Matt Encarnacion, NRL.com
Having enjoyed a rock star welcome since moving over from the Super League, Auckland locals now get their first look at the Warriors import dubbed England's Billy Slater. At first glance, Sam Tomkins has got it all: speed, brains and the kind of X-factor talent that makes confused countryman Sam Burgess old news. And while the 24-year-old arrives with an impressive resume, including a hat-trick on his international debut and two Super League crowns, it only heightens expectations on a player who the Warriors' owners reportedly paid a substantial $1.2 million for in transfer fees alone and are relying on to deliver their ever first premiership.
He's the clean-shaven face of the Warriors franchise, the orchestrator of the New Zealand national team, and he's got arguably the deadliest step in the competition – all of which makes Shaun Johnson the top attraction of the inaugural Auckland Nines. No longer the one-dimensional highlight reel he was when he entered the league as a rookie, the 23-year-old Johnson is now a mature and dependable halfback, complete with all the skills in the handbook. Almost a quarter of a million people have clicked through and watched his touch football magic on Youtube, but we're guessing he'll gain just a few more fans after this weekend.
He's brilliant to watch at the worst of times but last season the 2012 Dally M medallist spectacularly fell from grace, landing himself in Brisbane after a year to forget at the Bulldogs. This weekend marks Ben Barba's first appearance in a Broncos jumper and whilst all reports out of Red Hill are that the fullback phenomenon is ready to explode again in 2014, we sit in anticipation for his first game of the tournament – a fateful meeting against the Bulldogs, some of whom didn't have their old teammate on their Christmas card list last year.
The Wests Tigers 2005 premiership hero literally kicked off his low-key return to the club in Camden last Saturday night, with a trademark short kick-off that saw the Tigers regain possession and eventually stretch out to a 14-0 halftime lead. Evidenced by an incredible 45-metre effort near the sideline for Wigan last year – trust us, Youtube it – the 31-year-old is renowned as somewhat of a field goal expert, which is exactly the way all conversions will be taken during the Nines weekend. That alone makes Richards and the Tigers worth watching.
Take this to the bank: David Taylor will be a living, breathing, eating example of how big men can fly in the Nines. There is simply not enough space in that big-boned body of his to fit his complete bag of tricks, and the Auckland Nines is the perfect opportunity for him to empty the kit. Coming off the back of somewhat of a letdown year, the former representative star has been spruiking increased fitness levels all summer and the free-flowing Nines format is the kind of hit and giggle showpiece Taylor can use to prove it.
Brad Fittler/Steve Menzies
Anthony Minichiello probably summed it up best when he said Freddie was "mad" to make a comeback. But that just makes it all the more intriguing for us to tune in on legendary pair Brad Fittler and Steve Menzies when they return to the playing field for the Roosters and Manly respectively. With over 800 games of first grade games, 50 Origin appearances and 53 Test jumpers between them, there aren't many more decorated players to have played the game, and for one weekend at least we'll remember why.
He's the modern day front-row prototype, a clone of inspirational NSW captain Paul Gallen. Built strong and low to the ground, with that advantageous low centre of gravity, Trent Merrin is like your dependable old Commodore, boasting the kind of reliable engine that could drive you around the country 10 times over. Also the owner of one of the best offloading arms in the business, the Dragons forward can single-handedly carry the Red V deep into the tournament.
Having been buried in a backlog of second-rowers in the Shire, the son of Cronulla great David Peachey is on the cusp of a breakout season with new club Penrith, and it could begin this weekend. An undersized ball-playing forward, the 22-year-old has that old-school, Jason Smith-like mastery of tricks and nuances around the ruck. Keep an eye out for a trademark dummy, and a deceptive turn of pace.
Some of the most promising young talent in rugby league have descended upon Auckland this weekend, and Parramatta centre John Folau heads the list. The younger brother of dual international Israel, the 19-year-old possesses the same traits that made his older sibling an instant representative star. Tall, athletic, fast and smart, the Eels young gun is still a little underdeveloped, but his natural talent should shine in a competition built for clubs to get a gauge on their most talented prodigies.
If, as assumed, the Auckland Nines will be dominated by the quick men, then the Storm's speed freak flyer Justin O'Neill could be a candidate for player of the tournament. One of the fastest men in the NRL, good judges believe O'Neill's raw speed is of Olympic quality, meaning defenders should just save their breath if the Queensland representative finds open space. A 'Big Three'-less Melbourne might make them less enjoyable to watch, but if you're looking for a thrill-seeker, then O'Neill is your man.
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