Edge forwards to shine at Nines
Creative and explosive edge-running forwards like Roosters dynamo Sonny Bill Williams loom as the stars of the 2014 Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines, according to the man who called rugby league's last nines event on television in 1997.
Widely travelled and respected commentator Andrew Voss, who acted as MC for the official tournament launch at Rugby League Central at Moore Park, told NRL.com that Titan Dave Taylor and Bulldog Frank Pritchard are other players who could steal the show.
"I think it might be the bigger blokes who star rather than the little blokes," Voss said. "Every team would like to have a Sonny Bill Williams, because he's made for it.
"I think those players we see on the edges in 13-a-side rugby league can be the most damaging. Sure the little blokes will have their moments – and players like Jarryd Hayne and Billy Slater if he plays, they can do their bit – but I think the headline acts will be those blokes who can work the edges.
"But a player like Dave Taylor – he could absolutely revel in this. This is made for him to just rip and tear.
"Frank Pritchard, from what I saw of him at the World Cup, he's going to love the nines format. They can go hell for leather, it's unlimited interchange so the moment you've got an empty petrol tank [you can come off]."
Voss also said punters may end up surprised by some lower-scoring games, with nines being "far more tactical" than sevens. It was also a reason players who could both attack and defend would be of supreme value.
"This [tournament] is involving the 16 NRL clubs – they'll be really well-drilled, you know their defences are good, they'll be physically fit, you know they'll be in fantastic shape to just give it their all for nine minutes each way, so you might go there thinking 'we're going to see nothing but high-scoring matches' – but you might be surprised," Voss said.
"You might get some low-scoring games where points are hard-earned, that will bring out amazing skills and 'out-there' kicking games to break these defences even though it is only nine players on the field."
Sides with the best tactical kicking games could also be expected to prosper, with some innovative kicks likely to be rolled out.
"We just see the kicking games of the players from the last decade, the way things have changed. Andrew Johns was the first player who brought in a whole box of tricks but now they can all do it, every playmaker has this range of kicks and I think nines is absolutely going to let them produce the lot – and do it on any tackle," Voss said.
"The kick could become used as much as the pass – if you want to get the ball quickly out to the wing, I think that will be an exciting element of nines, I've got no doubt about that."
Voss also took the opportunity to relay to NRL.com an anecdote from his time calling the 1997 Nines tournament – one that former video ref and current Gold Coast Titans boss Graham Annesley "would love me to relay again".
Voss said Annesley was the video ref in a game between Australia and Samoa at the 1997 Nines tournament – heralding the first time a video referee had been used in Australia.
Joe Galuvao, playing fullback for Samoa, attempted to dive on the ball for a try and "missed by conservatively three metres" before Michael Hancock grounded, meaning the Australians were expecting to restart play with a goal-line dropout. But the on-field referee Brian Grant had other ideas.
"Brian Grant I think wanted to... be the first to do the TV box signal. So on came freeze frame, Graham Annesley is the video referee, it was quite obvious it was meant to be a line dropout," Voss recalled.
"But Graham Annesley pressed green rather than red – he pressed the wrong button! Michael Hancock said 'what the?', everyone said 'what?' but they didn't overrule it, they stuck with it as a try. The first ever video refereeing decision – shouldn't we have known then, when there was controversy right from the get-go?"
Thankfully technology and processes have advanced considerably during the past 16 years, to the point where it's a given the stars of rugby league will provide all the talking points when they assemble at Eden Park in February.