The NRL Auckland Nines is upon us, with all 16 clubs – along with the Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns – battling it out over two big days for pre-season honours. A number of proven and emerging NRL stars have been chosen to try their hand at the shorter format of the game, which for many is unchartered territory.
A wealth of NSW-eligible talent at the tournament poses the question, however: what would a hypothetical NSW Blues Nines team look like? Here are nine New South Welshmen who you should keep an eye on this weekend.
In the tournament’s three-year history, it has become clear that Rugby League Nines is a game in which young, quick, ball-playing outside backs can excel – and these are all traits possessed by Dragons fullback contender Matt Dufty. With teammate Josh Dugan not heading to Auckland and with the 21-year-old looking to earn his place in the NRL, the Nines will be a perfect opportunity to showcase the talent which saw him score 55 tries in his 65 Holden Cup appearances. Scoring another four-pointer in the NSW Under-20’s defeat of Queensland last year, Dufty is also on the radar for future representative honours.
One of the players of the tournament in 2016, it was impossible to leave Bevan French off the plane to New Zealand again this year. The Tingha Tigers junior, who scored a record eight tries across the two days last year, has already shown remarkable speed and try-scoring ability to mirror that of his uncle, NSW True Blue Nathan Blacklock. French’s 19 tries in his 13 NRL games to date have many observers excited about a future in sky blue and he will be sure to deliver excitement to a vocal Eden Park crowd once again.
As one of the renowned speedsters on the NRL circuit, all eyes will be on James Roberts whenever the star-studded Broncos take the field. The fleet-footed centre has only played in one Auckland Nines tournament to date – with the Titans in 2015 – when the club struggled to take just one win from their three pool fixtures. Jimmy the Jet showed glimpses of what he could do in that victory, scoring a classy double, and fans of all clubs will hope to see more of that this weekend. With the likes of Darius Boyd, Benji Marshall, Matt Gillett and Anthony Milford surrounding Roberts, he has the chance to put a tumultuous off-season behind him with a big showing.
The Raiders star gets his first shot at the Nines in lime green this year, after he was a part of the inaugural tournament with the Wests Tigers in 2014. That year didn’t quite go to plan, with the Tigers winning just one of their pool games in the Auckland Nines before coming 13th in the regular season, but Austin’s game has improved significantly since then. The Doonside Roos junior had his breakout year for Canberra in 2015, before he helped engineer a shock run to second place last year, pitting him among the NRL’s best playmakers. With no recognised hooker in our hypothetical side, Austin would hold his own at dummy-half in the shorter, less defensively-oriented format.
This undoubted talent will be expected to step up again in his first Auckland Nines, despite still being just 19 years of age. As the NRL’s youngest player, Cleary steered the Panthers to Week Two of the finals in 2016 and with most of the club’s big names rested for this weekend, his control from the middle of the field will be vital. With natural Rugby League vision and an excellent kicking game, we’re sure there will be no second-year syndrome for one of our Stars of 2017.
The man widely tipped to succeed Paul Gallen as full-time Sharks captain has been chosen to lead the NRL premiers in the pre-season event, earning him the (c) for our hypothetical Blues Nines team. It’s easy to see why Graham was chosen to head across the Tasman, too – his ball-playing skills pit him as one of only a few NRL players to attend to the second row and five-eighth position with usual success. Those traits will serve him well in Rugby League’s abbreviated version, alongside the likes of NSW representatives Jack Bird and Luke Lewis.
He’s successfully represented NSW at under-16s, under-18s and under-20s levels and has long been identified as a star of the future, but with a selection in the Rabbitohs’ Auckland Nines squad that future might not be so distant. Fuimaono, a St Marys Saints junior, was signed by South Sydney from Parramatta in July and will certainly be aiming for an NRL debut this year, but this is his first chance to impress. Big enough to play in the second row but still fast enough to play in the centres, Fuimaono could be a perfect fit for nine-a-side Rugby League.
One of just two incumbent NSW VB Blues in this line-up, Klemmer gets his first taste of Rugby League Nines in 2017 – and fans will be licking their lips to see how he goes. It’s anyone’s guess just how effective the 23-year-old’s destructive, firebrand style of play will be, but if he provides anything close to the impact he is capable of, there will be fireworks. With fellow big man Sam Kasiano by his side, the Bulldogs will be hopeful of getting out of the group stage for the first time.
You didn’t expect us to overlook the Hayne Plane, did you? With proven athleticism in both 13-a-side Rugby League and American football, Hayne’s first shot at the Auckland Nines is an intriguing prospect. Having fallen just short of his dream to represent Fiji at the Olympics in rugby sevens, the man from Minto will have a point to prove in Rugby League’s equivalent game. There is less focus on set positions in Nines football, so Hayne will have an opportunity to take on a roaming role and play what’s in front of him – conditions that we believe will suit him perfectly.
The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSWRL.