The North Queensland Cowboys are looking forward to the relaxed atmosphere at the Downer NRL Auckland Nines competition this weekend, having named a host of stars including Johnathan Thurston and young talent Kalyn Ponga.
The inclusion of Thurston in the squad – along with fellow international Jason Taumalolo and Michael Morgan – has made the Cowboys favourites to win the competition for the second time since the tournament's inception in 2014.
The club's Nines captain Gavin Cooper said he was looking forward to the first competitive event of the year, and seeing the club's young guns in action.
"It's an exciting weekend, it's a little bit different, obviously not the pressure of week-in week-out footy but it's fun, you don't want to lose and we'll be over there giving our best," Cooper said.
"There's a couple of guys in there that I'm really excited to see. The boys have really been putting in at training and really deserve their spot at the team this weekend.
"Running around on a paddock in front of 50,000 fans in New Zealand is going to be a good eye opener for them and a little bit of a look into the future if they can make that crack into NRL."
The second-rower was also excited to see boom rookie Ponga in the Nines format, but didn't want to place undue pressure on the recent NRL debutant.
"There's not as much space as everyone seems to think there is, but KP (Kalyn Ponga) can turn someone inside out in two metres, so we'll wait and see what he can do."
The Cowboys are in the Hanua Pool and will take on the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Sydney Roosters and the Canberra Raiders in the group stage of the tournament.