Wednesday 22 November 2017 / 02:21 PM

Will's Lowdown: Christmas edition

Nines grizzling wide of the mark

Less than six weeks out from the second edition of the Auckland Nines, inevitable whinging about the tournament’s importance and viability have ramped up, peddling tired old lines about player burnout, injuries, the effect of superstars being unavailable and that it supposedly doesn’t mean anything to the fans.

Another sell-out would indicate that it means plenty to the fans, while anyone that was at the inaugural Nines can tell you that every team was well represented in the crowd and the atmosphere for the Warriors’ games was simply electric.

 

Most of the NRL’s biggest names were ruled out of contention at the start of this year, yet it did not detract from the Nines as a spectacle one bit. Several unheralded youngsters, such as Kyle Feldt, Valentine Holmes and Solomone Kata, announced themselves as future stars with outstanding weekends. Furthermore, the likes of Johnathan Thurston are now desperate for a piece of the action and will be fronting up at Eden Park on January 31.

Sure, Lachlan Coote, Jarrod Mullen and a handful of others suffered injuries in this year’s tournament. That’s part and parcel of playing any form of rugby league. I would argue that the injury toll that came out of 540 minutes of fast-paced action – the equivalent of almost seven NRL games – was relatively low, while the pre-season trials incurred just as many injury setbacks. Darius Boyd will miss a third of 2015 with after an innocuous training mishaps. Injuries happen. It’s not the Nines’ fault.

The Nines is cracking way to start the season, and if clubs (or more specifically the coaches) don’t want to ‘risk’ their best players, they won’t – and the tournament won’t be the poorer for it. But the cash bounty on offer and the increasing prestige attached to the tournament will ensure that we’ll start seeing the Thurstons, Slaters, and maybe even the poor old burnt out Inglises of the NRL turning up in their droves.

 

Carter axing a devastating loss for Titans

In the wake of strike centre James Roberts’ ongoing issues and the club’s ludicrous decision to strip Greg Bird of the captaincy for a minor public urination incident, Gold Coast’s 2015 campaign was dealt a bitter blow after being left with little option but to terminate utility forward Paul Carter’s contract. The Bird overreaction aside, the Titans should be commended for their hard-line stance on player behaviour, and Carter’s second serious drink-driving offence in a matter of months.

Tough, aggressive and skilful in the Bird mould, Carter had future rep star written all over him after a brilliant rookie season on the paddock. In a silver lining, the Titans have left the door ajar for a return if he completes the necessary rehabilitation, while Intrust Super Cup outfit Burleigh Bears have thrown him a lifeline for next season.

But that does nothing to alleviate the gap Carter leaves in the Titans’ 2015 roster. Desperately short on creativity, strike-power and enforcer types, Carter was the type of dynamic player the club, and new coach Neil Henry, were banking on to spearhead their season. The Titans must surely be firming for the wooden spoon.

 

Will Roosters get ‘Blake the Flake’ or ‘Fantastic Fergo’?

The NRL’s contentious decision to register serial bad boy Blake Ferguson’s contract could make or break the Roosters’ season. The 2013 premiers are at a mini-crossroads following the departure of squad leaders Anthony Minichiello and Sonny Bill Williams.

Ferguson should be an electrifying backline addition at wing, centre or fullback – there is no doubt he is one of the game’s most gifted players. But he could upset the balance at the club, which only a couple of years ago was lumbered with a reputation of having a toxic, hard-partying culture. If Ferguson can’t keep his nose clean, the Tricolours’ season could implode. The likes of Mitchell Pearce, James Maloney, Jake Friend, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Michael Jennings need to step up into a somewhat unfamiliar leadership capacity now the crutch of ‘Mini’ and SBW is no longer there.

There is also the question of the effect of a year out of football will have on the ultra-talented but erratic Ferguson. The flighty 24-year-old’s confidence could melt if he endures a rocky return to first grade – a factor that will most likely see coach Trent Robinson ease him back on the wing, despite the fact he is potentially a world-class fullback and centre. Whichever way it goes, Ferguson’s comeback shapes as one of the most fascinating subplots of 2015.

 

Finucane a Christmas bonus for Storm

It’s been lost amidst the Christmas rush somewhat, but Melbourne has secured the coup of the off-season by picking up Canterbury tyro Dale Finucane late in the piece on a three-year deal. Struggling for forward strength and depth following the loss of Ryan Hoffman, Bryan Norrie, Mitch Garbutt and George Rose – and signing only waning former Test forward Tom Learoyd-Lahrs – the addition of Finucance could be the factor that keeps the Storm in the NRL’s top bracket after a subpar 2014.

Finucane’s 66 first grade appearances include two grand finals, while the 23-year-old has missed just one game since his mid-2012 debut. Rugged, hardworking and handy with the ball, Finucane averaged 98 metres and 25 tackles per game this season, and boasts many of the qualities the Storm are losing through the departure of Hoffman and Norrie.

 

O’Neill comes home to bolster Cowboys

North Queensland may have lost outstanding prospect Curtis Rona and retired great Brent Tate from its three-quarter line contingent as the club prepares for another premiership assault in 2015, but the Cowboys certainly won’t be short on depth out wide. With Kane Linnett and Antonio Winterstein entrenched as the left-side combination, midyear acquisition Tautau Moga, exciting youngster Kyle Feldt, versatile former Cronulla flyer Matthew Wright – who missed the finals due to an ASADA ban – will be competing for two spots along with new buy Justin O’Neill.

Hampered by injury since featuring in Melbourne’s 2012 grand final triumph, Townsville-born O’Neill slipped down the Storm pecking order behind the likes of Mahe Fonua and Marika Koroibete. But O’Neill is a genuine speedster with a nose for the try-line – scoring 34 tries in 67 games – and is a real contender for a Round 1 wing or centre berth.

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