Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League Nines on the way

A likely scenario could see the Storm send Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk for example. Photo / Getty Images
A likely scenario could see the Storm send Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk for example. Photo / Getty Images

Get ready Auckland - League Nines is coming to a stadium near you.

The multi-million dollar Auckland League Nines tournament - which will feature all 16 NRL clubs and some of the sport's biggest stars - is set to be signed off by the NRL within the next week.

The event, which carries an estimated prizemoney of $3 million (including about $600,000 for the winners), is earmarked for the weekend of February 15 and 16 next year.

It will be the richest event on these shores in 2014 in terms of prizemoney and across the two days is expected to draw crowds at a similar, or perhaps larger level than the Wellington Sevens (70,000).

Ateed (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development) sees it as a potential showpiece event for the city that will draw vast visitor numbers from New Zealand and Australia. They also hope, like the Sevens, it becomes an annual spectacle synonymous with the city.

The Herald on Sunday understands that one of the final hurdles was getting buy-in from the players, particularly the marquee names, but this has now been achieved.

The NRL clubs have agreed that their teams will contain a certain percentage of the first-grade squad.

This may be slightly complicated by the Rugby League World Cup in November, where up to 100 NRL players could be involved. Players are entitled to a six-week break after the completion of the tournament (the final is on November 30) which will compress the NRL pre-season next year.

However, there is an expectation that many of the big names will still be involved. A likely scenario could see the Storm send Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk for example, but allow Cameron Smith and Ryan Hoffman to continue their training at home.

Unlike the Wellington Sevens, where a vast majority of the players are virtual unknowns and most of those attending only periodically watching the on-field action, many of the participants in the Auckland Nines will be household names. Given that, and the popularity of many NRL clubs on these shores, the event organisers are confident that the tournament will be a success.

It is also hoped that the tournament will provide a significant boost to the sport in this country, given many NRL clubs draw a significant amount of their talent from New Zealand. In the long-term the NRL believe that the nines format could also be used to develop the game. Like sevens, nines would offer lower barriers to entry and enable emerging nations to become relatively competitive at a quicker rate.

It is believed each club will receive a minimum of A$70,000 ($80,000) for competing while the winner's purse will be more than the NRL winners currently receive. The playing rules have yet to be finalised, but games are likely to be 18 minutes long.

Between 1988-1997 (with a brief revival in 2003-04) the Rugby League International Sevens was the traditional opener to the NRL season. It featured NRL teams, some English clubs and international sides and a hot-stepping Benji Marshall starred in the 2003 tournament, making his first mark on the league world.

With the the popularity of Twenty20 cricket among other short form sports, the NRL are confident there is an increased appetite for nines in this era.

- Herald on Sunday

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