For the first time in more than 20 years, rugby league nines will pit nation against nation as the best in the world descend on western Sydney. NRL.com has picked out nine players to watch when action kicks off on October 18.
Australia – Mitch Moses
Take your pick. Plenty of punters are salivating at the thought of fleet-footed Knights star Kalyn Ponga in open space. Others can't wait to see what Broncos wrecking ball David Fifita can do against a reduced defensive line. Storm speedster Ryan Papenhuyzen can barely be stopped by 13 men and livewire Bunny Cody Walker is capable of anything. We've opted for in-from Eels half Mitch Moses, whose attack-first mindset bolstered by the full arsenal of attacking skills could light up Bankwest Stadium next weekend. Moses topped the NRL for try assists this year with 25 in 26 games, has one of the best short and long kicking games going, is one of the best running halves in the tournament and has a bullet cut-out pass that should cause havoc.
New Zealand – Shaun Johnson
Again there are a host of stars to choose from but how can you go past Sharks star Shaun Johnson? The decorated Kiwi playmaker ran amok at the Auckland Nines every time he suited up for the Warriors with his huge goose step and towering boot bringing the Auckland crowd to its feet whenever he touched the ball. Johnson knows what the Nines is all about and that alone makes him a huge threat.
England – Gareth Widdop
One big plus of this tournament is the overseas talent it will bring to Australian shores. Leeds flyer Ash Handley has scored a bag of tries this year while Aussie fans may remember Jermaine McGillvary being near unstoppable in the 2017 World Cup. For a familiar face though look no further than recently departed Dragons skipper Gareth Widdop. Competent in the halves or at fullback with a damaging running game and well-rounded arsenal of passes and kicks plus a wealth of leadership qualities, Widdop will be pulling the strings for England in this tournament alongside Raiders-bound playmaker George Williams.
Tonga – Tevita Pangai jnr
Tonga's strength remains their forward pack, even in the reduced format, and big men like Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo will be just as hard to handle as in 13-a-side. But young Bronco Tevita Pangai jnr shapes as the total package for Nines footy – capable of playing edge or middle with some serious ball-playing and offloading skill. If Pangai winds up on an edge and gets those arms free when he runs the ball, the Tongan outside men could have a field day.
Samoa – Luciano Leilua
One thing that became apparent through the years the Auckland Nines was running is that it wasn't just the fleet-footed backs that were important – a player that could run and tackle like a forward but with some passing and offloading ability was almost more valuable.
Toa Samoa's Leilua brothers are both X-factor players and their captain believes the younger of the two will be a major strike weapon.
"The one I'm excited to see is not so much but what our backs can do but our second rowers and the bigger guys, seeing them in open space. I think you'll see a lot of free flowing footy and a lot of throwing the ball around," Samoa skipper Anthony Miford told NRL.com.
"One guy I'm looking forward to seeing if he does make the team is Luciano [Leilua], he's real skilful with the ball and he's got real silky hands as well."
Papua New Guinea – Justin Olam
PNG have an interesting team with some talented players and a clear focus on hard running. Former Bulldog Rhyse Martin and young Roosters flyer Bernard Lewis (who is yet to make his NRL debut but lit up the Auckland Nines two years ago) will definitely be ones to watch. But for an in-form NRL star, the Kumuls will be leaning heavily on breakout Storm centre Justin Olam. Olam started the season behind stars Will Chambers and Curtis Scott and finished it top of the centre pecking order at Melbourne with his tough carries and reliable defence a huge asset in their minor premiership run.
Fiji – Maika Sivo
A league-topping 22 tries in 25 games tells only a small part of the story. Sivo was a revelation for the Eels this season, like a freight train winding up on the left flank with one of the most devastating fends in the NRL. Talented footy players growing up in Fiji get plenty of exposure to the rugby sevens style of footy and a ball runner this hard to bring down will be a huge threat in the reduced format.
USA – Ronaldo Mulitalo
Young Sharks winger Mulitalo made massive strides in his debut NRL season at Cronulla and in a squad short on NRL experience he will be a key man. The 6'2" flyer had a tough outing in his round seven debut and wasn't sighted again until round 18 but made every post a winner from that point with five tries and four wins in his final six games. Toronto Wolfpack forward Joe Eichner had another couple of names to watch when he spoke at the Nines launch in Sydney recently, nominating a pair of former Eels lower-graders.
"Bureta Faraimo is an absolute gun and has been killing it in Super League this year, so he'll be a really exciting one to watch," Eichner said.
"Ryan Burroughs is another, a domestic-born American who's a really exciting player. He's really quick on his feet. Both those guys you should keep your eyes on."
Cook Islands – Alex Glenn
While it's a bit of a shame the likes of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Esan Marsters won't be involved, the Kukis still have some quality players running around, not least Brisbane forward Alex Glenn. Glenn had an underrated season at the up-and-down Broncos, playing well in the forwards and filling in in the backs when asked. His leadership and experience will be as important as his on-field contributions.
"The thing with Nines, it's not very structured so you can't really train too much for it," Glenn told NRL.com.
"It's pretty much go out there, throw the ball around and see what you can do. There's going to be a lot of individual talent out there as well as team efforts, it's going to be amazing for our style of play.
"We have a lot of footwork, a lot of speed and explosiveness which will really suit Pacific Nations football."
For ticket and travel packages for the Downer Rugby League World Cup 9s Sydney 2019, head to nrl.com/tickets.