The squads have been named, the odds are in, and now the question on everyone's mind is just which teams will thrive in the inaugural Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines? Will the rapid-paced matches with more room to move suit the NRL's quickest backlines, or the hard-running big men who can draw three defenders at a time? Can your club go all the way?
The 16 NRL teams have been split into four groups (yellow, green, blue and red) with the top two teams from each group advancing to the quarter-finals. The fresh concept and the new-look nature of the squads makes for one unpredictable tournament, but here are our fearless predictions for how the matches will pan out.
We won't be alone in backing the Warriors to top this group. The tournament favourites boast home-ground advantage and a team seemingly built for Nines footy, including Kiwis playmaker and former touch football star Shaun Johnson, England's star fullback Sam Tomkins, barnstorming centre Konrad Hurrell, speedster Glen Fisiiahi and tackle-busting forward Jayson Bukuya.
The Raiders will field a young side led by Jarrod Croker and featuring promising halfback Mitch Cornish, while Manly's squad includes few big names apart from Kangaroos star Daly Cherry-Evans and returning club legend Steve Menzies. That leaves the North Queensland Cowboys – boasting twin wrecking ball back-rowers Tariq Sims and Jason Taumalolo plus James Tamou and new signing Lachlan Coote – as our tip to take second spot in this group.
Predicted finishing order: Warriors; Cowboys; Sea Eagles; Raiders.
The Brisbane Broncos are coming off a disappointing 2013 NRL campaign but have named a Nines squad with a lot of talent, headed by former Dally M winner Ben Barba, fellow fleet-footed fullback Josh Hoffman and representative forwards Sam Thaiday, Corey Parker and Matt Gillett. We'll tip them to advance along with a young Parramatta outfit featuring USA World Cup star Joseph Paulo, new signings Nathan Peats and Corey Norman, veteran prop Fuifui Moimoi and enigmatic halfback Chris Sandow. A Bulldogs side missing the bulk of its star players and a Roosters outfit headlined by the returning Brad Fittler are our tips to miss out.
Predicted finishing order: Broncos; Eels; Bulldogs; Roosters.
This is arguably the toughest group to predict, with all four clubs selecting strong sides for the Nines. The Titans possess raw power in Dave Taylor, genuine speed in William Zillman, David Mead, Kevin Gordon and Albert Kelly, and a great work ethic in Greg Bird, Ashley Harrison and Mark Minichiello. The Wests Tigers team looks solid as well with new signing Pat Richards joining Marika Koroibete, James Tedesco and tireless forwards Robbie Farah and Aaron Woods. But there is a good chance neither of those teams will survive the group stage, due to the quality of their group rivals.
The Newcastle Knights are the competition's second-favourites behind the Warriors, with a strong all-round squad boasting backline speedsters Akuila Uate, Dane Gagai, Joseph Leilua, Tyrone Roberts and Jarrod Mullen plus tough-tackling forwards Chris Houston, Beau Scott, Jeremy Smith and Robbie Rochow. We're suspecting they and the Sharks will both advance, with Cronulla being one of the competition's dark horses thanks to the presence of genuine superstars Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita and Todd Carney. If the Nines turns out to be more of a battle of the big men than a test of pure speed, then the impact of all-action Kangaroos forwards Gallen and Fifita could give Cronulla an edge over the competition.
Predicted finishing order: Knights; Sharks; Titans; Wests Tigers.
The Dragons have named a very strong side for this tournament, with Test wingers Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale, dynamic forwards Trent Merrin, Jack de Bellin and Tyson Frizell, new signings Sam Williams and Dylan Farrell and star fullback Josh Dugan. They're our tip to win the red group, ahead of Penrith, the Rabbitohs and Melbourne.
It's hard to know what to expect from the Panthers this season in the NRL, let alone in the Nines. Recruits Jamie Soward, Kevin Naiqama and Tyrone Peachey will turn out for their new club alongside rising backline stars Matt Moylan and Josh Mansour. That should give them the edge over a Rabbitohs side missing the Burgess brothers, Greg Inglis and Adam Reynolds, and a Melbourne outfit minus Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith.
Predicted finishing order: Panthers; Dragons; Rabbitohs; Storm.
1st Blue v 2nd Green: Knights v Eels – Experience and the strike power of Uate, Gagai and Leilua should give the Knights the edge in this one.
1st Green v 2nd Blue: Broncos v Sharks – A tough one to call. You get the feeling Fifita could break a game apart on his own in this format, but for strength across the park we'll lean towards Brisbane.
1st Yellow v 2nd Red: Warriors v Dragons – The Dragons look good, but the Warriors look better.
1st Red v 2nd Yellow: Panthers v Cowboys – We'll give this one to the Panthers in another close battle.
QF1 Winner v QF2 Winner: Knights v Broncos – Barba could be the breakout star of the tournament if he gets back to the best, but Newcastle look a little stronger all-round.
QF1 Winner v QF2 Winner: Warriors v Panthers – If Johnson, Tomkins and Hurrell are still fit and firing by Sunday afternoon, the Warriors should be too good.
SF1 Winner v SF2 Winner: Knights v Warriors – The sell-out crowd should be at fever pitch by the time the Auckland Nines Final swings around at 7.30pm local time on Sunday, and that should be enough to carry the Warriors to victory against whoever they face in the final.
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