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Six stars to shine at Nines

Jason Taumalolo was a standout for the North Queensland Cowboys in their trial win over Brisbane. Copyright: Charles Knight/NRL Photos. Credit: Charles Knight/NRL Photos Copyright: Charles Knight/NRL Photos
It's the excitement that comes from the unknown.

Will the inaugural Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines deliver a highlights reel of breathtaking displays of speed and skill that will transcend rugby league?

Will the professionalism of the modern age allow nine defenders patrolling a rugby league field measuring 116 metres by 68 metres to hold the attackers at bay?

Will coaches completely release the constraints of game plans and 'systems' and allow the natural talents of their star players to shine brightly?

In such an uncertain world, we asked Fox Sports commentator and host of NRL 360, Ben Ikin, to name the six players he believes will have the greatest influence on the first top-flight nines competition in Australia in more than 15 years.
Or simply those most likely to produce the types of plays that will have us talking until Round 1.

"I sat next to someone on the plane the other day and they said this is almost a reason why we should be putting another NRL team in New Zealand," Ikin said of the latest addition to the rugby league calendar. "Sell out two days and give the New Zealanders a local derby.

"I think over time that, like the Hong Kong Sevens, this is going to be something that people travel to."

With players such as this to entertain, it might be wise to start looking at flights for 2015.

Ben Barba (Broncos)

The 2012 Dally M medallist will make his Broncos debut at the Auckland Nines hoping to erase the memories of a 2013 season that was difficult both on and off the field. Despite his issues and injuries, Barba still managed 10 tries and 14 line-breaks from 17 games for the Bulldogs last year and will be devastating if given any broken-field opportunities, according to Ikin.
 
"We all know what he's capable of and it would do both him and the Broncos the world of good if he could play close to his best footy in New Zealand. Barba is probably the most dangerous broken-field runner in the game but for a few well-documented reasons he had a clunky 2013 season; he'll be looking to hit the ground running this year and the Nines would be a good place to build some confidence."

Shaun Johnson (Warriors)

His breathtaking individual talents were enough to get him into first grade at the Warriors but last year Johnson showed that he is just as adept at setting up tries (18 try assists) as he is at scoring them (10). The most devastating left-foot step since a kid by the name of Brad Fittler broke into first grade with the Panthers in 1989.

"Just put the link in the story to that YouTube clip," urged Ikin. "Is that not one of the best things you have ever seen? It's freaky."

Albert Kelly (Titans)

A schoolboy prodigy who was sacked by both the Sharks and Knights in the space of a few months in 2012, Kelly went very close to being lost from rugby league until thrown a lifeline by the Titans. He repaid them by scoring 11 tries and setting up 10 and was responsible for some of the most exhilarating four-pointers of the season.
 
"I saw him develop a few game management skills last year in his first full season at halfback with the Titans. I could see that Aidan Sezer had an influence on the way he plays," said Ikin.
 
"Albert's first instinct – and it's a good one – is to always play what he sees but sometimes you just need to step back and manage your game on behalf of your team. If he goes across to the Nines he'll take what he learnt last year but what that bloke can do in a backyard is probably as good as Shaun Johnson."

Tyrone Roberts (Knights)

The honour of captaining the Knights against the First Nation Goannas last weekend indicates the esteem Roberts is now held in at Newcastle. He played all 27 games for the Knights last season and made a number of opposition defences look foolish with his 'blink-and-you'll-miss-him' show-and-go.

"The back-half of last year he really came into his own," said Ikin. "Jarrod Mullen has been running things at the Knights for years and he is now more comfortable than ever knowing he's got this jack-in-the-box in Tyrone Roberts inside him. They'll be awake to his little show-and-go but if he's good at it it's still hard to defend. Coaches have been telling players not to fall for Johnathan Thurston's show-and-go for 13 years but if you've just made three tackles in a row – and JT is smart enough to pick out that defender – it's another thing trying to shut it down."

Jason Taumalolo (Cowboys)

Perhaps it is the cross that the preternaturally gifted are forced to bear, that expectation that the extraordinary can be summoned on a whim. Ever since becoming the youngest Cowboy to make their NRL debut in 2010, the rugby league world has been waiting for Jason Taumalolo to explode.
 
If his powerhouse display in last Saturday's trial game against the Broncos is any indication, 20-year-old Taumalolo could be on the verge of something special.
 
"How good's he going to be, honestly," Ikin asked. "You've seen some of the highlights of Josh Papalii over the last couple of years; I think Taumalolo can be as good as that, if not better. What about the try he scored against the Broncos on the weekend running that outside-in line? They almost got out of the way!"

Daniel Tupou (Roosters)

In a compendium of fairytales surrounding the Roosters premiership triumph in 2013, the rise of Daniel Tupou got somewhat lost amidst the 'SBW', 'RTS' and 'JWH' fervour. 
Yet another that the Eels let slip away, Tupou bided his time in the NSW Cup with Newtown in 2012 before unleashing his breathtaking athleticism on the NRL in 2013, scoring 14 tries from 26 games and forming a potent wing combination with rookie sensation Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

"Everybody that starts to talk Roosters flankers immediately jumps to Tuivasa-Sheck; I think Tupou is going to be a superstar. He's close to 200 centimetres and over 100 kilos and just so skilful and athletic. He's going to have as good a highlight reel as any winger by the time he finishes."
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