Nines helped kick-start my career: French
This time last year Bevan French was a relatively unknown outside back touted for his blistering speed and ability to find the try line.
Fast forward 12 months and the Eels flyer is a household name in the NRL and ready to defend his mantle as the Auckland Nines' leading try-scorer after his haul of eight tries in the 2016 edition.
"This is where everything really started for me," the try-scoring machine told NRL.com at a community club visit in Manurewa.
"I saw it as an opportunity to get my name out there a bit. To get across the line as many times as I did, I think there was a bit of luck on my side so it was a bit of a blessing.
"There's a bit of space in the Nines so it's a big advantage for little guys like myself. I never thought I'd be where I am now."
Last year's Nines tournament wasn't the only time French took a liking to New Zealand conditions, with the electrifying outside back touching down for a hat-trick in Parramatta's Round 26 win over the Warriors.
"I don't know what it is about this place but I seem to get a few tries whenever I play here. Hopefully I can have the same luck this weekend," he said.
"There's a good vibe already and I'm really glad to be back. I can't wait to get on the park this weekend and throw the ball around and have a bit of fun."
Still only 21, French wanted this year's crop of Nines rookies to make the most of the weekend just like he did 12 months ago because the end result can be something special.
"It is a bit of fun where you can chuck the footy around, but for someone who hasn't played NRL yet, this tournament is a big stepping stone in their career," he said.
"They should make the most of the opportunity and grab it with both hands because it's only a short weekend so you've got to make the most of it."
Having gone all the way last season – only to have the trophy stripped for salary cap breaches – French said the Eels would be let off the leash in a bid to make it back-to-back grand final victories in the nine-a-side tournament.
And while they've named a squad brimming with attacking class, French said defence would ultimately dictate how the blue and golds performed.
"We've come over with the same game plan so you can expect the same sort of tactics this weekend. We've come here to go back-to-back," he said.
"We know that we've got the strike power across the park to score plenty of points but it's our attitude in defence and our willingness to turn up for each other that will be the most important thing this weekend."
The Eels are in Piha Pool with the Dragons, Sea Eagles and Warriors.