By Stephen Gallagher
The NRL Auckland Nines is literally one day away. Last year we saw the inaugural event kick off at Eden Park, and what a spectacle. There was plenty of good, with absolutely minimal bad – and it was the launch of the season the NRL has been looking for.
This year, it seems the teams are all taking it pretty seriously (except for Bellamy’s Storm side which is woeful) which is awesome to see. So let’s take a look at the squads, and what players from each squad are worth looking at.
BRONCOS: Andrew McCullough (captain), Ajuma Adams, Elijah Alick, Joe Boyce, Greg Eden, James Gavet, Alex Glenn, Todd Lowrie, Lachlan Maranta, Anthony Milford, Francis Molo, Darren Nicholls, Jayden Nikorima, Kodi Nikorima, Joe Ofahengaue, Tom Opacic, Matt Parcell, Aaron Whitchurch.
Keep an eye on James Gavet – a young Kiwi with a hell of a future if he can get some game time at Brisbane this year. A full pre-season under Wayne Bennett will do wonders for his career. Here’s hoping he gets a great run in the Nines.
The other to keep an eye on is Kodi Nikorima – Kodi is a proud Kiwi, donning the Juniors jersey last year in a famous win over the Junior Kangaroos, he has plenty of talent, and endless speed. He can break open a game with an inch of space.
RAIDERS: Sam Williams, Mitch Cornish, Jarrod Croker(c), Lachlan Croker, Sisa Waqa, Joel Edwards, Josh McCrone, Rhys Kennedy, Glen Buttriss, Brenko Lee, Bill Tupou, Jack Ahearn, Luke Bateman, Haydon Hodge, Mark Nicholls, Kyle O’Donnell, Tevita PangaiJnr, Ken Nagas.
One name on this team list that opens eyes is Ken Nagas, a powerhouse player in his prime – who was there for Canberra in their hayday alongside Daley, Mullins, Clyde and Stuart. I wonder if his Nines debut will be as good as Freddy last year? I believe not.
Brenko Lee is a talented kid, if he can stay injury free this year he will be a starter for the Raiders. In open spaces, this tall boy might cause havoc in the Nines.
BULLDOGS: Tim Browne, Damien Cook, Levi Dodd, Adam Elliott, Herman Ese’ese, Antonio Kaufusi, Shaun Lane, Michael Lichaa, Moses Mbye, Josh Morris, Sam Perrett, Lloyd Perrett, Tyrone Phillips, Frank Pritchard, Curtis Rona, Corey Thompson, Aiden Tolman, Tony Williams.
Michael Lichaa played for the Sharks in the Nines last year, and was a great pocket rocket from dummy half, and hope to see the same again this year.
The brothers Perrett. Sam, a Kiwi, Lloyd, a Queenslader with plenty of potential in the front row with a few first grade games under his belt. Can these two play hard and give the Bulldogs some hope this weekend?
SHARKS: Wade Graham (c), Valentine Holmes, Sosaia Feki, Gerard Beale, Ricky Leutele, Jack Bird, Nu Brown, Kyle Stanley, Sam Tagataese, Pat Politoni, Tinirau Arona, Matt Prior, Chris Heighington, Blake Ayshford, Nathan Gardner, Todd Murphy, Sami Sauiluma, Junior Roqica.
Valentines Holmes has the best name in rugby league, and also was my favourite unearthed talent of 2014. He has a high work rate for a winger, and with the speed he possesses he is a major threat for the boys from the Shire.
Another one is Jack Bird. Lots of pressure on his shoulders, this kid has come over in the off season from the Dragons – and looks like he could be a hit in the NRL if he gets a big chance over the weekend.
TITANS: Will Zillman (c), James Roberts, Anthony Don, David Mead, Josh Hoffman, Brad Tighe, Kalifa Faifai Loa, Aidan Sezer, Daniel Mortimer, Christian Hazard, Kierran Moseley, Ryan James, Mark Ioane, Matthew White, Lachlan Burr, Kane Elgey, Dave Taylor, Matt Robinson.
James Roberts has to be the fastest man in the NRL, and it also helps off-field when he’s running away from the police. He needs to prove his worth over this weekend and score plenty of tries!
Josh Hoffman will be on display at his new club for the first time, and has a lot to prove to show why the Broncos will miss him. I expect him to play well across the two days.
SEA EAGLES: Daly Cherry-Evans (c), Manaia Rudolph, Jayden Hodges, Brayden Wiliame, Tony Satini, Kieran Foran, Clinton Gutherson, Tom Trbojevic, Peta Hiku, Tom Symonds, Cheyse Blair, James Hasson, Feleti Mateo, Jesse Sene-Lefao, Josh Starling, Michael Chee Kam, Blake Leary, Dunamis Lui.
Feleti Mateo – how will he fare against the Kiwi fans in his new maroon strip? Has he improved his laziness under Toovey?
Jayden Hodges, cousin of Broncos centre Justin has been a good signing for the Sea Eagles, his enthusiasm around the ruck will be plenty for the Brookie boys.
STORM: Young Tonumaipea, Kenny Bromwich, Will Chambers (c), Kurt Mann, Richie Kennar, Dayne Weston, Cameron Munster, Hymel Hunt, Tohu Harris, Marika Koroibete, Travis Robinson, Christian Welch, Ben Hampton, Billy Brittain, Francis Tualau, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Suliasi Vunivalu, Shaun Nona.
Hymel Hunt is all name and no action so far, but if he gets a chance he could take the weekend by Storm.
Nelson Asofa-Solomona. Wellington College rugby star turned Storm/Shark/Junior Kiwi all in his first year at Melbourne. Expect a rise through the ranks this year too. This kid has the potential to be the next SBW. Something that should not be taken lightly. He will dominate with offloads this weekend.
KNIGHTS: Sione Mata’utia, Jake Mamo, Dane Gagai, Chanel Mata’utia, Carlos Tuimavave, Jarrod Mullen (c), Tyrone Roberts, Pat Mata’utia, Adam Clydsdale, Paterika Vaivai, Tyler Randell, Chris Houston, Robbie Rochow, Nathan Ross, Korbin Sims, Joseph Tapine, Jack Stockwell, Danny Levi.
Carlos Tuimavave will be in his first outing for the Knights, I am interested to see where he will roam in the Nines, and if he can crack first grade this year too.
Danny Levi is a young, firey hooker with the desire to win and get under the opponents skin – and he’s a Kiwi. I think his skills will fare well at the Nines.
COWBOYS: Michael Morgan, Justin O’Neill, Tautau Moga, Kyle Feldt, Matthew Wright, Ray Thompson, Robert Lui, John Asiata, Rory Kostjasyn, Kelepi Tanginoa, Gavin Cooper (c), Ethan Lowe, Jason Taumalolo, Jake Granville, Zac Santo, Coen Hess, Javid Bowen, Ben Spina.
Gavin Cooper is an absolute work horse, he was a big key to their success last year and I expect much of the same this year.
Jake Granville showed what the fullback-turned-hooker was capible of lasy year at Brisbane, I think the Nines will suit his style.
EELS: Buerita Faraimo, Semi Radradra, John Folau, Brad Takairangi, Reece Robinson, Corey Norman, Chris Sandow (c), Junior Paulo, Kaysa Pritchard, Peni Terepo, Manu Ma’u, Tepai Moeroa, Joseph Paulo, David Gower, Kenny Edwards, Halauafu Lavaka, Pauli Pauli, Luke Kelly.
Brad Takairangi is an underrated player in my eyes. Always thought he was a good player, and was the Titans best last year. He has a great all-round game that will be on display this weekend.
Tepai Moeroa got some first grade experience last year, this weekend his force and size will be hard to stop. Hope he has some support around him when it comes to offloading.
PANTHERS: Brendan Attwood, Christian Crichton, Joshua Jay, Isaac John, Apisai Koroisau, Kieran Moss, Andy Aunders, Nathan Smith, Tupou Sopoaga, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Adrian Davis, George Jennings, Kevin Kingston, Sika Manu, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Chris Smith, Will Smith, Isaah Yeo.
George Jennings, younger sibling of Roosters flyer Michael has just as much speed as big bro. In open space, it’ll be a race between him and the referee to see who gets to the goal line first.
Tupou Sopoaga is at a new club, and in his second appearance at the NRL Nines – he knows what is exactly to be expected of him. Be a massive handful in attack and defence.
RABBITOHS: Joel Reddy, Bryson Goodwin, Dylan Walker, Matt King, Chris McQueen, Issac Luke (c), Adam Reynolds, George Burgess, Angus Crichton, Ben Lowe, Jason Clark, Tom Hughes, Dave Tyrrell, Aaron Gray, Kyle Turner, Cameron McInnes, Chris Grevsmuhl, Setefano Taukafa.
Matt King.. MATT KING! Sideshow Bob, whatever he was known as – his career never really hopped on at the Rabbitohs, can he make it at the Nines? I don’t think so.
Captain Isaac Luke was born for this. Bully will be up for the task. If he can sneak around the ruck like his normal self, he will really help the Rabbitohs succeed.
DRAGONS: Euan Aitken, Mike Cooper, Shannon Crook, Josh Dugan, Tyson Frizell, Craig Garvey, Nathan Green, Yaw Kiti Glymin, Beau Henry, Dan Hunt, Benji Marshall (c), Peter Mata’utia, Will Matthews, Eto Nabuli, Jason Nightingale, Heath L’Estrange, Joel Thompson, Shannon Wakeman.
Last year, Benji Marshall was calling Eden Park home for the Blues, now he returns to the ground in a different code and a different strip. A crowd favourite for sure. We all hope Benji can wind back the clock.
Eto Nabuli has not so fond memories of the Nines, sustaining a big injury for the Panthers in quarter-final action. His size and speed is incredible in full-flight.
ROOSTERS: Mitchell Aubusson, Brendan Elliot, Kane Evans, Jackson Hastings, Samisoni Langi, Nene Macdonald, James Maloney, Willie Manu, Sam Moa, Taane Milne, Dylan Napa, Mitchell Pearce (c), Lagi Setu, Nathan Stapleton, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (c), Mitchell Williams.
Jackson Hastings was a shining light for me last year in the Nines. He went about his workrate with a tireless effort which paved the way to an NRL debut late in the season. Hastings has plenty of skills to show off this year.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is the man. Wasn’t missed too much on the Kiwis dominant Four Nations win but his step is the best in the league. Blink, and you’ll miss him.
WARRIORS: Shaun Johnson (c), Matthew Allwood, Nathan Friend, Ben Henry, Ryan Hoffman, Solomone Kata, Ngani Laumape, Sam Lisone, Tuimoala Lolohea, Sione Lousi, Suaia Matagi, Ben Matulino, Ken Maumalo, Nathaniel Roache, Bodene Thompson, Sam Tomkins, Chad Townsend, Manu Vatuvei.
Solomone Kata played well in the NSW Cup last year, and when he gets put on display again at the Nines he has to prove he is first-grade worthy. A smaller Konrad Hurrell with just as much boom in his runs.
Sam Lisone captained the Junior Warriors to a grand final win last year, and every time he took the paddock, he was a wrecking ball. Can he inspire his team mates in tired times this tournament? His frame will be hard to bring down.
WESTS TIGERS: Sitaleki Akauola, Nathan Brown, Jack Buchanan, Manaia Cherrington, Josh Drinkwater, Asipeli Fine, Salesi Funaki, Delouise Hoeter, Chris Lawrence, Lamar Liolevave, Kyle Lovett, Joel Luani, Kevin Naiqama, Pat Richards, Brenden Santi, Ava Seumanufagai, Tim Simona, Sauaso Sue.
Manaia Cherrington is a star in the making. With plenty of time on his side, the exposure of this tournament could do big things for him. His speed out of the ruck is deadly and has a great passing game with plenty of time to develop fully.
Josh Drinkwater has never really established himself in the NRL, and will be behind a few other guns this year – but his kicking game is a handy addition to the Nines side who will don singlets along side the Storm!
WHO CAN WIN IT?
It’s really a lottery. The Cowboys weren’t really on anyone’s minds last year – but still managed to win the competition with a huge effort on Day 2.
I see Warriors, Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles and Roosters winning their pools. On that, I think a Warriors V Sea Eagles final that will keep the crowd happy.
Bring on the speed, the gaps, the talent, the screaming fans in the packed Eden Park. The NRL Nines tournament is the best way to start the NRL season, and I am dead set excited I will be there!
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