Auckland Nines Day 2: Five key points
Young guns rise to the occasion, injuries hinder tournament stars, and the Jillaroos create history. The key points of discussion to come from the second and final day of the 2017 Downer NRL Auckland Nines tournament.
Coming out party for generation next
Recognised first graders were hard to find when the Panthers, Roosters and Storm unveiled their squads for the fourth edition of the 2017 Downer NRL Auckland Nines yet by Sunday afternoon, their groups of enthusiastic youngsters had all qualified for the semi-finals.
The Panthers had to go to golden try to get past Manly in the quarter-finals while the Roosters and Storm knocked out the more fancied Broncos and Cowboys respectively before meeting in the semi-finals where the Roosters progressed to the final.
In a format that thrives on energy the young squads with seemingly a point to prove out-enthused their opposition who might have one eye on the start of the Telstra Premiership in less than a month's time.
The likes of Dylan Edwards, Tyrone May, Jed Cartwright and Moses Leota played prominent roles for the Panthers; Latrell Mitchell, Connor Watson and Chris Smith excelled for the Roosters; and in the Storm role players such as Kenny Bromwich, Tim Glasby and Felise Kaufusi combined with outstanding prospects such as Curtis Scott, Brodie Croft and Joe Stimson.
High profile withdrawals hurt finals hopefuls
Shaun Johnson never got on the turf at Eden Park, Jarryd Hayne was given Sunday off for a precautionary knee complaint while Corey Norman's hamstring kept him out of the semi-finals and the Warriors, Titans and Eels all suffered accordingly.
While it was a weekend for the game's emerging stars to shine brightest, Johnson's absence took the wind out of the Warriors and their fans while the Titans dropped their final pool game against the Panthers and their quarter-final against the Eels without Hayne in their side.
The Eels were running rampant with Norman at the helm and a defence that refused to crack but when their talisman was unavailable against Penrith in the semis, his teammates couldn't get a point on the board.
We will remember the 2017 Nines for the emergence of future stars but there's no question the concept needs the involvement of the game's elite to inject expectation and atmosphere into the stadium.
Casualty ward kept to a minimum
It's often the barometer for coaches in pre-season as to whether a game has been a success or not and there were only a few injuries reported likely to have ramifications for the start of the Telstra Premiership.
Rabbitohs centre Aaron Gray looks to have suffered a knee injury that could see him miss the start of the season while the knee injury that prevented Jarryd Hayne from taking any part on day two will also keep him out of Friday's All Stars game.
Warriors assistant coach Steve McNamara is confident that if Shaun Johnson is not fit to play the Storm on the Sunshine Coast next weekend he will play the trial against the Titans a week later and Cowboys youngster Shaun Hudson left Eden Park in a moon boot after also suffering a leg injury.
The most serious injuries came in the women's series where Kahurangi Peters underwent surgery on Sunday for the ruptured Achilles she suffered in Saturday's opening game, Krystal Rota suffered a broken hand and reigning Dally M Female Player of the Year Kezie Apps was headed for x-rays on Sunday night after suffering a lower leg injury that will definitely stop her from playing in the Women's All Stars match on Friday.
Jillaroos break new ground in New Zealand
With an 8-0 victory in the second game of their NRL Nines series against the Kiwi Ferns, the Jillaroos not only won their first Auckland Nines series but recorded their first victory on New Zealand soil.
Described as a "scrappy" performance from coach Brad Donald, tries to Chelsea Baker and Sam Bremner were enough to wrap up the series after their convincing win on day one and they went on to complete a clean sweep with a 14-4 victory in the third and final game.
In reality the Kiwi Ferns struggled to trouble the noticeably fitter and faster Jillaroos outfit , scoring just two tries across the three games, both of which came from close range.
With halves Maddie Studdon and Ali Brigginshaw in control the Jillaroos played an exciting brand with Chelsea Baker named the series MVP for her four tries on the wing.
"We've worked really hard on what's driving them to do well and with the game at such an important part in history they're all really proud of their performances. It wasn't too hard to get them motivated," said coach Brad Donald.
"The Kiwi Ferns are always strong and always powerful and they've had on the wood on us a fair bit so we just wanted to get the first one out of the way and then the second one so we hadn't really talked about records or anything."
Karina Brown had the honour of leading the Jillaroos in the second match where they sealed the series win and said it reflected another important moment in the growth of the game in Australia.
"I'm super proud. I can't believe that I was chosen, I feel very privileged that the coaches chose me," said Brown, who shared the captaincy duties across the weekend with Renae Kunst and Sam Bremner.
"We knew we could win the last few years we just haven't put it on the paddock. But we've worked really hard in the off-season on a lot of fitness and it just showed. We came here to run and that's what we've done.
"Our coaches just reminded us last night that the job wasn't done and to stay grounded and humble. We were in the position last year and we got done so we just really stayed focused. We knew we could do it, we just had to execute and stay calm and it showed."
Nines create welcome headaches for the season proper
With less than a month to go until the Telstra Premiership kicks off, most NRL coaches would have thought they had their final squads set in stone. But for the majority of teams, this weekend's action in Auckland has thrown a spanner in the works.
Take the Storm for example. Cameron Munster was widely tipped to partner Cooper Cronk in the halves; that was until Brodie Croft played a starring role to earn a spot in the Nines Team of the Tournament. While Munster also made that squad, Storm coach Craig Bellamy now has to re-evaluate who he goes with against the Bulldogs in Round 1.
Connor Watson told NRL.com earlier in the week that he would happily take on the utility role for the Roosters this season to accommodate new recruit Luke Keary. But after being named the finals MVP and dominating the tournament as a whole, he must be a strong chance to wear the No.6 jersey.
Any number of Penrith's highly-gifted youngsters did their chances of earning a first grade jersey no harm with stellar showings in Auckland. Potential NRL players Waqa Blake and Moses Leota both made the Team of the Tournament while uncapped rookie Tyrone May looked at home against more experienced rivals. Then there's Dylan Edwards who has firmed as a replacement for Josh Mansour on the wing after starring in both attack and defence.