Ben Ikin was a scrawny kid just out of high school when he played in the World Sevens competition in 1995 for the Gold Coast Seagulls.
The wide-eyed youngster had only just started playing open-age competition when he made his debut against Japan.
It was anything but your standard debut to top-flight Rugby League. But for a teenager fresh out of school, it was a great opportunity.
Now a commentator and analyst with his own television show NRL 360 on Fox Sports, Ikin believes the new NRL Auckland Nines tournament launched at Rugby League Central on Wednesday will be massive for fans and players alike.
“Sevens was my first introduction to ARL in 1995,” Ikin said. “I still have a Japanese Sevens jersey from 1995 at home. When I heard the Nines was coming, I thought it was brilliant, because it is a great way to pair the older players with some of the younger guys.
“I was fresh out of high school and was given a start, it was pre-season and I hadn’t played first grade before. Only a week or two before I played my first game against men in open age. Up until the week before the Sevens, I had only played my age group.
“I scored a try in my first game, we played Japan and the South Queensland Crushers, the rest is a blur. It was a fantastic brand of footy, it is so entertaining.”
Ikin says the nine-a-side format will be great for showcasing the skill level of the NRL and also a chance to grow the game in new markets. He also quashed concerns about players not taking the concept seriously.
“The players will be trying their hardest to win, it is in their nature, they hate losing,” he said. “The only difference is if a club is going to take it completely serious in the build-up.
“By the time you get to the ground, you can be as light-hearted as you want at training and with your preparation before the tournament, but as soon as you cross that white line they can’t help themselves, they want to win.
“There is so much football happening, it is like a carnival atmosphere, it isn’t like it is all building to one big game, the whole day is exciting, and players will get swept up in it all.”
Ikin, who played 150 first grade games and 17 for Queensland in State of Origin, says the modified version of the game provides the perfect platform for young players to showcase their skills on a grander stage.
“If I was Luke Brooks or a player like that, I’ve been in that position, you get to travel overseas, you get to play with a group of predominately first graders it is a really exciting time to be involved,” he said.
“It will be a carnival-like atmosphere at the ground, a week of promotions and stuff, your head will be spinning. It is a great opportunity for guys like that to showcase their skills and get some confidence.”
The NRL Auckland Nines Tournament will take place on February 15-16 in 2014 at Eden Park with all 16 NRL clubs to compete for a prize pool exceeding $2 million.
Under the tournament format, the 16 NRL clubs will be divided into four Team Pools with each team to compete against each opponent from within their pool. The top two teams from each pool progress to the next stage of the tournament.
Matches will be played over two nine-minute halves (18-minute matches) with the NRL’s Competition Committee to develop specific rules for the Nines tournament.