

Cronulla Sharks

The Sharks, and in particular captain Paul Gallen, have rubbished suggestions they will be trying any harder to get amongst the major prize-money in light of the ASADA-related $1 million fine handed down by the NRL. But the squad Cronulla has named suggests otherwise. Gallen and Todd Carney will be there, while superstar prop Andrew Fifita is a late inclusion. Ball-playing backrower Wade Graham and speedsters Nathan Gardner and Sosaia Feki complete one of the best-rounded squads travelling to Auckland. The supplements scandal continues to loom large over the club – this weekend could provide a bright spot in what shapes as another character-testing season in the Shire.

Gold Coast Titans

A genuine dark horse to become the inaugural Nines champs. Brilliant half Albert Kelly has recovered from a foot injury in time to spearhead the Titans’ campaign, along with Test star Greg Bird, the sublimely skilled Brad Takairangi, and try-scoring flyers David Mead, Kevin Gordon and Kalifa Faifai Loa. Always an enigmatic proposition, big Dave Taylor could tip the scales further in the Gold Coast’s favour – or be a drain on their chances if his fitness and commitment are not up to scratch. Impressive developments off the field and commendable improvement on it suggest the Titans have turned a corner after a tough couple of years.

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Jarrod Mullen takes a knee. Photo: Getty

Newcastle Knights

The Knights are desperate for a ray of light to shine on a calamitous off-season, naming one of the highest-profile Nines squads. Russell Packer’s two-year jail sentence for assault, Dane Gagai going AWOL from the Maroons’ Emerging Origin camp, and community manager Ben Rogers – a former player with the club – facing assault charges after an incident at a charity fundraiser conspired to make it a hellish January in the Hunter. But a star-studded backline contingent including Gagai and Akuila Uate, halves Jarrod Mullen and Tyrone Roberts (one of the only first-choice No.6 and 7 pairings named for the tournament), and veteran forwards Willie Mason and Jeremy Smith will ensure the Knights are a force to reckoned with in Auckland.

Wests Tigers

Attempting to put a positive spin on season 2014 has been made difficult for the rebuilding Tigers after serial offender Yileen Gordon was sacked for leaving an offensive message on a high school guest register and fellow recruit Dene Halatau was ruled out for four months with a broken leg suffered in a trial. But the NRL cellar-dwellers are a real threat for the Nines. Master ball-player Robbie Farah will enjoy an abundance of speed outside him in the shape of James Tedesco, David Nofoaluma and Marika Koroibete, while Aaron Woods, Curtis Sironen and Adam Blair will combine skill with their ability to take care of the tough stuff.

RED POOL

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Craig Bellamy limbers up for karaoke. Photo: Getty

Melbourne Storm

There’s no away around it – the fabled ‘Big Three’ aren’t playing and the Storm will struggle to win a game in the Nines’ toughest pool. NRL regulars Will Chambers, Sisa Waqa and Justin O’Neill provide Melbourne with ample pace out wide, while Ryan Hoffman will lead the side and the delightfully named Cameron Munster has been labelled a Billy Slater clone. But there is no recognised playmaker, which will prove a crucial element of the abbreviated format. Only Canberra is lower in the bookies’ estimations than the Storm. Coach Craig Bellamy has been on ‘player burnout’ crusade again in the lead-up, and has accordingly shown his disdain for the tournament by naming a second-rate squad.

Penrith Panthers

Behind only the Warriors in the favouritism stakes, the Panthers boast one of the most exciting line-ups at the Nines. Chief playmaker Jamie Soward also has the pace to run the length of the field, while Kevin Naiqama and Josh Mansour should figure prominently on the try-scoring table. Dynamic backrow recruit Tyrone Peachey could be the standout forward of the weekend. But there are a couple of disappointing exclusions – young flyer James Roberts would have been untouchable, while jack-in-a-box hooker James Segeyaro is also missing, with turtle-like captain Kevin Kingston fronting instead. GM Phil Gould will be rubbing his chunky hands together at the prospect of his charges adding to the already bulging club coffers with some of the serious Nines prize-money.

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Jason Nightingale. Photo: Getty

St George Illawarra Dragons

The Saints are in the middle of the pack according to the bookies – but they should be jostling with the pre-tournament favourites on the strength of their squad. Featuring Test wingers Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale, virtuoso fullback Josh Dugan, ultra-dynamic lock/front-rower Trent Merrin, and new halfback Sam Williams, the Dragons have the chops to go all the way in Auckland. A positive start to the year courtesy of Nines success would go some way to providing under-performing coach Steve Price with a reprieve for the third season running.

South Sydney Rabbitohs

Greg Inglis could have owned the Nines. He won’t be there, nor will newly-anointed halves pairing Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary. But with robust playmaker John Sutton, speedy backs Nathan Merritt and Dylan Walker, and mobile Queensland backrowers Ben Te’o and Chris McQueen all getting their passports stamped, the Rabbitohs could still make some waves despite being placed in a tricky pool. Sam Burgess is another notable absentee – in fact, none of the four British brothers will be in Auckland – as his rumoured defection to English Rugby Union continues to dominate the headlines. Perhaps with Fittler’s and Menzies’ comebacks attracting so much attention, there wasn’t enough of a spotlight to lure big Sammy into fronting for the Nines?