So it’s the Nines weekend, and finally the focus goes on the actual footy rather than the ideas and ‘supposed’ faux pas of the event promoter, all of which reached bizarre proportions over the weekend.
As for who’ll win it? Well you’ll just have to come back and read Stephen Gallagher’s preview later in the week.
But the tournament is at something of a crossroads heading into the fourth year of the current five-year pact, never minding the gimmicks being used to get punters into Eden Park. It craves the stars and big names, but a read of the squad lists tells you how some clubs view it despite the NRL’s requirement that the clubs send 3 of the top earners on their payroll. There’s no Inglis, Dugan, Cronk, Maloney, or Cherry-Evans amongst others, and while Johnathan Thurston and Jarryd Hayne will be there, we may never know how much arm-twisting, dollars, or other inducements were involved in making that happen.
Not everyone views it the same though. The Warriors are the usual exception and roll out most of their big names – even though this year they’ve jumped on the retired-former player wagon with 44-year old Ruben Wiki (which allows the promoters to roll out their current meal ticket Joseph Parker in Wiki’s usual role as waterboy) – but they’re on home turf and it’s the only opportunity they have to raise a trophy in front of their fans.
This year they’re joined by Parramatta – the nominal defending champions although stripped of that title – and the three Queensland clubs in the Gold Coast, Brisbane, and North Queensland in sending strong sides.
The dilemma is this though; what is the Nines identity? Is it just a preseason exhibition and a bit of a giggle to blow out the cobwebs ahead of the rigors of the NRL season? Is it something more serious? Or something that can be sacrificed given not just the season itself, but with rep footy and the All-Star game also on an increasingly crowded calendar at a time when player welfare issues are becoming more understood?
If it’s just an exhibition (and unlike union’s Sevens it isn’t in turn part of a larger competition) then its unlikely that simply increasing the prizemoney on offer (more on that below) isn’t going to turn the megastars of the game into regular starters – the risk is simply too great for some. Melbourne Storm supremo Craig Bellamy has always been one of the loudest opponents of the Nines, and to some extent who can blame him? Imagine if he was forced to send Cam Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and new star Cameron Munster (who is the only one named to play) and lost one of them for even just a chunk of the season, let alone the whole of it, at Eden Park? Volcanic wouldn’t be the start of it.
The NRL – and whoever promotes it if not the current ones – would also likely have to deal with dwindling attendances given how quickly Kiwis seem to tire of seeing the same things over again. Factor in ever increasing regulation the Nines and is only one misbehaving weekend away from facing the same restrictions on alcohol that have been imposed on the Sevens, and this without the ubiquitous mention of the costs of eating and drinking at Eden Park.
Perhaps rotating it amongst a handful of sites (say – Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville, as well as Auckland) might mitigate that, and create something of a novelty feel and prevent it getting stale.
If it wants to be taken more seriously, then make it tangible to the rest of the season. I doubt that simply bumping up the prizemoney would do that; it might help towards the vast running costs an NRL club has, but it doesn’t have a link to the competition itself.
So get creative and put something of relevance on it. One option might be to award competition points – say two for winning the Nines and one for each of the semi-finalists – which wouldn’t overtly impinge on the integrity of the season, but puts something at stake that could be very handy when the playoffs come around. Another would be to put a salary cap extension of (for instance) seven or ten percent above the cap over the next two years up for the winners and lesser amounts on a sliding scale depending on finish. One issue with this though is that by the time the Nines come around most clubs have largely finalised their roster. It could come in handy for contract extensions however.
Then there’s the third camp, led by Phil Gould, which see zero value in it whatsoever and would rather see it consigned to the NRL promotions garbage bin for good.
Wherever it goes from here will be interesting, to say the least. And given how the current promoters have reacted to All Blacks being ruled out of the Brisbane Tens, if the NRL pulls its support there will be fireworks.