The Downer NRL Auckland Nines have traditionally provided untested rookies with a platform to go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the game in a bid to show they are NRL ready. Here are nine players you should keep an eye out for this weekend.
It mightn't have been as flashy as the Robbie Farah deal, but the Rabbitohs made a more than handy signing when they picked up Braidon Burns from the Panthers. The talented centre was a mainstay in Penrith's NYC team that claimed the minor premiership last season with 20 tries, 17 line breaks, 64 tackle breaks and 12 try assists. In Round 10 against the Warriors, Burns became just the seventh player in the NYC to score five tries in a match.
Name a more damaging duo than Jarrod Croker and Joey Leilua in the centres. The truth is you can't. But in Nick Cotric, the Raiders have one of the most talented outside backs coming through the ranks, and it would come as no shock to see the 18-year-old get a shot in first grade in 2017. Cotric is already the complete package, boasting size, speed and incredible footwork. His 135 tackle breaks were the fifth-most in the NYC last year, while he also finished in the top five at the Raiders for tries, try assists, line breaks and offloads. Give him an inch and the 2016 Team of the Year member will take a mile on the open expanses at Eden Park.
One of the most hyped players to have graduated from the NYC last year, Matt Dufty will use his second trip to the Nines as a platform to impress ahead of the new NRL season. The flashy fullback finished his time in the Holden Cup as the leading try-scorer in the competition's history with 55 four-pointers from 65 appearances. His footwork and agility will make him a defender's nightmare in the nine-a-side format, as will his ability to create space for teammates. Dufty produced 40 try assists over the past two seasons and his ball-playing could be telling across the weekend.
The Roosters have named a squad brimming with explosive backline talent, including a couple of rookies from last year in Latrell Mitchell and Joseph Manu who went on to become household names in the NRL. While Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck is the name most people will be drawn to, watch out for his NYC premiership-winning teammate Bernard Lewis. The winger finished 2016 as the club's leading try-scorer (19) and tallied the same number of line breaks to again lead the way for the Roosters. Lewis was a shining light for the Junior Maroons, scoring a hat-trick in a losing effort, and his speed and strength will be handy assets in Auckland.
It's always hard to judge Holden Cup graduates when they come out of the under-20s, but there are no two ways about it with Esan Marsters; he will play first grade in 2017. Two destructive years in the second-row for the Tigers has him readied to make the step up to the NRL if called upon by Jason Taylor. The Junior Kiwis representative finished his NYC career with 24 tries from 39 appearances – fantastic numbers for an edge forward – and his ability to ball play has him well-suited to the Nines format.
If speedy players are a dime a dozen in the Nines, then utility players are worth their weight in gold. Just look at Panthers young-gun Tyrone May. He played fullback, five-eighth, hooker, lock and back-row for the 2015 NYC premiers, before switching between lock and five-eighth last season. May finished as the Panthers' joint-leading try-scorer in 2015, and backed it up with a mixture of workmanlike and flashy performances last season to help his side to back-to-back grand finals. Capable of churning out tackles or setting up tries, May could be a key cog in Penrith's Nines assault.
Back-to-back years as the Bulldogs leading NYC try-scorer has Marcelo Montoya primed to fight his way into Canterbury's first-grade team in 2017. After failing to score in the first two rounds last season, Montoya crossed in 14 of his final 16 matches – including three doubles and a hat-trick – to finish the year with 19 tries. The winger was a shining light for the blue and whites last year and will be well supported in Auckland by last season's NYC Clubman of the Year, D'Rhys Miller.
When your uncle is Cowboys legend Matt Bowen, chances are you're going to be pretty handy with a footy. The former Northern Pride speedster was snapped up by the Melbourne Storm's feeder team Easts Tigers, and after impressing coaching staff this pre-season, was rewarded with a spot in the club's training camp in Geelong. While fullback is his preferred spot, Port is comfortable on the wing where he was picked for the Queensland Residents last year. With fellow speedsters Josh Addo-Carr and Curtis Scott also in the Nines squad, don't be shocked to see the Storm outdo their final four effort from 2016.
Brisbane's endless assembly line of centres looks set to continue with Gehamat Shibasaki selected to make his Auckland Nines debut. The 18-year-old featured in all 24 of Brisbane's NYC games last season in the three-quarter line and represented the Junior Maroons in the under-20's State of Origin. Shibasaki produced impressive numbers in all the key areas, scoring 14 tries, producing 11 line breaks and averaging roughly 135 metres per game. He could have a field day in Auckland playing outside the likes of Anthony Milford, Darius Boyd and Benji Marshall.
This article first appeared on NRL.com