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In the great unknown of the inaugural Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines, it might not necessarily be the fleet-footed halfbacks or the high-flying wingers who capture all of the attention of the sell-out Eden Park crowd. Here are nine names – some of which are very familiar – who shape as critical members of their respective teams.
A World Cup-winning Kangaroos star who has been named co-captain of the Broncos and appears to be getting better with age may not seem like much of a surprise but Corey Parker is the type of player who –if the Broncos make the final – could be the player of the tournament. With space in abundance, having one of the fittest men in footy closing holes in defence is going to be essential to finish in front on the scoreboard. He's skilful, can kick (field) goals and will play plenty of minutes, all extremely valuable commodities to have in one of your big blokes.
The Junior Kangaroos fullback and NYC star joins the senior squad in 2014 and the speedster gets a chance to showcase his wares at senior level in Auckland. Also able to play in the halves, where he told NRL.com he has been training for this tournament, Ahearn's pace and versatility could well light up the nine-a-side game.
Regarded as having the best all-round kicking game in the NRL, Mullen's ability to drop a bomb, cross-field kick, grubber or chip kick on the exact square metre of Eden Park turf that he is aiming for will put doubt in the minds of the defending team every time he has his hands on the ball. With such explosive targets in Akuila Uate, Dane Gagai and Jake Mamo, Mullen could spark an attacking kick from any point on the field and is highly unlikely to hand over possession cheaply. Did we mention that he has a great turn of foot and is pound-for-pound one of the strongest players at the Knights? The Knights are one of the more fancied chances this weekend and their 26-year-old five-eighth is a key reason why.
The prototype bustling, wide-running backrower, the Country Origin rep quickly made his mark following his 2012 debut and cemented a spot in the top grade. His angle running and stinging defence are sure to make him a central figure of the 'Dogs' campaign.
When Eto Nabuli was working in a Fijian resort little more than 12 months ago, he could never have imagined being thrust into the rugby league spotlight with two of the game's greatest ever players – Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns – staunchly in his corner. Now the Panthers winger has the prospect of playing against one of them! There are still a couple of rough edges to be smoothed out in Nabuli's game but you can be sure that whenever he is on the park this weekend something spectacular will happen. At close to two metres tall, weighing 103 kilograms and with speed to burn, Nabuli scored 30 tries in 26 NSW Cup games for Windsor last season including his side's only two tries in their grand final loss to the Sharks. It's going to be fun to watch.
Another member of the brigade of the hard-hitting young backrowers, Terepo showed in his 2013 breakout season he has a penchant for breaking through the line. His bustling angle runs led to several tries for his side last year and the same style should be even more valuable in Nines. With big men Fuifui Moioi and Pauli Pauli to do some hard yards in the middle, look for Terepo to divide his time between doing the grunt work and running those favoured wide angles of his when the Eels go on the attack.
Those outside of Redfern may consider that the loss of Nathan Peats leaves South Sydney short of back-up for star hooker Issac Luke but there are a couple of young guys waiting in the wings with vastly different styles of play. The education of under-20s captain Cameron McInnes will continue in Auckland but it is Apisai Koroisau who is best positioned to be Michael Maguire's No.2 No.9. A star in the NYC competition in 2012, 21-year-old Koroisau played a full season for North Sydney in the NSW Cup last year and went on to represent Fiji at the World Cup. Lightning fast out of dummy-half and with a show-and-go that confounds even his teammates, Koroisau is very much in the Issac Luke mould but without the bullish bump. He's also an accomplished goal-kicker and with no Adam Reynolds in Auckland, Koroisau could be the one expected to step up.
The Dragons' 2013 NYC skipper and NSW under-20s Origin representative is putting massive pressure on incumbent Mitch Rein at NRL level after playing two games in 2013. His dummy-half running will be crucial with extra space on the field and his robust defence is a bonus. Definitely one to watch.
When you have a YouTube clip that almost rivals the one showcasing the extraordinary touch football skills of Shaun Johnson, you are a player well and truly worth watching. In his first year in the under-20s competition last year, 18-year-old Lolohea scored 22 tries – including four against the Roosters in Week Two of the Finals Series – took his team all the way to the grand final and was named the club's NYC Player of the Year. Then last Sunday, less than two weeks after his 19th birthday, Lolohea scored two tries in the opening 22 minutes of an NRL trial against the Titans, further solidifying his status as a Warriors five-eighth of the future. Blessed with a blistering turn of speed and a step that could get him through a turnstile without even touching the bar, don't be surprised if the name 'Lolohea' is the one on everyone's lips when the first Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines draws to a close on Sunday night.