We’ve run the rule over all 16 squads for the third annual NRL Auckland Nines, to be contested this weekend at Eden Park, and pinpointed the guns, the breakout stars and each side’s prospects of carrying off the trophy on Sunday night.
A final between hometown team and perennial favourites the Warriors and inaugural champs the Cowboys looms, but expect the Eels, Panthers, Sharks and Broncos to give the competition a big shake.
Pool Hunua: Bulldogs, Sea Eagles, Warriors, Broncos
Pool Waiheke: Roosters, Rabbitohs, Eels, Storm
Pool Rangitoto: Knights, Cowboys, Panthers, Wests Tigers
Pool Piha: Dragons, Raiders, Sharks, Titans
Sam Thaiday (c), Elijah Alick, Carlin Anderson, Jai Arrow, Adam Blair, Darius Boyd, Alex Glenn, Keegan Hipgrave, Andrew McCullough, Francis Molo, Todd Murphy, Darren Nicholls, Corey Oates, Joseph Ofahengaue, Tom Opacic, Jonus Pearson, Sam Scarlett, Caleb Timu.
Key man: Hooker Andrew McCullough was named in the Team of the Tournament in 2014 and his experience and durability will be vital to the Broncos’ chances.
One to watch: Ipswich recruit Carlin Anderson is a genuine flyer with a penchant for the freakish; he could be one of the breakout stars of the weekend.
Wish you were here: Ben Hunt and Kodi Nikorima have proved their aptitude for the shortened format in the past, while Anthony Milford is the type of player that should dominate Nines. Recent acquisition James Roberts would have just about made the Broncos tournament favourites.
Previous Nines performances: Runners-up in the inaugural 2014 edition, the Broncos flunked out at the pool stage last year as the Sharks and the Roosters advanced.
Odds: $21 (equal-8th favourites)
Verdict: Certainly not as strong as they could be, but with seven of last year’s grand final squad in Auckland, Brisbane are great value for the punters and should be favoured to make it to the knockout phase. Quarter-finalists
Jarrod Croker, Jason Croker, Lachlan Croker, Jordan Rapana, Brenko Lee, Kato Ottio, Sisa Waqa, Sam Williams, Shannon Boyd, Kurt Baptiste, Paul Vaughan, Jarrad Kennedy, Luke Bateman, Thomas Cronan, Mitch Barnett, Jack Williams, Zac Santo, Rhys Kennedy.
Key man: Club captain Jarrod Croker will spearhead the campaign, with his speed, endurance and goalkicking to prove crucial to the Raiders’ chances.
One to watch: Although he has played just one NRL game for North Queensland, recruit Zac Santo was a real standout of the Cowboys’ triumph at the inaugural Nines.
Wish you were here: Long-striding Edrick Lee, a fitter-looking Joseph Leilua, the unwavering Shaun Fensom and wily hooker Josh Hodgson would have rounded out this squad nicely. But adlib specialist Blake Austin is the player Canberra really could have done with.
Previous Nines performances: The Raiders dipped out in the pool stages in 2014 and ’15 with one win each year after being placed in the same group as the Warriors.
Odds: $26 (equal-12th favourites)
Verdict: A decent mix with ample firepower in the shape of Croker, Sisa Waqa and Edrick Lee, but the absence of a recognised playmaker suggests the abbreviated Green Machine will struggle to get out of a pool that contains the star-studded Sharks and Dragons. Quarter-finalists
Brad Abbey, Tim Browne, Dane Chisholm, Greg Eastwood (c), Adam Elliott, Matt Frawley, Danny Fualalo, Craig Garvey, Kerrod Holland, Sam Kasiano, Shaun Lane, Jarrod McInally, Pat O’Hanlon, Tyrone Phillips, Ruebenn Rennie, Reimis Smith, Chase Stanley, Tony Williams.
Key man: Probably the best-recognised playmaker in the Bulldogs’ squad despite not having tasted first grade, former Warriors NYC fullback star Abbey is custom-made for Nines football and will be keen to star in front of friends and family in his maiden outing in a blue and white jumper.
One to watch: Barnstorming forward Shaun Lane was one of 2015’s best rookie and could cause havoc on the fringes if his pre-season fitness levels are up to scratch.
Wish you were here: First-choice halves Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye would have been sensational, while the Morris brothers and Josh Jackson could have made the Dogs genuine contenders.
Previous Nines performances: The Bulldogs have won just one of the six Nines matches, scoring just 10 points in their winless 2015 campaign
Odds: $61 (16th favourites)
Verdict: Des Hasler and the Bulldogs have shown little interest in competing at this tournament previously, picking vastly under-strength squads in 2014-15; this year’s line-up is slightly more promising but unlikely to stand up to the might of the Warriors and Broncos. Eliminated in pool play
Ben Barba, Gerard Beale, Jack Bird, Mitch Brown, Kurt Capewell, Josh Cleeland, Jordan Drew, Sosaia Feki, David Fifita, Chris Heighington, Valentine Holmes, Ricky Leutele, Luke Lewis, Matt McIlwrick, Joseph Paulo, Matt Prior, Sam Tagataese, Chad Townsend.
Key man: The dynamic Jack Bird will spearhead the Sharks’ charge, with the side like to rely on him as their chief playmaker and ball-running threat. He was the equal top-tryscorer last year with four.
One to watch: Ex-Bronco Jordan Drew, a promising outside back who has represented the Junior Kangaroos, will be looking to stake a claim for a first-grade berth with a strong showing at the Nines.
Wish you were here: Wade Graham was named in the Team of the Tournament last year but has been left at home this time around, while Valentine Holmes’ absence will be a blow if, as expected, he is ruled out of the trip after his arrest in Brisbane on the weekend. Andrew Fifita, a Team of the Tournament inclusion in 2014, would have been a great addition.
Previous Nines performances: A surprise packet in each of the first two Nines tournaments, the Sharks reached the semi-finals in 2014, and went down in extra-time to Souths in last year’s classic final after eliminating the highly-fancied Warriors and Roosters in their initial knockout assignments.
Odds: $9 (equal-3rd favourites)
Verdict: The Sharks have already drifted following news of Holmes’ indiscretion and likely suspension, but they still carry a very well-rounded and experienced squad into the weekend. Chris Heighington was in the Team of the Tournament last year; Luke Lewis is an ideal player for this format; playmakers Ben Barba, Joseph Paulo and Chad Townsend will provide support for Bird; and the likes of Ricky Leutele and Sosaia Feki give the side power and pace out wide. A big chance of going all the way. Semi-finalists
Gold Coast Titans
Greg Bird, Lachlan Burr, Nathan Davis, Ryan James, Brian Kelly, Greg Leleisiuao, Nene Macdonald, Chris McQueen, David Mead, Daniel Mortimer, Agnatius Paasi, Nathaniel Peteru, Tyrone Roberts, Matt Srama, Ash Taylor, Shannon Walker, Shane Wright, William Zillman.
Key man: New halfback Ash Taylor will be called upon to provide much of the Titans’ playmaking spark, and has a fair bit of experience around him in Greg Bird and Tyrone Roberts to ease him into it.
One to watch: Shannon Walker has returned to the Titans on a trial basis after a stint with the Australian Rugby Sevens team, which gives him obvious advantages at the Nines. Elusive and blindingly fast, Walker will be a standout.
Wish you were here: The Titans, despite having the weakest roster in the NRL, have picked a strong Nines squad. Josh Hoffman is probably the only player that would have made a major positive difference, while it would have been good to see Nathan Friend back in front of the Auckland faithful.
Previous Nines performances: Although they’ve averaged 16 points per game in their Nines history, the Titans failed to make it past the pool stage in 2014-15 after winning only one match each year.
Odds: $21 (equal-8th favourites)
Verdict: Don’t be surprised to see the Titans upset their well-fancied pool-mates, the Sharks, Dragons and Raiders. Plenty of pace in the form of Walker, David Mead and Nene MacDonald, and stacks of ball-playing talent. Chris McQueen and Ryan James need to have big tournaments as the squad’s only top-shelf forwards, but Bird and co. Will ensure the Titans give this one a good shake. Eliminated at pool stage
Manly Sea Eagles
Jamie Buhrer, Brenton Lawrence, Fabian Goodall, Nathan Green, Isaac John, Jorge Taufua, Wof Lavaka, Feleti Mateo, Tim Moltzen, Matt Parcell, Tony Satini, Tom Symonds, Jake Trbojevic, Tom Trbojevic, Blake Leary, Jesse Ramien, Jayden Hodges, Brayden Wiliame.
Key man: Teenage sensation Tom Trbojevic, who has scored eight tries in nine NRL outings, should revel in the open spaces.
One to watch: Hooker recruit Matt Parcell scored five tries in a Intrust Super Cup semi last year, so there’s no doubting his attacking credentials.
Wish you were here: There’s a welter of experience left cooling their heels on the northern beaches, most notably Brett Stewart, Jamie Lyon, Daly Cherry-Evans, Steve Matai, Nate Myles, Lewis Brown and former Souths star Dylan Walker, who was named in last year’s Team of the Tournament as part of the Rabbitohs’ title-winning squad.
Previous Nines performances: Manly finished bottom of their pool in each of the 2014-15 tournaments, chalking up a solitary victory at the inaugural event and losing all three games by five points or less last year.
Odds: $17 (equal-7th favourites)
Verdict: Heaps of young talent in the shape of the Trbojevic brothers, Parcell and Jayden Hodges, while Feleti Mateo and Jamie Buhrer bolster a pretty handy pack. Too much first-receiver responsibilities are likely to fall on injury-riddled pair Tim Moltzen and Isaac John, however, and tough pool assignments against the Warriors and Broncos should put paid to their chances. Eliminated in pool play
Curtis Scott, Young Tonumaipea, Richie Kennar, Cameron Munster, Marika Koroibete, Blake Green, Brodie Croft, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Ben Hampton, Mark Nicholls, Kenny Bromwich, Tohu Harris, Dale Finucane, Nafe Seluini, Jeremy Hawkins, Dean Britt, Joe Stimson, Tony Tumusa.
Key man: Cameron Munster was shaping as the Storm’s linchpin until he broke curfew in Emerging Maroons camp, clouding his presence in Auckland. If he is missing, dynamic backrower Tohu Harris and journeyman five-eighth Blake Green will take on added responsibility.
One to watch: Among the NRL’s most impressive rookies of 2015, front-rower Nelson Asofa-Solomona is an absolute weapon and could create havoc for thinned-out defences.
Wish you were here: Perennial ‘burnout’ victims Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith have all been left out, despite enjoying the longest off-season of their careers. Slater, on the comeback trail from a shoulder injury, was touted as one of the 2016 Nines’ headliners, but has been held back.
Previous Nines performances: The Storm managed one win in each of the first two tournaments to finish third in their pool both years.
Odds: $41 (15th favourites)
Verdict: Craig Bellmay has proved the ultimate Nines curmudgeon once again by leaving the ‘Big Three’ in Melbourne, meaning the Storm will get another deserved early exit – which is probably exactly what ‘Bellyache’ wants. Eliminated in pool play
Jaelen Feeney, Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Brock Lamb, Danny Levi, Jake Mamo, Chanel Mata’utia, Pat Mata’utia, Sione Mata’utia, William Pearsall, Tyler Randell, Robbie Rochow, Nathan Ross, Korbin Sims, Tariq Sims, Daniel Saifiti, Jacob Saifiti, Joseph Tapine, Akuila Uate
Key man: A highly-rated five-eighth who steered the Knights to NSW Cup glory in 2015, Jaelen Feeney is the most prominent playmaker in the squad.
One to watch: We’re big fans of young Kiwi hooker Danny Levi, and the Wellington product will be fizzing to perform in his homeland.
Wish you were here: Dane Gagai’s class would have been a welcome addition to a low-key squad, while livewire fullback/winger Jake Mamo could have had a massive impact.
Previous Nines performances: The Knights are one of five clubs to have qualified for the knockout phase in each of the previous Nines tournaments, bounced out in the quarters by Brisbane in 2014 and South Sydney in 2015.
Odds: $21 (equal-8th favourites)
Verdict: The Mata’utia brothers, Akuila Uate and Nathan Ross give the Knights plenty of scoring strike, while the Sims brothers’ presence gives the side more up-front muscle than most. A definite chance to squeeze into the quarter-finals if Feeney and young Brock Lamb can shine. Eliminated in pool play
North Queensland Cowboys
Matthew Bowen, Kyle Feldt, Justin O’Neill, Kane Linnett, Antonio Winterstein, Lachlan Coote, Ray Thompson, John Asiata, Jake Granville, James Tamou, Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe, Jason Taumalolo, Michael Morgan, Rory Kostjasyn, Coen Hess, Matthew Wright, Gideon Gela-Mosby.
Key man: There’s no JT, but in Michael Morgan the Cowboys boast the next-best thing. The grand final hero’s ball-playing class and long-range speed render him one of the biggest individual threats at the Nines.
One to watch: Gideon Gela-Mosby scored a truckload of tries in last year’s NYC and will revel in the wide open spaces of Eden Park. Keep an eye on rugged young forward Coen Hess, too.
Wish you were here: Thurston obviously would have been a massive drawcard, but it’s hard to complain when the Cowboys have sent over 12 members of their grand final 17.
Previous Nines performances: Surprise winners of the inaugural 2014 tournament, the Cowboys were edged out in the quarter-finals by Parramatta last year.
Odds: $5.50 (2nd favourites)
Verdict: A huge chance of repeating South Sydney’s achievement in carrying off the Nines trophy to complement their NRL triumph. Ten of the successful 2014 squad return to Auckland – plus crowd-pleaser Matt Bowen – as part of arguably the most well-rounded outfit in the tournament. Champions
Mitch Cornish, Bureta Faraimo, John Folau, Bevan French, David Gower, Luke Kelly, Cameron King, Manu Ma’u, Tepai Moeroa, Ryan Morgan, Cody Nelson, Corey Norman (c), Junior Paulo, Semi Radradra, Kelepi Tanginoa, Peni Terepo, Vai Toutai, Matt Woods
Key man: Corey Norman was named in the Team of the Tournament after starring in the Eels’ impressive 2015 campaign.
One to watch: John Folau – Izzy’s ‘little’ brother – had his rookie year in the NRL curtailed by injury, but he is a bona fide powerhouse out wide.
Wish you were here: Kieran Foran would have been a tremendous influence on a young Parra side, while Nathan Peats and Michael Gordon could have taken some of the heat off Norman.
Previous Nines performances: The Eels have overachieved both years, reaching the quarters in 2014 and getting to the semis in 2015.
Odds: $9 (equal-3rd favourites)
Verdict: With a top-class playmaker in Norman, stacks of firepower in Semi Radradra (who scored a tournament-high five tries in 2014), Bureta Faraimo and Folau, and dynamic forwards like Manu Ma’u, Tepai Moeroa and Junior Paulo, the Eels shape as a real threat this weekend – but they face a tough likely quarter-final date with either Penrith or North Queensland. Quarter-finalists
Elijah Taylor, Te Maire Martin, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Jeremy Latimore, Bryce Cartwright, Zach Dockar-Clay, Robert Jennings, Ben Garcia, Josh Mansour, Isaah Yeo, Corey Harawira, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Sione Katoa, James Segeyaro, Moses Leota, Will Smith, Waqa Blake, Chris Smith
Key man: James Segeyaro is set to wreak havoc around the rucks for one of the Nines’ genuine contenders.
One to watch: With his Benji-esque skill-set, Te Maire Martin is at short odds to be one of the stars of the tournament.
Wish you were here: Jamie Soward’s pace and playmaking prowess would have been a boon for the youthful Panthers squad, while Tyrone Peachey would just about be unstoppable.
Previous Nines performances: The Panthers topped their pool in 2014 before being eliminated in the quarters by eventual champs the Cowboys, but they went winless in 2015, scoring just 16 points in their three games.
Odds: $10 (5th favourites)
Verdict: With Segeyaro, Martin, Will Smith Zach Dockar-Clay and the brilliant Bryce Cartwright providing the spark, Josh Mansour, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Waqa Blake bringing the scoring strike, and Elijah Taylor and Reagan Campbell-Gillard leading the pack, Penrith is deservedly one of favourites to win it all. Should advance out of their pool comfortably along with North Queensland, but the Panthers may have to take on the Cowboys again in the semis. Semi-finalists
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Alex Johnston, Michael Oldfield, Bryson Goodwin, Ed Murphy, Cameron McInnes, Cody Walker, Damien Cook, John Sutton, Thomas Burgess, Kyle Turner, Jason Clarke, Paul Carter, Chris Grevsmuhl, John Olive, Kirisome Auva’a, Hymel Hunt, Jack Gosiewski, Zane Musgrove.
Key man: Paul Carter is tough, skilful and dynamic in the Greg Bird-mould – expect him to play a vital role in an under-strength Rabbitohs squad.
One to watch: New hooker Damien Cook was a sensation for the Bulldogs in the run into the 2015 NRL finals; opposition defences will have to watch him like a hawk.
Wish you were here: Inglis, Sam and George Burgess, Reynolds and Keary were all disappointingly left at home.
Previous Nines performances: Pipped in a quarter-final thriller by the Warriors in 2014, the Issac Luke-led Rabbitohs won the 2015 tournament via a golden-point win over Cronulla in the decider.
Odds: $21 (equal-8th favourites)
Verdict: There’s enough star power in the form of Sutton, Johnston, Carter, Grevsmuhl, McInnes and Cook for Souths to do a bit of damage, but on the surface it doesn’t look like one of the better squads. A relatively tame pool will assist their chances. Eliminated in pool play
St George Illawarra Dragons
Euan Aitken, Jack de Belin, Matt Dufty, Josh Dugan (c), Kalifa Faifai Loa, Jay Gallagher, Yaw Kiti Glymin, Jacob Host, Drew Hutchison, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Tim Lafai, Dunamis Lui, Kurt Mann, Jake Marketo, Josh McCrone, Mose Masoe, Peter Mata’utia, Mitch Rein.
Key man: Josh Dugan has been given the captaincy job and is undoubtedly the Dragons’ go-to guy.
One to watch: After a stint in England with St Helens, front-row behemoth Mose Masoe could be a big X-factor for the Dragons.
Wish you were here: Marshall and Widdop would have been sensational, while Tyson Frizell and Joel Thompson would have provided the Saints’ pack with extra punch.
Previous Nines performances: Bottom of their pool in 2014, the Dragons missed the quarters again in 2015 despite winning two of their three games.
Odds: $14 (6th favourites)
Verdict: Favoured to advance from their pool along with the Sharks, the Dragons’ prospects look good with blue-chip backs Dugan and Tim Lafai complemented by the versatile Kurt Mann and playmakers Mitch Rein, Josh McCrone and Drew Hutchison, but their forward stocks are a little thin. Eliminated in pool play
Latrell Mitchell, Daniel Tupou, Brendan Elliot, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Joe Burgess, Braith Anasta, Tyler Cornish, Isaac Liu, Ian Henderson, Abraham Papalii, Vincent Leuluai, Eloni Vunakece, Nat Butcher, Connor Watson, Joseph Manu, Nathan Smith, Joey Lussick, Omar Slaimankhel
Key man: Captain Braith Anasta, who retired from the NRL in 2013, will shoulder most of the playmaking load for an otherwise young outfit.
One to watch: Tipped for stardom, Latrell Mitchell is looking to nab a place in the Roosters’ first-grade line-up and can push his claims in Auckland.
Wish you were here: Mitchell Pearce (obviously) and Jackson Hastings would have made the Tricolours a front-line contender, while a couple of their big international forwards – JWH, Moa, Taukeiaho, Cordner or Guerra – would have rounded out the squad nicely.
Previous Nines performances: The Brad Fittler-inspired Roosters failed to make it out of the pools in 2014, but Pearce led the side to the semi-finals last year, where they were upset by Cronulla.
Odds: $26 (equal-12th favourites)
Verdict: Should be able to get past uninspiring Storm and Rabbitohs squads to reach the quarters, but they’ll battle to get any further. So much firepower out wide, but not enough in the ball-playing department and skinny in the forwards.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Ryan Hoffman, Jacob Lillyman, David Fusitu’a, Solomone Kata, Tuimoala Lolohea, Shaun Johnson (c), Charlie Gubb, Henare Wells, Konrad Hurrell, Ben Matulino, Ken Maumalo, Jonathan Wright, Jeff Robson, Sam Lisone, Blake Ayshford, Albert Vete, Ata Hingano
Key man: Player of the Tournament in 2014, no player is as synonymous with the Auckland Nines as squad captain Shaun Johnson.
One to watch: A freakish finisher, David Fusitu’a was plagued by injuries last year but is potentially one of most potent wing-men in the NRL.
Wish you were here: Issac Luke has been rested despite leading Souths to Nines glory last year, while Manu Vatuvei, Simon Mannering, Bodene Thompson and Thomas Leuluai would have all provided value.
Previous Nines performances: Raging-hot favourites in each of the first two tournaments, the hometown team were upset at the semi-final by the Cowboys in 2014 and exited in the quarters last year at the hands of the Sharks.
Odds: $3.75 (1st favourites)
Verdict: So much going for this squad with Johnson, Lolohea and Robson pulling the strings, Tuivasa-Sheck, Hurrell, Kata and Fusitu’a in the finishing contingent, and Matulino, Lisone and Hoffman headlining a strong pack. Kata and Ayshford were both named in the 2015 Team of the Tournament. The expectation of the home crowd is potentially their biggest obstacle. Runners-up
Chris Lawrence, Josh Addo-Carr, Jack Buchanan, Tyler Cassel, Michael Chee-Kam, Manaia Cherrington, Josh Drinkwater, Rod Griffin, Watson Heleta, Justin Hunt, Lamar Liolevave, Jack Littlejohn, Kyle Lovett, Nathan Milone, Kevin Naiqama, Ava Sumanufagai, Tim Simona, Sauso Sue
Key man: Auckland-born Tim Simona is one of the few Tigers players worth getting excited about.
One to watch: Josh Addo-Carr was described as the fastest player in the NYC last year – and speed tends to come in pretty handy at the Nines.
Wish you were here: The high-profile spine of Tedesco, Moses, Brooks and Farah have all been left at Leichhardt, as have a couple of other would-be handy Nines players in Curtis Sironen and Aaron Woods.
Previous Nines performances: Bottom of their group in 2014, but stunned the Warriors in pool play last year to advance to the quarters, where they went down to the Roosters.
Odds: $34 (14th favourites)
Verdict: A pretty average-looking squad means the Tigers are unlikely to provide much resistance for strong Cowboys and Panthers outfits. Expect an early exit. Eliminated in pool play