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The Auckland Nines are into their third year after two successful stints, and we now have a good idea of who will take to the field this weekend (not to mention what they’ll wear – what the hell is with that lightning strike, St George?).
For hardened NRL fans who think this preseason romp is just that, keep in mind the two previous winners (Souths and North Queensland) have won the last two NRL grand finals, so there.
So who will win the Auckland Nines? And who should you keep an eye out for this weekend?
Let’s start with the Hunua and Piha pools.
Warriors, Broncos, Bulldogs and Sea Eagles.
The Doggies have been perennial under-achievers at the Nines, winning just one from their six games.
They were 0-3 last year and will probably struggle to escape the pools again this year.
Greg Eastwood will captain the Dogs, while Tony Williams will make his return from an injury layoff that saw him miss a huge chunk of last season.
Williams will likely be a focal attacking point, as the big fellow likes to think he’s wearing number 6 rather than 12, making the Nines an apt arena for him to show off his skills.
He will look to combine with his captain and other big bopper Sam Kasiano, who also has ball skills to match.
With no members of the Bulldogs starting back-line flying to Auckland, it’s up to the big fellas to get Canterbury’s attack going.
Watch out for: Brad Abbey
The 18-year-old Kiwi fullback is one of the few signings for the Bulldogs, and was the Warriors Under-20s rookie of the year in 2015.
He possesses many of the skills required for the Nines: speed, agility and creativity. With the amount of forwards in the Canterbury squad and lack of outside attacking options, Abbey will get his chance to shine.
Manly Sea Eagles:
Manly, like Canterbury, have a poor record in the Nines, having also won just one match from six, and were 0-3 in 2015 – although their one win in 2014 came against eventual champions North Queensland.
New coach Trent Barrett has made an odd decision, giving 21-year-old Jake Trbojevic captaincy, possibly in a bid to groom him for a leadership role in years to come.
Manly’s squad features a good mix of speed, experience and x-factor, with Felti Mateo, Jayden Hodges and Jorge Taufua a few standout names who should have a big impact.
This weekend will also see the return of injury-plagued former Tiger Tim Moltzen, who hasn’t played in what feels like forever, but will no doubt be looking be to reignite his career.
Watch out for: Tom Trbojevic
Tom was impressive in a few stints in first grade last year, scoring eight tries in nine games. He also lit up the scoreboard in the Under-20s last year, scoring four tries in a game twice. His game against the Warriors also drew notice, as he accumulated the NYC record of 466 metres gained.
One to watch this weekend, captain Jake’s younger brother will likely notch up the most tries for the Sea Eagles.
After losing the final in the inaugural tournament, the Broncos had just one win in 2015, failing to escape their pool.
Wayne Bennett has given Sam Thaiday the captaincy, but with Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford missing, it’s likely the Broncos will struggle to get out of the pool.
They may have experienced heads with the likes of Andrew McCullough, Alex Glenn, Adam Blair and Darius Boyd included, but without Milford the Broncos look one-dimensional.
Watch out for: Carlin Anderson
Bennett made sure to snap up this 19-year-old Ipswich prodigy. Anderson had a sensational year for the Jets in their Queensland Cup premiership winning year.
He is extremely versatile; his instincts, awareness, endurance and speed have been praised by his current and former coaches, while his footwork and finishing have impressed Bennett.
New Zealand Warriors
The local boys come into the Nines on a wave of optimism and expectations – they are once again favourites.
The Warriors have had no problems in escaping their pool, but have come unstuck in the finals.
They were soundly beaten by 2014 champions the Cowboys in the semi-finals, and lost last year’s quarters to the Sharks.
New Zealand have named a strong squad for this weekend, with star recruit Roger Tuivasa-Sheck making his club debut, looking to establish a good partnership with Shaun Johnson, who makes his return from an ankle injury.
Also making their club debut are ex-Sharks recruits Blake Ayshford and Jeff Robson, who join explosive finishers Konrad Hurrell, David Fusitu’a, Solomone Kata and Tui Lolohea.
This is once again a well-rounded squad, with mobile forwards Ben Matulino, Ryan Hoffman and Jacob Lillyman thrown in.
Can the Warriors finally live up to the hype?
Watch out for: Konrad Hurrell
With a few seasons now under his belt, the ‘Hurrellcane’ has declared he is in the best shape of his life.
The hulking centre had a disappointing 2015 season, with just 12 first grade appearances and many stints in NSW Cup. Hurrell has given himself the best chance of success this year, changing his diet dramatically, cutting short his annual trip to Tonga, prioritising sleep, ditching takeaways and training the house down.
Will the Nines showcase a new and improved Hurrell? Can this leopard really change his spots?
Second: Sea Eagles
This is the toughest pool, with some strong squads named, but the Warriors and Sea Eagles have what it takes to make it through to the next stage.
Dragons, Raiders, Sharks and Titans
St George Illawarra Dragons
Josh Dugan has been named captain of a squad featuring six new signings. No surprise since the Dragons were one of the more active clubs in the off-season, giving their squad a massive face-lift.
Only for and against stopped the Red V from progressing in last year’s tournament, while in 2014 they managed just one win, against the Storm.
The Dragons have a versatile squad this year, with recruits Tim Lafai and Kurt Mann looking to nail down first-grade spots.
The Samoan wrecking ball Mose Masoe returns to the NRL after a stint with St Helens, as the Dragons look to add some bite to their pack.
Other new recruits Dunamis Lui, Josh McCrone and Sebastine Ikahihifo will also feature.
Player to watch: Josh Dugan
Dugan has been training at fullback and centre, though Paul McGregor is yet to determine who will wear the number 1 jersey for the Dragons this year.
The former Raider has come a long way since his off-field troubles a few years ago, and will be the Dragons’ main focal point in attack. His defence will also be critical, as he is one of the best one-on-one defenders in the game, with superb technique, and being able to take an attacker ball-and-all is a major key to winning games in nines.
The Sharks have a good record at the Nines – defeated in extra time by South Sydney in the final last year, and made the semis in 2014.
A bit of drama is never far from the Shire and young gun Valentine Holmes has been stood down for the Nines over an incident in Brisbane.
Still, the Sharks have the services of Jack Bird, Ben Barba, Gerard Beale, Sosaia Feki and Luke Lewis (who will co-captain with Chris Heighington).
Barba and Bird showed what they could muster last year in the nine-a-side format, and with a bit more experience (especially Bird), the Sharks will again be a tour de force in Auckland.
Cronulla have some good cover with Chad Townsend making his return to the Shire club, as well as late off-season recruit Joseph Paulo, who is a natural in these conditions.
Player to watch: Ben Barba
With uncertainty over his place and position in Cronulla’s 17 this year, the former Dally M winner will look to the Nines as an opportunity to feature his skills.
It’s been a few years since we’ve seen the best of Barba, with only glimpses in 2015. He will be up against Holmes, Bird, Maloney and Townsend for a playmaking role, so will need to use this time wisely.
Like Hurrell, the Nines could be the place were we see Barba’s resurgence, giving Shane Flanagan a real headache as the season opener looms.
The Raiders will be graced with multiple Crokers for the Nines: Jarrod Croker, their incumbent goal-kicking captain, and of course the 317-game legend Jason Croker, who has come out of retirement.
While the legend is excited to once again pull on the boots, the chance to play alongside his nephew Lachlan Croker is what has him animated, as the 19-year-old has been a standout for Canberra in the under-20s.
Ricky Stuart has opted for youth over experience with the rest of his squad, notable omissions are his two halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer, along with Jack Wighton, Edrick Lee, Josh Hodgson and Shaun Fensom.
The Raiders have failed to make it past the group stage of the Nines, earning just a single win in each tournament. This year will probably be more of the same as they lack needed experience in the squad.
Their forwards aren’t as dynamic as other sides, and they lack potency out wide.
The fullback scored 49 tries in an outstanding Under-20s stint and 26 tries last year for the Townsville Blackhawks, who came in second overall. He is swift, powerful for his size, and has already played Nines with the Cowboys.
He may be given the opportunity to make his mark in the NRL with a good showing in Auckland. Expect him to expose lazy cover defence.
Gold Coast Titans
The team picked by many to pick up the wooden spoon for the 2016 season are being tipped for the same result at the nines.
They picked up a solitary win in both of their Auckland campaigns, however this time they’ve added experienced players Greg Bird and David Mead, as well as off-season signings Chris McQueen, Tyrone Roberts and Ash Taylor.
But the Titans are sending notable youth, with Brian Kelly, Shane Wright and Nene McDonald named. Each of these players possess the skills necessary in nine-a-side, but the Titans lack superstar quality.
It’s hard to gauge how this side will gel. There is potential, but it’s unlikely they’ll escape the pool.
Player to watch: Shannon Walker
After four years in the Australian sevens team, Walker is playing for a full-time contract at the Gold Coast, and possesses the skills and experience necessary after many years in the short form of rugby union.
He was once touted as a future NRL star, but failed to hold down a regular spot in first grade. He is a lot stronger now and may still find a pathway into the NRL with a successful nines stint.
Perhaps having an experienced short former, who is unknown to many NRL stars, may be what’s needed for the Titans to cause an upset.
Cronulla will top the pool undefeated, while the Dragons will get through on for-and-against after thrashing the Titans and losing to Canberra. The Raiders will beat the Dragons, but slip up against the Titans.