Cowboys dominate team of the Nines
There are four North Queensland Cowboys in the official nine-man team of the Auckland Nines - a team that tellingly includes five forwards and just four backs.
The tournament MVP Shaun Johnson was a certain selection after his dazzling displays in the group stages, but the fact five forwards made the side was an indication of the importance defence played at the Nines as well as the impact of men who are both big and mobile.
The full team of the tournament was:
1. Andrew McCullough (Broncos)
The Brisbane rake came into his own with the far quicker rucks and reduced marker defence of the Nines format, repeatedly dashing from dummy half to get sides rolling backwards while also defending stoutly. His dash from dummy half to score under the posts opened the scoring in his side's 18-14 semi-final win over Cronulla and epitomised the value he brought to the Broncos' efforts.
2. Shaun Johnson (Warriors)
Johnson's instinctive style and blinding pace seemed perfectly suited to the format before we got underway, and so it proved as four dazzling displays helped his side to be the only unbeaten team after the quarter finals. His four tries were all scored in the bonus 5-point zone and he was the only kicker to look vaguely comfortable with the drop goal conversions, landing 11 from 17 to be easily the tournament's top scorer with 42 points.
3. James Tamou (Cowboys)
The rangy Cowboys prop played big minutes and provided the perfect blend of size and mobility for a Cowboys pack that pressed hard in attack and defended stoutly when it needed to. His big runs and big fend regularly absorbed multiple defenders, creating time and space for the little men to run amok.
4. Dylan Walker (Rabbitohs)
The young Rabbitohs centre was generally best on field for Souths or close to it. He scored twice in the tournament but was repeatedly dangerous and highly involved in attack, putting himself in a position to take advantage of attacking kicks or running dangerous lines. Heartbreakingly, his final-minute try against the Warriors was planted instinctively just beside the posts, when his side desperately needed a 7-point bonus try to take the game into extra time. He ought to not let it mar what was an otherwise outstanding tournament.
5. Antonio Winterstein (Cowboys)
Playing in the centres or out on the wing, Winterstein played a classic style, taking advantage of the overlaps regularly created by his inside men to score three tries. He also made plenty of breaks and kept opposition on their toes with his charging runs.
6. Andrew Fifita (Sharks)
A man plenty of people had tipped to be a handful at the tournament lived up to his billing. The Cronulla prop seemed to be perpetually on the field, much like in the regular NRL, and his huge frame and massive fend regularly attracted multiple defenders and left them sprawled flat. This meant plenty of opportunities for his side's creative players. Defensively he was enormous, encapsulated by a sprint downfield shortly after being concussed against Brisbane in pursuit of a runaway Ben Hunt. He didn't stop the try but he turned a certain seven points into four in a close game that his side went on to win.
7. Kane Linnett (Cowboys)
The big Cowboys centre came into his own during the finals, where his size and robust defence was crucial in North Queensland repelling waves of side-to-side attack against the Warriors in particular. In attack he proved just as dangerous, with his line break sending Curtis Rona away for the match-winner in the final.
8. Gavin Cooper (Cowboys)
The Cowboys skipper typified the defensive resolve displayed by his side throughout the finals and was also a constant threat on the fringes. Left the final with a cut requiring several stitches to his cheekbone but you couldn't wipe the smile from his face as he cradled the tournament trophy.
9. Suaia Matagi (Warriors)
In a team of flashy fast-stepping backs, the direct and brutally unrelenting power up front made Matagi a key factor in the Warriors' emotion-charged run to the semi-finals. He also showed a handy step and a deft offload to create space for a try to Carlos Tuimavave and looks set for a big year in the Warriors forward pack.
Breakout Player of the Tournament: Kyle Feldt (Cowboys)
The young Cowboys winger must have gone within a whisker of making the overall team of the tournament. His five tries were an equal tournament high with Eel Semi Radradra, and he came within a whisker of a couple more. His stunning put-down with his whole body suspended outside the field of play was one of the tournament highlights and he is sure to light up the NRL in 2014.
Dick Smith gave competition winner Troy Sampson the chance to be an Auckland Nines reporter for the weekend. Check out Troy's experience from behind the scenes at dicksmith9s.com.