NRL stars desperate to play Nines
Some of the NRL's biggest stars are hoping to feature in the second edition of the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines – none more so that South Sydney's Kiwi hooker Issac Luke who was bitterly disappointed to miss the inaugural tournament.
The 27-year-old's 2014 was bookended in disappointment: After cutting a despondent figure as he sat out the weekend in Auckland in February 2014, he missed his club's drought-breaking premiership win in October due to suspension.
The Hawera Hawks junior at least was able to raise the Four Nations trophy with his Kiwi teammates in November but now has his sights firmly set on a return to his native New Zealand on January 31.
Luke failed to convince South Sydney coach Michael Maguire that he should play the 2014 tournament after returning from World Cup duty but has revealed he'll be trying even harder this time to state his case after coming off a successful Four Nations campaign.
"I'll be hammering the coach! I'll be hammering him every day – I just want to be a part of it," Luke told NRL.com.
"From today, I'll be texting him every day."
Luke isn't due back at pre-season training until after Christmas due to an extended break following the Four Nations so will have to rely on harassing Maguire by phone for a chance to play, rather than in person, until then.
Luke flew himself over last year and said he loved the atmosphere of the weekend and catching up with friends and family in New Zealand.
"I came back from the World Cup then went over there and it was awesome, it'd be good to be part of," he said.
Another who sat out the first tournament who is hoping for a run in 2015 is Roosters five-eighth James Maloney.
"I think I will be going over, I'm pretty confident of that. I'm looking forward to it," Maloney said as all 16 teams unveiled their Nines playing strips, including the Storm and Wests Tigers' sleeveless numbers.
"Watching it from afar last year – the whole concept, the environment and atmosphere last year seemed like a bit of a buzz. You can have a little bit more fun, you can try a few new things out and have a play with it. It's great – I think the biggest concern will be the old fitness so we'll see how we go with that!"
Maloney, whose kicking game could be an asset in the reduced format, said it's still not clear what the best style of play is for the Nines.
"I suppose it's hard to defend when people are chipping and chasing and doing things early. It's definitely hard, I'm not 100 per cent sure what is the best style to play – I don't think anyone is yet," he said.
"I think there were a few mixes last year and it was a bit hit and miss. I'm sure people will go over with different ideas this year. I'm not 100 per cent sure what the right mix is but we'll get over there and have a bit of fun and see what we can do."
Storm utility Ryan Hinchcliffe is another who sat out in 2014 and is hoping for a run.
"I think it was a great event – the boys that came back said it was a really well-run event, everything was looked after and structured really well and just from a spectator point of view it was exciting," Hinchcliffe told NRL.com.
"It was obviously a different way of watching footy to what we're used to watching. Hopefully this year I can go over and play and have a bit of fun."
Hinchcliffe also said it's still unclear what the best approach is.
"Do you just stick to your traditional 13-man game, concentrate on your defence, holding on to the ball and play a safe game or do you play an erratic game and take your chances? I think it's still a bit up in the air but probably a combination of both," he said.
"I think that's part of the fun of it – some teams will play a different style to others and hopefully the fans enjoy.
"I think the Cowboys defended really well last year and they ended up winning the competition. At the same time you need a little bit of flash on top of that."
Warriors recruit Bodene Thompson played the inaugural tournament with Wests Tigers but is hoping to experience the buzz of a home crowd this time around having made a late switch in the off-season.
"Every time the Warriors ran out there was a crazy roar, they really got behind the Warriors last year," Thompson said.
"They got to the semis but then got crunched in the semis so we'll be looking to go one step further and make it to the final this year. It'll be good though, it'll be fun to play.
"All the forwards we've got are crazy fast with all the skills, powerful and strong, and 'SJ' (Shaun Johnson) setting everything up. It's definitely the type of game we want to play in and we're looking forward to it."
Knights centre Dane Gagai, on the comeback trail from a hamstring injury, said the second edition should be every bit as exciting as the first.
"I want to be a part of our Nines squad because it's a great competition and a great atmosphere," he said.
"The crowd were outstanding and all the costumes and everyone was enjoying the party-like atmosphere and having a good time watching us all play some good footy.
"After last year being a part of it you know now that every club has a lot to bring – there was a lot of speed, strength and open space – but obviously the team to beat are the Cowboys.
"The Warriors had a good run over there too but I’m pretty excited to play against the reigning champions and hopefully being able to bring that shield home with us."