There's no shortage of reasons to be excited about the fourth instalment of the Downer NRL Auckland Nines this weekend (footy is back!) but one key reason is to get a first look at some big-name players in their first hit-out in new colours. There were dozens and dozens to choose from but here are the Nine that we're most excited about.
9. Paul Carter – Roosters (from Rabbitohs)
It's getting close to 'last chance saloon' time for talented lock Carter after being dismissed from two clubs already in his relatively young career. The Roosters have tossed a lifeline to the 24-year-old former Rabbitoh and Titan and it's a deal that could potentially benefit both parties hugely, given the impact Carter can make on his day. Roosters fans could well be both nervous and excited ahead of Carter's arrival but will no doubt be eager to see what he brings in his first hit-out in the Tricolours jersey.
8. Akuila Uate – Sea Eagles (from Knights)
It's easy to take pot-shots at Uate after a couple of lacklustre seasons but he took out a hat-trick of Dally M winger of the year nods from 2010-2012 and at 29 should still have a few good years in him. And Manly will need him to – assuming backline stars Brett Stewart and Steve Matai have played their last games for the club, the Sea Eagles' outside backs stocks start to look pretty skinny, especially in terms of experience. To expect him to reclaim the form that saw him rack up five Tests for Australia and five Origins for NSW may be a long shot but this weekend – one which tends to favour speedy and evasive wingers – will give a good indication of where he's at.
7. Daniel Vidot – Titans (from Salford)
Former Broncos, Dragons and Raiders flanker Vidot dropped off the radar last year after departing the NRL for Salford then eyeing off a career switch into pro wrestling but those plans are now on hold as he tends to unfinished business back in the NRL. It wasn't that long ago (2014, to be precise) that the Broncos metre-eater was the third-top yardage man in the competition behind only prolific pairing Sam Burgess and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, with 4,222 in 23 games. Big and strong enough to be able to play prop at reserve-grade level, the Samoa international could prove an astute pick-up for Neil Henry's team. He will get every chance to show off his relentless running game in the open spaces of Nines.
6. Cam McInnes – Dragons (from Rabbitohs)
A reshuffled Dragons team will look very different – particularly in attack – in 2017, courtesy of the departures of half Benji Marshall and hooker Mitch Rein. Former Souths rake McInnes will have a huge role to play in the re-jigged structures and Red V fans would love to see a promising outing from the super-fit 22-year-old this weekend.
5. Nathan Brown – Eels (from Rabbitohs)
Burly young Rabbitohs prop Brown enjoyed some serious breakout games in 2016. To come off the field having lined up alongside a couple of Burgess brothers and have expert pundits name you as the best forward on the park is nothing to be sneezed at but Brown almost made a habit of it last year. The sudden retirement of Danny Wicks certainly left the Eels in the market for a prop and they got one of the best in the game. Brown's belligerent aggressiveness has certainly drawn the ire of rival fans in his young career to date but it's that kind of madness coaches want from their big men. Look for Brown to make a big dent in opposition Nines squads this weekend.
4. Josh Addo-Carr – Storm (from Wests Tigers)
The increased open space of Nines should be perfect for a lanky speed demon like Addo-Carr, who shapes as the perfect replacement to departed Storm flanker Marika Koroibete. The pacey 21-year-old topped 1,000 running metres in just nine top-grade games in 2016, scoring a try on debut and finishing with six overall. The loss of Koroibete shaped as a big one for the Storm but if Addo-Carr can hit the ground running, Melbourne fans won't be ruing the loss of Koroibete for long.
3. Jamie Buhrer – Knights (from Sea Eagles)
The howls of dismay from Manly fans at the news this long-serving, popular and hard-working back-rower was being shipped north to Steel City could be heard as far north as Buhrer's new home of Newcastle when the deal was announced last year. And with good reason – Buhrer was consistently among Manly's best when he shook off injury mid-way through last season. His consistency and leadership will be vital assets to a very inexperienced Newcastle team looking to avoid a third straight wooden spoon. Plus the skilful utility forward is perfectly suited to the Nines format.
2. Benji Marshall – Broncos (from Dragons)
Right now it is still far from clear what role – if any – Broncos coach Wayne Bennett has in mind for one-time Golden Boot winner Marshall in Brisbane's 2017 premiership campaign. They have a set halves pairing which has led to speculation he may be used off the bench – in which case he would need to cover dummy half – or in the centres. How he plays in Auckland may give the best clue yet what Bennett has in mind. And while the 'vintage' Benji has been increasingly harder to spot in recent seasons, at his best the big-stepping livewire Kiwi would almost have been the archetypal Nines player. Could a big weekend spark a return to something like that form?
1. James Tamou – Panthers (from Cowboys)
Blues and Kangaroos prop Tamou is a massive signing – literally and figuratively – for a club that has strength and depth in every position but probably needed one experienced high-quality prop to add to their 2016 roster. One of just a handful of big names in a largely inexperienced squad, the leadership credentials that were a part of the reason for Tamou's signing will get an early workout. Plus, in a format of the game that has shown defence and big men still have a crucial role to play, a big, mobile prop with a big motor who can offload and is hard to bring down is perfectly suited.