Auckland Nines: 9 Things We Learned
1. Nines does not need a plethora of stars
Fears that a low volume of superstars would hold back the tournament proved unfounded, with the squads really turning it on via a combination of emerging talent, some journeymen and a smattering of marquee players. Sure there was no Sonny Bill Williams, Johnathan Thurston, Sam (or any) Burgess or Jamie Lyon. But for every Shaun Johnson, James Tamou or Josh Dugan who got the crowd on their feet whenever they got near the Steeden, a Sam Tagataese, Fuifui Moimoi or Willie Mason generated a heap of excitement, too. Chuck in the enthusiasm and precocious skills of youngsters like Kyle Feldt, Semi Radradra, Valentine Holmes, Jake Mamo, Kodi Nikorima and Solomone Kata and it was a recipe for success.
2. Business as usual when it comes to early injuries
It's same old, same old for some teams who will need to make contingency plans in key positions for the opening rounds of the NRL season following some bad luck with injuries at the Nines. The Cowboys find themselves in a similar position to one they've experienced a couple of times over the past few years when Matt Bowen was on their books, needing to find a fill-in fullback now that Bowen's replacement Lachlan Coote is gone for at least six months with an ACL injury. At Souths, Michael Maguire is resigned to slotting John Sutton back at five-eighth following the shoulder injury sustained by livewire Luke Keary, while the Sharks and Knights have some nervous weeks ahead monitoring hamstring victims Todd Carney and Jarrod Mullen.
3. Defence always wins out over attack
As the Warriors ran riot to win their opening four games, fans doubted whether there was a team capable of repelling their dynamic attack. Indeed, in the pool rounds no team scored more than their 72 points. Then the Cowboys - the team that missed the sixth-most tackles in the NRL in 2013 - stopped them dead in their tracks (8-zip) with a defensive display the equal of anything we've seen in the better-structured 13-man format. There's a lesson to be learned there for the Nines in 2015. And it doesn't mean the event will lose anything as a spectacle, because those displays of try-line heroics were more entertaining than the dropsy-fests some of the other games developed into.
4. Time to rethink line-up strategy
Further to the above point, it's no surprise the official Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines Team of the Tournament comprised five forwards and four backs. Most teams started their games with the opposite. The Final? Both the Cowboys and Broncos started the game with five forwards and four backs.
5. Teams need to practice their drop-kicks
Several games went try-for-try, with the final scoreline dependent on how many conversion attempts got the flags-up from the touchies. There was also a swag of unmitigated shockers that could not be dismissed the way Noel Cleal's air swing in the mud in Origin in 1984 could be dismissed. Like Kodi Nikorima's dig-me-a-hole-and-let-me-climb-in-it moment, skewing his drop-kick conversion attempt against the Eels from the right sideline 15 metres infield and hitting injured opponent Willie Tonga who was receiving treatment from a trainer. You can't script that stuff. After the laughter dies down though you can bet the coaches will be scheduling plenty of practice drills over the 2014-15 summer
6. Stop moaning about the Video Referee
It was glossed over but there were plenty of mistakes made by the officials in the Nines. And why wouldn't there have been, given the pace of play and the fact the refs and touchies were operating without back-up technology including video replays and a video ref? It didn't matter. Everyone was okay with it, which is fine and certainly in keeping with the spirit of the event. But if that were the NRL over 30 weeks of gut-wrenching and game-changing calls, you can bet there'd be a massive outcry from disgruntled fans. Hence, let's take some time to consider just how valuable the video ref is in the broader scheme of the NRL Telstra Premiership.
7. Four games on one day is too many
We're in Broncos coach Anthony Griffin's corner on this one. Finalists Brisbane and North Queensland were the only teams to play four games on Day 2 and even though no serious injuries occurred during the decider if you were a fan of either team you would have had all fingers crossed that you weren't about to lose a playmaker to a hamstring tear... or worse. Even the hour's break between the Semi-Finals and the Final appeared to be counterproductive - would it have been in the players' interests to take to the field sooner rather than later following their Final qualifier?
8. Momentum and luck were key
The Warriors won their opening four games. They beat the Cowboys 28-23 in their final pool game on Sunday. But they didn't even get to the Final. Meanwhile the Cowboys won just one pool game and only progressed to the final eight when the lowly Raiders (metaphorically speaking in a Nines sense) created a boil-over with an 18-4 upset of the Sea Eagles in their final pool game. Then they took their chance. What's the saying? You make your own luck...
And while we're on the subject of luck, it's worth noting that momentum was arguably an even more important factor in Nines than it is in the NRL competition. When one side got on a roll they tended to dominate. With the scoring team taking the restart there were a spate of successful short kick-offs, meaning the dominant team regained possession. This may have been a factor in why the Warriors looked so devastating in their early games but never really got going when the Cowboys' defence held firm.
9. Hamstrings loom as a Nines curse
Todd Carney, Jarrod Mullen and Kyle Feldt were the documented victims, but we're certain there were plenty of other NRL stars feeling the backs of their thighs after the tournament. And why wouldn't they, given the format demanded they pretty much accelerated from zero to 100 km/h in less than six seconds. Warm-ups aside, there was no time to ease into the game. And no time to take a breather on the edges in between possessions. It was 90 metres left, 90 metres right, 90 metres left again. And repeat. Great to watch; but little wonder we saw Mullen drop like his battery had just run out.