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Big boys not a Nines weakness

When you attract as many defenders as Frank Pritchard, you're sure to be a handful in the Auckland Nines. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos

When Manly lifted the World Sevens trophy in 1995 it was left to Daniel Gartner and Nik Kosef to do the grunt work up front.

When the final NRL-sanctioned sevens tournament was played in 2004 the Wests Tigers got home on the back of big blokes such as Mark O'Neill and Darren Senter.

So with the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines due to kick off in exactly a month from today, the question has to be asked: What role will the big blokes play?

For a better indication perhaps it is wise to look back at the short-lived Super League Nines in 1996-97 for a guide to perhaps which big guys are considered too big.

The good news for the likes of Sam Kasiano, Dave Taylor, Andrew Fifita and the Burgess twins, George and Tom, is that it appears with two extra players on the field teams can accommodate a couple of big bodies in the shortened defensive line.

"I think you need a few [big blokes] actually," says Titans coach John Cartwright, who will have Dave Taylor, Ryan James, Luke Bailey, Luke Douglas and Nate Myles pushing for inclusion when the squad is submitted to the NRL on February 10.

"I think you need two out on the field most of the time so that probably means you'll need four in the [squad of] 16 that you can use and keep rotating them."

At the Super League Nines in Townsville in 1997, Australia took big boppers Glenn Lazarus and Brett Hetherington into the tournament while England boasted Adrian Morley and Andy Farrell in their squad.

But it was eventual champions New Zealand who proved that size does matter with a squad that included Joe Vagana (who reportedly tipped the scales at 130 kilograms during his career), Stephen Kearney, Quentin Pongia, Ruben Wiki and Tony Iro.

Brisbane Broncos back-rower Alex Glenn would seem the perfect prototype for nines – a player as equally comfortable in the forwards or the backline – but is insistent that the fitness of the modern front-rower will make them valuable inclusions in each side.

"I've never played in a nines or a rugby sevens comp before but obviously there's a lot more space and you've got to be fit to cover some ground," Glenn said. "But the forwards these days, they are very fit and fast and they've got size to them as well so it wouldn't surprise me if there were some big forwards in there."

At the launch of the Auckland Nines last month commentator Andrew Voss heralded the influence that powerful edge forwards such as Frank Pritchard would have on the tournament, while Titans fullback William Zillman has no doubt that there's a behemoth in his club's ranks that would fancy himself with four less defenders on the field.

"It's funny, Dave Taylor is probably our biggest but he's one of our quickest so someone like him you'd think would be well suited for nines," he said. "We've got some big guys that are really fit and quite agile as well so it's a fairly handy position to be in."

Sell-out crowds at Eden Park for both days will be expecting to be dazzled by the likes of Shaun Johnson, Ben Barba, Anthony Milford and Greg Inglis but a poll conducted by NRL.com on the most valuable players at the Nines did call for the inclusion of some beef.

Tony Williams attracted 13 per cent of the Bulldogs votes, Josh Papalii was second only to Milford at the Raiders, livewire half Albert Kelly was the only Titans player to receive more votes than Dave Taylor while Andrew Fifita got 29 per cent of the Sharks vote, behind only Todd Carney.

With a trial against the Warriors in Auckland the week before the Nines commences, Cartwright has indicated recently that the Titans will pick the strongest squad possible to give the inaugural tournament a real shake.

"We've spoken about the style of footy that we want to play in it," Cartwright said. "Obviously you can't have too much of a game plan because it will be pretty much ad lib.

"There'll be a lot of fast play-the-balls and there are only nine defenders on the field so it will be a bit like a skills game at training.

"I think a lot of sides will just see how the game evolves. You pick your biggest, fastest, most mobile side and see how it evolves."

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