9 stars who made their name in the Nines
The 2016 Downer NRL Auckland Nines may only be the third edition of the two-day pre-season tournament but the competition has already produced its fair share of breakout stars.
Here are nine players who have grabbed the limelight – and kept it – in the first two tournaments.
The recent Manly Sea Eagles recruit was named in the 2014 Auckland Nines team of the tournament less than a year after making his NRL debut for South Sydney. The fleet-footed centre went on to play a starring role in the Rabbitohs' first premiership in 30 years, before earning a Kangaroos call-up at the end of the year.
Rona scored four tries including two in the tournament final to help the Cowboys to the inaugural Auckland Nines title in 2014 before making his NRL debut for the club. It turned out to be just a hint of the try-scoring feats to come for the winger, who joined the Bulldogs in 2015 and crossed for a whopping 23 four-pointers in his first season at the club.
The speedy outside back was the equal top try-scorer in the inaugural Nines tournament with five for the title-winning Cowboys, and was named Breakout Player of the Tournament. He may not have locked down a regular first grade spot in the NRL side after that but he did secure himself a place in Cowboys history by scoring a thrilling try in the dying moments of regular time in the 2015 NRL Grand Final, setting up a remarkable North Queensland victory.
The hulking Fijian winger scored five tries in the first Nines tournament – equal best with Feldt. At NRL level, the tries kept coming – Radradra ran in 19 tries in 24 games in 2014, then a stunning 24 tries from just 18 matches last season. He won the Dally M Winger of the Year award in both 2014 and 2015 and also became Fiji's first player to be named in the RLIF Team of the Year in 2015.
He made his first grade debut late in 2014 season, but it wasn't until the 2015 NRL Auckland Nines that Valentine Holmes truly emerged as a player to watch. Showed class and calmness under pressure on the big stage, first by laying on a crucial try for the Sharks in the tournament final then slotting a sideline drop-kick conversion to send the decider into extra-time. He went on to score 16 tries from 25 appearances in the 2015 NRL Telstra Premiership and was nominated for NRL Winger of the Year.
Hunt made his NRL debut back in 2009 and had been a star of the NYC before that, but went into the 2014 season having only just captured a starting spot with the Broncos late in the previous season. There were those who questioned his ability to step into the Brisbane halfback role but they needn't have worried – Hunt scored four tries to help guide his team to the inaugural Auckland Nines final, before starring in the NRL season to earn a call-up to the Kangaroos for the Four Nations at season's end. By the end of 2015 he had helped take the Broncos to an NRL Grand Final and established himself as one of the game's finest halves.
A barnstorming centre for the Warriors, Kata played in the inaugural 2014 tournament before scoring a hat-trick in the Holden Cup grand final that year – winning the Jack Gibson Medal as the player of the grand final. In 2015 he was named in the Auckland Nines Team of the Tournament, scoring four tries, before cementing his place in the Warriors first grade side and Tonga's international team and was one of the top contenders for last year's Rookie of the Year award.
Fans got their first look at last season's Dally M Rookie of the Year at the 2015 Auckland Nines, when Bird scored four tries and was generally a handful for defences all tournament. He helped Cronulla exceed expectations and reach the tournament final, before starring for the Sharks in the top grade (and becoming the most popular player in NRL Fantasy) during the regular season.
The rookie Rabbitoh scored an intercept try in the 2015 final as South Sydney followed up their 2014 NRL premiership with an Auckland Nines title, and that was just a taste of things to come. He scored in his first appearance for the Indigenous All Stars a fortnight later, then performed well enough in the 2015 season to earn a contract extension at Souths and then a two-year deal with Penrith starting 2017.
Follow the 2016 Downer Auckland Nines on NRL.com on February 6 and 7 for your chance to spot rugby league’s next rising stars.