Wednesday 13 December 2017 / 04:43 AM

Your ultimate guide to the NRL Nines

After a wildly successful inaugural tournament in 2014, the second instalment of the NRL Auckland Nines at Eden Park is just days away. The two-day tournament takes place this weekend and is shaping up to be equally dazzling. We’ve dissected the 16 squads to sort out the contenders from the likely also-rans, while also pinpointing the key players and the burgeoning youngsters to keep your eye on.

 

HUNUA POOL

 

Wests Tigers

The Tigers would be one of the favourites to take out the tournament at full-strength, but the absence of spine quartet James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses, Luke Brooks and Robbie Farah means they will be hard-pressed advancing past the pool stage. Josh Drinkwater and Joel Luani will be lumbered with the playmaking load, while Tim Simona and Chris Lawrence are the danger-men out wide. Ball-playing backrower Curtis Sironen would have been an ideal selection for this format, but he has also been left at home. Having arguably the best drop-kick exponent in the NRL, Pat Richards, is a bonus.

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: Making his Nines debut this year, Auckland-born Tim Simona has the potential to be one of the stars of the tournament. Fast, elusive and skilful, Simona has been responsible for some of the best long-range NRL tries in recent seasons and will revel in the extra space. 

 

One to watch: Another player heading back to his hometown for the Nines, Sitaleki Akauola played 10 first grade games last season in the second-row and on the wing – big and mobile, just the type of forward that excels in the abbreviated format

 

Prediction: Eliminated in pool stage

 

 

New Zealand Warriors

The host team blitzed their way through the inaugural tournament before being bundled out in the semis, but start the 2015 event as even shorter favourites after naming a near full-strength side. Shaun Johnson, Sam Tomkins, Simon Mannering, Ryan Hoffman and Manu Vatuvei represent a formidable core for a side bursting with exciting young talent. Konrad Hurrell and Glen Fisiiahi are the only notable absentees. It will take a major boilover to stop the Warriors from lifting the trophy.

Squad: Shaun Johnson (c), Matthew Allwood, Nathan Friend, Ben Henry, Ryan Hoffman, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Solomone Kata, Ngani Laumape, Sam Lisone, Tuimoala Lolohea, Sione Lousi, Simon Mannering, Suaia Matagi, Ben Matulino, Ken Maumalo, Dominique Peyroux, Nathaniel Roache, Bodene Thompson, Sam Tomkins, Chad Townsend, Manu Vatuvei, Jonathan Wright (four to be omitted).

 

Key player: Rugby League’s man of the moment Shaun Johnson was named player of the tournament last year, and the reigning Golden Boot winner is destined to dominate the 2015 version with an all-star cast around him.

 

One to watch: Nuggetty centre Solomone Kata was impressive during the inaugural Nines and will look to press his claims for an NRL berth with another strong campaign. Kata scored three tries and claimed the Jack Gibson Medal as man-of-the-match in the Warriors’ NYC Grand Final triumph last year. Playmaker Tui Lolohea and prop Sam Lisone are also on the verge of big things and are custom-made for the Nines format.

 

Prediction: Champions

 

 

Canberra Raiders

Given their limited roster, the Raiders have picked a squad that is about as strong as could be hoped for. Long-striding Canberra great Ken Nagas, who retired 13 years ago, is following in Brad Fittler and Steve Menzies’ 2014 footsteps, and he will almost certainly add more value than bumbling former Warrior Bill Tupou. A bit thin in the forward department, but Sisa Waqa, Brenko Lee and Jarrod Croker offer scoring potential out wide, while Mitch Cornish and Sam Williams will handle the playmaking duties. The absence of Jack Wighton and Blake Austin is a shame – the duo could have helped the Raiders snare the runner-up spot behind the Warriors in a tough pool.

Squad: 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 Pangai Jr, Ken Nagas.

 

Key player: New skipper Jarrod Croker has an insatiable appetite for points, scoring 18 tries in a dreadful Canberra side last season. He needs to lead from the front if the Raiders are to progress to the knockout stages.

 

One to watch: Mitch Cornish is set to be given a belated opportunity to nail down the Raiders’ No.7 jumper and can get a breakout season off to a flying start by sparking the unfancied club’s Nines outfit. Also look for giant teenaged backrower Tevita Pangai Jr to make a sizeable impact.

 

Prediction: Eliminated in pool stage

 

 

Gold Coast Titans

The cash-strapped Titans could really do with the lavish prize-money on offer in Auckland. Accordingly, they’ve picked a squad brimming with pace, power and game-breaking talent. Greg Bird won’t be busted relieving himself in an alley off K’ Road – he’s been left at home – but first-choice halves Aidan Sezer and Daniel Mortimer have been named, and they will have James Roberts, David Mead, Josh Hoffman, Brad Tighe, Will Zillman and Kalifa Faifai Loa outside them in one of the Nines’ quickest teams. David Taylor brings size and dynamic ball skills to the table, but they could do with another game-breaker of his ilk. The Titans are a side capable of making a knockout charge a la the Cowboys in 2014.

Squad: Will Zillman, 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, Luke Douglas, Lachlan Burr, Davin Crampton, Dave Taylor, Matt Robinson.

 

Key player: Aidan Sezer missed last year’s tournament, but he could be the key to harnessing the superb array of attacking talent in the Titans’ line-up.

 

One to watch: Bulldogs recruit Lachlan Burr is a hardworking backrower who knows how to hit a hole – he will be looking to make an impression at the Nines in order to push his claims for an NRL spot. Former Panther Kieran Moseley has also been training the house down and could grab the Titans’ No.9 jumper with a strong tournament.

 

Prediction: Quarter-finalists

 

 

WAIHEKE POOL

 

Melbourne Storm

Craig Bellamy has shown his disdain for the tournament again by leaving out the ‘Big Three’ for the second year running, while his trio of Kiwi international forwards – Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris – have been left behind after the latter two featured in 2014. Queensland Origin star Will Chambers, one of only four survivors from the Storm’s 2014 squad, will captain the Storm. Plenty of pace and power out wide in the form of Chambers, Marika Koroibete and Young Tonumaipea, while Cameron Munster was adorned with ‘next Billy Slater’ wraps last season. Little to get excited about in the forward pack, with Kenny Bromwich the biggest name.

Squad: Young Tonumaipea, Kenny Bromwich, Will Chambers (c), Kurt Mann, Richie Kennar, Dayne Weston, Cameron Munster, Hymel Hunt, Tim Glasby, Marika Koroibete, Travis Robinson, Christian Welch, Ben Hampton,  Billy Brittain, Francis Tualau, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Suliasi Vunivalu, Shaun Nona. 

 

Key player: Shaun Nona, who starred in Northern Pride’s capture of the inaugural National Championship last year, is gunning for the Melbourne No.6 jumper and will be charged with the Nines squad’s playmaking duties. An attacking gun, Nona could be a breakthrough star of the tournament.

 

One to watch: Formerly with the Broncos, 20-year-old Billy Brittain is a hooker with stacks of potential.

 

Prediction: Eliminated in pool stage

 

North Queensland Cowboys

Despite travelling to Auckland last month to promote the tournament – and sitting out the Four Nations due to burnout – Johnathan Thurston has again been wrapped in cotton wool by coach Paul Green and will not play in the Nines. It didn’t hamper the Cowboys’ campaign last year though as they shocked a string of highly-fancied sides to be crowned the inaugural champions. Gavin Cooper captains the side again, but fellow 2014 Team of the Tournament inclusions Antonio Winterstein, Kane Linnett and James Tamou have been left at home. Linnett was not considered after being charged with drink-driving before Christmas, while Lachlan Coote, who suffered a season-ending knee injury at last year’s Nines, was unable to make the trip after misplacing his passport.  Breakout Player of the Tournament Kyle Feldt will be there, however, in a side boasting ample attacking firepower in the shape of Michael Morgan, Tautau Moga, Jason Taumololo and new recruits Justin O’Neill and Jake Granville. They’ll be in the mix again

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: A revelation at fullback last year for the Cowboys, Morgan is the most dangerous ball-player in the squad to travel to Auckland and boasts remarkable speed.

 

One to watch: Zac Santo was one of the unheralded surprise packets of the Cowboys’ 2014 triumph, and although he went on to make just one NRL appearance, the fullback/winger excels in this format.

 

Prediction: Quarter-finalists

 

 

 

Penrith Panthers

Moylan, Mansour, Whare, Idris, Watene-Zelezniak, Soward, Wallace, Peachey, Segeyaro, Taylor, Kite, Cartwright, Docker, Brown – that’s a squad that could have given the 2015 Nines a mighty shake. The Panthers have effectively declared they have no interest in making an impact in Auckland by leaving out all of the aforementioned stars. There’s some lively replacement playmakers in Will Smith, Isaac John and Souths’ Grand Final hooker Apisai Koroisau, while George Jennings (brother of Michael) was outstanding at last year’s tournament, but the Panthers are likely to be cannon-fodder for the Cowboys and Rabbitohs. The Panthers are so short they’ve wheeled recently-retired ex-skipper Kevin Kingston out for one last hurrah.

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: Koroisau, a dummy-half dynamo, is capable of sparking the no-name Penrith side.

 

One to watch: The 21-year-old Jennings is just shy of the 100kg mark and shapes as the Panthers’ most effective weapon out wide.

 

Prediction: Eliminated in pool stage

 

South Sydney Rabbitohs

Probably the two Souths players best equipped to dominate the Nines, Greg Inglis and Alex Johnston, have not been named. Luke Keary and new recruit Glenn Stewart are other notable omissions, but the Rabbitohs’ squad is otherwise a handy one. Isaac Luke will captain the side and forms a dangerous playmaking duo with Adam Reynolds, while Chris McQueen, Kyle Turner and George Burgess provide the Rabbitohs with one of the stronger packs in the competition. Impact out wide could be an issue, with Dylan Walker (who was named in the 2014 Team of the Tournament) the obvious exception. Bryson Goodwin and Joel Reddy are steady rather than spectacular, while 34-year-old Matt King has come out of retirement after playing his last NRL game in late-2013. Having the under-strength Penrith and Melbourne sides in their pool will aid Souths’ bid to reach the knockout stages.  

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: Luke missed the 2014 tournament, but the Kiwi hooker could be one of the weekend’s star players with extra room to move around the rucks.

 

One to watch: Former Australian Schoolboys Rugby rep Angus Crichton was signed by the Rabbitohs late last season amid plenty of hype. The Nines gives a wider audience the chance to run the rule over the strapping teenaged centre/backrower.

 

Prediction: Quarter-finalists

 

RANGITOTO POOL

 

Parramatta Eels

Perhaps only the Warriors have named a squad as strong as Parramatta’s in relation to the strength of the club’s full roster. Halves Chris Sandow and Corey Norman, who both travelled to Auckland last year, will spearhead the Eels’ campaign, while Semi Radradra – the equal-top try-scorer in 2014 with five – headlines a dangerous outside back contingent that includes Will Hopoate, Reece Robinson and dynamic recruit Brad Takairangi. Parramatta’s pack could be the key factor, though, with big, mobile tyros Tepai Moeroa, Peni Terepo, Kenny Edwards and Pauli Pauli all capable of taking the tournament by storm.

Squad: Will Hopoate, 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.

 

Key player: Chris Sandow’s elusive running and off-the-cuff brilliance is ready-made for Nines footy, and the responsibility of the captaincy should bring out the best in the enigmatic linchpin.

 

One to watch: John Folau, younger brother of Israel, tips the scales at over 100kg and made big waves in last year’s NYC competition. He will prove hard to handle when give space at Eden Park.

 

Prediction: Runners-up

 

 

 

Manly Sea Eagles

Unlike some of his contemporaries, coach Geoff Toovey has embraced the spirit of the Nines by naming his superstar halves Daly Cherry-Evans, who will captain the side, and Kieran Foran. Although there’s no Jamie Lyon, Steve Matai or Jorge Taufua, the likes of Peta Hiku, Clinton Gutherson and Cheyse Blair give the Sea Eagles plenty of scoring strike out wide. Forwards Tom Symonds, Jesse Sene-Lefao, Dunamis and Josh Starling bring starch and mobility to the table. Expect a few raspberries from the crowd for enigmatic former Warriors Feleti Mateo in his debut for Manly; he could either spearhead the Sea Eagles’ charge deep into the tournament, or cost them all three pool games with ill-advised offloads and lazy defence. An unquestionably strong squad, the Sea Eagles’ biggest obstacle is the ultra-tough pool they’ve been placed in.

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: Cherry-Evans and Foran give the Sea Eagles a certain aura that not many other sides in the tournament possess.

 

One to watch: Jayden Hodges performed admirably in the absence of Matt Ballin during last year’s finals – he’s a dummy-half livewire capable of making a big splash in Auckland.

 

Prediction: Eliminated in pool stage

 

Newcastle Knights

Newcastle will field one of the most dangerous backlines at the Nines, despite the absence of Joey Leilua and Akuila Uate. Brilliant centre Dane Gagai, livewire Jake Mamo and a trio of Mata’utia brothers – along with fielding first-choice halves pairing Jarrod Mullen and Tyrone Roberts – ensures scoring points won’t be a problem for the Knights. There’s plenty of engine-room workers to lay a solid platform in the shape of Robbie Rochow, Korbin Sims and Chris Houston.

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: Captain Jarrod Mullen was superb last year as the Knights reached the quarter-finals, before his hamstring injury gave the Nines nay-sayers a bit of ammunition. He’ll pull the strings again this year, though, and has a tremendous attacking arsenal outside him.

 

One to watch: Wellington product Danny Levi enjoyed a meteoric rise last year, captaining the Knights’ NYC side to a minor premiership and representing the Junior Kiwis after being discovered by Frank Endacott. The 19-year-old hooker has a big future and will push for NRL selection this year. Fellow Holden Cup Team of the Year inclusion (and another Wellington boy) Joseph Tapine is another to look out for.   

 

Prediction: Semi-finalists

 

St George Illawarra Dragons

With Josh Dugan and Benji Marshall on board, the Dragons are an outside chance of making it through a tough pool. Jason Nightingale and Peter Mata’utia bring scoring potential out wide, while giant Fijian winger Eto Nabuli scored four tries for the Panthers as one of the 2014 tournament’s surprise packets. The absence of Gareth Widdop and Trent Merrin is crucial, while the Saints’ Achilles heel in the NRL – their woeful forward stocks – will bring them undone this weekend. The announcement that Adam Quinlan, who was named in the joint venture’s Nines squad, will join Parramatta for 2015 robs the Dragons of one of their genuine attacking threats, with Heath L’Estrange his late replacement.

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: Marshall would have been the Nines’ headliner five years ago, but although he is past his freewheeling best, the soon-to-be 30-year-old will spearhead the Dragons’ campaign.

 

One to watch: The Dragons have a massive wrap on teenaged centre Euan Aitken. Powerful with an abundance of pace and a great fend, the strapping Aitken plays like Chris Lawrence did before injuries stymied his career. 

 

Prediction: Eliminated in pool stage

 

 

PIHA POOL

 

Sydney Roosters

Blue-chip halves Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney will spearhead a young but talented Roosters squad’s Nines assault. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who did not participate last year, could be one of the stars of the weekend, but the Tricolours look a little thin out wide otherwise. They’ve named an imposing pack, however, including Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Sam Moa, Dylan Napa and Kane Evans. A big danger.

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: Mitchell Pearce’s speed and brilliant footwork, along with a first-rate passing game, rank him in the top bracket of Nines linchpins.

 

One to watch: Impressive in two NRL outings late last season, the 19-year-old Jackson Hastings is a versatile, tough and skilful playmaker likely to assumed the bulk of the dummy-half duties at Eden Park.

 

Prediction:Quarter-finalists

 

Brisbane Broncos

While the Broncos’ Maroons and Kangaroos contingent has been left out en masse, the 2014 runners-up will be a big threat again. Anthony Milford, who was left behind by Canberra last year, is the one player capable of challenging Shaun Johnson’s marquee billing, and he has a strong support cast around him. Captain Andrew McCullough was named in the Team of the Tournament last year, brothers Kodi and Jaydne Nikorima are explosive livewires, and Englishman Greg Eden and Lachlan Maranta are handy finishers. Alex Glenn headlines a young forward pack, with ample support coming from James Gavet and NYC star Joe Ofahengaue. If Wayne Bennett had sent Ben Hunt, Dale Copley, Corey Parker and Matt Gillett over, they’d be pushing the Warriors for favouritism.

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: Brisbane’s campaign will revolve around Milford – the squad’s No.1 playmaker and finisher.

 

One to watch: Vying for the Broncos’ vacant bench utility role at NRL level, Kodi and Jayden Nikorima are potential match-winners in this format.

 

Prediction: Semi-finalists

 

 

 

Canterbury Bulldogs

The Bulldogs took by far the weakest squad to Auckland in 2014, and while it’s significantly better this year, it’s hard to see them making it out of their tough group. Josh Morris, Corey Thompson and Curtis Rona, who was a revelation for the triumphant Cowboys as equal-top try-scorer at last year’s tournament, represent a strong outside-back contingent, while Frank Pritchard, Tony Williams and Aiden Tolman will lead the charge in the middle of the park. But new hooker Michael Lichaa and utility Moses Mbye will have to be responsible for creating opportunities for their outside men with NSW halves Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds again left behind.   

Squad: 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.

 

Key player: A dangerous dummy-half runner with good vision, Lichaa is the player most likely to spark an improbable Bulldogs charge.

 

One to watch: Junior Kiwis front-rower Herman Ese’ese has been given the chance to train with the fulltime NRL squad this summer, and has great footwork and mobility for a big man. The Auckland product will be looking to perform in front of friends and family.  

 

Prediction: Eliminated in pool stage

 

Cronulla Sharks

Surprise semi-finalists last year, the Sharks are without the services of 2014 Nines stars Andrew Fifita, Wade Graham and Paul Gallen, and big-name recruit Ben Barba has been left out, but there’s still a lot to like about this side. Sosaia Feki, Gerard Beale, Ricky Leutele, Nathan Gardner and Valentine Holmes, who announced himself as a future gun last year at Eden Park, make up one of the strongest backlines at the tournament, while Nu Brown and Kyle Stanley will handle the playmaking roles. Sam Tagatese was superb last year, while squad captain Luke Lewis is the ideal Nines forward.

Squad: Luke Lewis (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. 

 

Key player: It seems a fait accompli that Ben Barba will wear the Sharks’ No.6 at first grade level this year, but Christchurch lad Nu Brown was a revelation last year and can push his case for NRL retention with a big Nines campaign. Tough, composed and skilful, Brown shapes as one of the weekend’s standout playmakers.

 

One to watch: Jack Bird is highly-touted acquisition from the Dragons’ Under-20s ranks; this will be his first outing in a Sharks jumper, but the robust centre/backrower has the ideal skill set for the Nines format.

 

Prediction: Eliminated in pool stage

 

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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