The proposed multi-million dollar Auckland League Nines tournament is set to be staged at Eden Park in February next year.
The Herald on Sunday can reveal that the $3m event will be the richest in terms of prize money. It also looks likely to be one of the biggest single sporting events on this side of the Tasman in 2014 - needing only to achieve the buy-in of NRL players and in particular star players, who will pull in the crowds, to outrank the Wellington Sevens (70,000) and sit behind the V8 Supercars at Pukekohe (117,000 over three days).
The tournament has already found favour with all relevant stakeholders. The final hurdle will be gaining input and approval from those marquee names of the sport that already have a massive playing workload every year. The Rugby League World Cup at the end of this year is an added complication that needs to worked through with the players.
Sources on both sides of the Tasman have indicated:
# The Australian Rugby League Commission and the NRL are fully behind the event, seeing both commercial and footballing benefits. There is a chance the Nines format could eventually be used to help grow the game on an international level, given the lower barriers to entry for fledging nations.
# All 16 NRL clubs have backed the proposal. When negotiations commenced, only a slim majority backed the event but that has gradually increased to unanimous backing in the most recent meeting.
# ATEED (Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development, the Auckland council's standalone agency) have rubber-stamped the idea, committing to a ``multi-million'' dollar level of funding.
# A League Nines tournament is likely to result in an tourism upsurge for Auckland, with thousands of Australians expected to make the trip across the Tasman as well as NRL fans from around New Zealand.
There have been discussions around a parade down Queen St before the event, involving all 16 teams. One idea has the parade continuing on to Mission Bay, where photos would be shot of all teams together (with Rangitoto as a backdrop) before a massive barbecue, giving players a unique opportunity to mix with their peers, as well as sponsors, stakeholders and fans.
The event will be held across a weekend at Eden Park, with group games to be played on the Saturday and finals on the Sunday. Dates are still to be confirmed but February 15 and 16 are a likely option.
While at the Wellington Sevens the action on the field has become almost secondary to the party atmosphere in the stands, this is unlikely to be the case in Auckland. A summer carnival atmosphere won't be discouraged but the levels of engagement with the games should be much higher - with fans able to relate easier to watching the Broncos, Storm, Warriors and Bulldogs compared to a sevens match between Scotland and Australia full of players unknown to local fans.
The total prize pool for the League Nines will be close to $3 million, with an estimated A$500,000 ($600,000) to the winning team and each club to receive a minimum of A$70,000 ($84,000) just for participating. The first prize is more than NRL grand final winners currently receive; the Storm pocketed around A$400,00 ($483,000) for their triumph last year.
It has been suggested the matches will be 18 minutes long (nine minute halves). There have not yet been discussions around playing formats and schedules but a logical method could be four groups of four, followed by quarter-finals, semifinals and a final.