Auckland Nines: Day 1 complete wrap
The North Queensland Cowboys confirmed themselves as tournament favourites with a pair of commanding victories, while the hometown New Zealand Warriors crashed out of finals contention on day one of the 2017 Downer NRL Auckland Nines.
The representative-laden Cowboys scored a combined 62 points in their opening two games, as they flew past the Roosters 27-15 and Raiders 35-6 to book their spot in the quarter-finals.
North Queensland's 20-year-old flyer Gideon Gela-Mosby tops the try-scoring charts, alongside Brisbane's Jordan Kahu, with five tries, while fellow Cowboys Holden Cup graduate Kalyn Ponga also stood out.
Ponga grabbed three tries and played a leading hand in several others for North Queensland, causing havoc for opposing defences in combination with Johnathan Thurston, who was full of praise for the 18-year-old.
"We know what [Ponga] can do so it's just about giving him those opportunities where he can use his speed and his feet. Hopefully as the tournament goes on we get better at doing it," Thurston said.
The Parramatta Eels join North Queensland as the team to beat after the first two rounds of matches, picking up victories over the Dragons (32-11) and Warriors (17-0) to sit atop of the Piha Pool, with their spot in the next round already confirmed.
Playmaker Corey Norman and outside backs Bevan French and Semi Radradra all carried over the form which saw them included in the 2016 Team of the Tournament, as the Eels made a positive start on their journey to reclaim the title that was stripped from them last year following salary cap breaches.
The Waiheke Pool has its two confirmed qualifiers in the Titans and Panthers, while the Broncos are the sixth team confirmed for the knock-out stages.
In the Rangitoto group the Storm will require a win over the Knights when they meet in game 22 on Sunday, while a win or draw will see Newcastle through.
The Roosters are in the same boat in Hunua, with a commanding four-and-against advantage over Canberra meaning they require only a draw against the Raiders when they meet on day two.
At the other end of the spectrum the Warriors collapsed to their worst ever finish at the Nines, with consecutive losses to Manly (15-11) and Parramatta (17-0) sealing their fate.
Their plight wasn't helped by the absence of star halfback Shaun Johnson, who sat out both games with a groin injury.
It remains unclear if the 2014 Player of the Tournament will feature in the Warriors' final match against the Dragons on day two.
Assistant coach Steve McNamara did his best to look at the positives post-match.
"I think the silver lining is that some of the younger players have had some valuable experience," McNamara said.
"They've had to learn some harsh lessons in that second game in particular, and I think that's the biggest lesson for our players."
New Zealand weren't the only ones to have their tournament hopes dashed on the opening day, with the Dragons, Rabbitohs, Wests Tigers, Sharks and Bulldogs all out of the play-off equation as well.
In other injury news, Benji Marshall found himself in the wars in his debut outing for the Broncos, requiring stitches for a mouth cut in the first game and leaving the second with Achilles tendonitis.
South Sydney back Aaron Gray left Eden Park in a leg brace, Sea Eagle Dylan Walker has a calf complaint and Kiwi Ferns veteran Kahurangi Peters is awaiting news on how serious her Achilles injury is.
The Jillaroos took the early advantage in their three-match Test series against the Kiwi Ferns at the Downer NRL Auckland Nines, recording a convincing 20-4 victory in the first women's match of the tournament.