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From Nines to NRL: The stars unearthed over four years at Auckland

Nines football returned to the rugby league scene in 2014 after a 10-year hiatus with the four years of Auckland Nines unveiling some superstars and creating lasting memories.

After another two-year break in 2018-19, the club Nines are back, in Perth this time, and as we look ahead to the start of the 2020 action NRL.com has taken a look back at the four fast and furious years of the Auckland Nines.

The format

Rugby league Sevens and Nines had been around in some form for decades, and on a regular basis since the annual Rugby League World Sevens were introduced in 1988.

The format was revamped in 2016 though with nine-a-side teams playing nine-minute halves with unlimited interchanges allowed. Sets of six were reduced to five tackles, goals were all taken via drop-goal, bonus zone tries (tries scored in the area between the posts) were worth an additional point.

There were also faster restarts and fewer scrums, which were contested by five players from each side rather than six.

The best moments from the Auckland Nines

The festival

Rather than waste a golden chance with all 16 NRL clubs in Auckland at the same time, the NRL and clubs turned each Nines weekend into a festival of footy from the Wednesday or Thursday.

Each club attended a local school for a signing session and open training session. There were fan days in Auckland's Aotea Square with activities, photo opportunities, on-stage player interviews and more.

The stars unearthed

Kyle Feldt

The little-known Cowboys winger had just three NRL caps to his name when he lit up the inaugural Nines with a tournament-high five tries, including a breathtaking effort suspended over the sideline before going on to forge a successful first-grade career – which included scoring the level-up try in the 2015 grand final win and a spot in Australia's 2019 World Cup Nines-winning squad.

Kyle Feldt at the Auckland Nines in 2014.
Kyle Feldt at the Auckland Nines in 2014. ©NRL Photos

Semi Radradra

The powerful Fijian's seven NRL caps in 2013 were most notable for his rawness and seeming lack of familiarity with the rules and nuances of rugby league. A blockbusting 2014 Nines campaign with five tries – co-leader with Feldt – led to a dominant four seasons with the Eels, including the club season try-scoring record in 2015 and one Kangaroos cap, before taking a big offer from French rugby.

Valentine Holmes

Young Sharks winger Val Holmes had just six NRL caps to his name when he lit up the 2015 Auckland Nines. He capped a fine weekend with a stunning effort in the final, scoring one try then setting up the equaliser right on full-time.

The catch was, Holmes still needed to slot the field-goal conversion from the sideline to send the match to extra-time. The youngster iced the seemingly impossible shot and while Souths eventually triumphed, a future Kangaroos and Maroons star was born.

Jack Bird

For the same club over the same weekend, Holmes's teammate Jack Bird also stamped himself as a star of the future. His four tries made him the joint top try-scorer for the weekend, including one in the final to force extra-time.

Bird debuted in round four that season and immediately stamped himself as an NRL calibre starting player before going on to win a premiership alongside Holmes in 2016 and represent NSW.

Solomone Kata

Warriors under-20s star Kata was impressive in the 2014 Nines and one year later, still in the NYC and yet to make his NRL debut, Kata again starred with a tournament-high four tries and a team of the tournament nod.

A five-year NRL career and 11 Tests for Tonga and New Zealand followed before his eventual departure to rugby.

Solomone Kata in action for the Warriors at the 2015 Auckland Nines.
Solomone Kata in action for the Warriors at the 2015 Auckland Nines. ©NRL Photos

Latrell Mitchell

Coming off some powerful performances in under-20s for the Roosters and NSW, Mitchell hit the 2016 Auckland Nines at full pace. He scored four tries in his three games, including a memorable 100-metre gallop against the Storm.

He made his NRL debut a few weeks later in round one and, while that season was a struggle for the Roosters, Mitchell quickly earned higher honours and within a couple of years was regarded as the best centre in the game.

Bevan French

The same weekend Mitchell dominated, then-uncapped Eels winger Bevan French proved himself perfectly suited to the Nines format with his speed and evasiveness helping him to an unheard-of eight tries – the most ever in a Nines tournament – and a team of the tournament position.

When French was finally handed his debut in the middle of 2016, he exploded with 19 tries in 13 games. While things didn't exactly pan out for French at the Eels, the Tingha product is currently starring in the Super League for heavyweights Wigan.

The injuries

Injuries are inevitable. They can happen in a grand final or in round one, in a Test match or a trial, riding a horse in Origin camp, or even at home playing with your dog, jumping on a trampoline or tripping over your kid.

Sometimes they also happen at the Nines, which always seems more controversial than when they happen elsewhere. The inaugural tournament was easily the worst with a number of stars suffering long-term injuries.

2014 – Lachlan Coote

The first Nines tournament got off to a terrible start with Cowboys fullback Lachlan Coote suffering a season-ending ACL tear after just seven minutes on field.

2014 – Jarrod Mullen

The Knights star ripped his hamstring off the bone in 2014, with his 10-week layoff including the first five weeks of NRL action.

2014 – Luke Keary

When you think 2014 and Luke Keary, most remember a young gun playing a key role in Souths' drought-breaking premiership. Remarkably, Keary didn't play his first game of the year until round 17 after rupturing a pec in the Nines.

2014 – Curtis Sironen and Mitch Moses

The Wests Tigers duo each suffered long-term injuries, with Sironen's broken foot sidelining him until round 13 while Moses – yet to make his NRL debut at that stage – did not return to the field in reserve grade until round 11, eventually making his NRL debut in round 17.

2015 – Kenny Edwards and Kaysa Pritchard

The Eels lost both back-rower Kenny Edwards (ACL, season) and hooker Kaysa Pritchard (pec, five months). Chris Sandow and Brad Takairangi were both injured through the tournament but recovered for round one.

Kenny Edwards goes down at the Nines in 2015.
Kenny Edwards goes down at the Nines in 2015.

2015 – Nu Brown

Sharks youngster Nu Brown was another unlucky player to miss a full season due to an ACL injury at the Nines.

2016 – Jamie Buhrer and Jayden Hodges

Manly came out of the 2016 Nines with no fewer than six injured players. While Jorge Taufua (hamstring), Tom Trbojevic (ankle), Jake Trbojevic and Nathan Green (both head knocks) left the squad short for the tournament, each recovered by round one. However, Jamie Buhrer (broken jaw) was out until round four while hooker Jayden Hodges (ACL) missed the entire season and did not play NRL again.

2017 – Aaron Gray

The speedy Rabbitohs back suffered medial ligament damage in his knee and did not feature in either NRL or reserve grade until round 10.

2017 – Kezie Apps

Having played a big part in the Jillaroos' finally downing the Ferns at the Nines, star back-rower Kezie Apps suffered a broken fibula having already received a nasty head gash.

2017 – Kiwi Ferns

An attritional weekend in the womens' game saw Ferns trio Kahurangi Peters (ruptured Achilles tendon), Krystal Rota (broken hand) and Lanulangi Veainu (head knock) injured.

How the Perth NRL Nines will work

The tournaments

2014

One of the main drawcards of the first iteration was that nobody had any idea what to expect. Would it just be the speedy backs that dominated, would forwards even have a place, how important would kicks be, could you actually have a game plan? Other than a general expectation that Shaun Johnson would be good at it (spoiler alert: he was) there was little consensus over which players would be the most successful.

The team of the tournament eventually included some perhaps surprising names; big men Andrew Fifita, James Tamou and Suaia Matagi all had a stellar weekend. Additionally Kane Linnett, Gavin Cooper and Andrew McCullough were, with the greatest respect, not the names you'd have picked to dominate the short form either but proved their worth to earn team of the tournament honours.

Johnson carried the Warriors to the semi-final to the delirious support of hometown fans before a surprise shutout from eventual winners the Cowboys, who then downed the Broncos in a portent of the following year's NRL grand final.

The Cowboys celebrate their win in 2014.
The Cowboys celebrate their win in 2014.

2015

With a better idea what to expect, teams started to hone in on game plans and strategies that may be effective. Like the previous year, some clubs named strong squads while others named a stack of rookies most fans had not heard of.

The Rabbitohs, coming off an NRL grand final win, and the Sharks – who would win their own 18 months later – quickly stamped themselves as the teams to beat, romping unbeaten through the pool stages and semis to meet in the final.

The pulsating epic went near 30 frantic minutes, with the full-time 14-all deadlock unbroken through 10 full minutes of extra-time until Matt King finally crossed for the exhausted Bunnies.

Each club provided three players to the team of the tournament, with oft-maligned Sharks centre Blake Ayshford arguably the pick of the weekend. Adam Reynolds, Issac Luke and George Burgess were the Bunnies' best while Chris Heighington and Wade Graham also starred for the Sharks.

The weekend also provided a wonderful platform for the rapidly-growing women's game, with the Kiwi Ferns edging the three-game Nines series against the Jillaroos 2-1 in three of the most exciting matches of the tournament.

Matt King was the hero for the Bunnies in 2015.
Matt King was the hero for the Bunnies in 2015.

2016

Eels playmaker Corey Norman was in the 2015 team of the tournament and lifted his game further in 2016, proving the best player of the weekend while explosive young wing pairing Bevan French and Semi Radradra scored bags of tries to take the unheralded Eels all the way to the title. The salary cap scandal which engulfed the club later that year resulted in the trophy being stripped.

The Eels' final win deflated the home fans, who watched on as playmaking pair Johnson and Tui Lolohea guided the home side to the final, only to be overpowered 22-4 by Parramatta.

The Ferns again edged the Jillaroos 2-1 in a hard-fought three-match series.

The Parramatta Eels celebrate their 2016 Nines triumph.
The Parramatta Eels celebrate their 2016 Nines triumph. ©NRL Photos

2017

The fourth and final edition of the Auckland Nines before the 2018 World Cup instigated a two-year hiatus saw the Roosters stun the competition with an inexperienced but skilful and well-suited squad.

Connor Watson was the star, covering for the absence of Luke Keary and Mitch Pearce impeccably and unleashing his running game to devastating effect.

The Tricolours lost their first pool game before cruising through their next two then clinging to narrow wins in their quarters and semis before a narrow 10-8 win over the Panthers in the final.

Latrell Mitchell also dominated while Waqa Blake and Nines veteran Suaia Matagi were the foundation of Penrith's impressive weekend.

The Jillaroos finally extracted revenge on the Ferns, notching dominant wins in all three Nines clashes to sweep the series.

 

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