NRL: Inaugural nines bring out the best available Warriors

By Michael Brown

Shaun Johnson should be a potent nines weapon for the Warriors. Photo / Richard Robinson
Shaun Johnson should be a potent nines weapon for the Warriors. Photo / Richard Robinson

Sam Tomkins will be there. So will Shaun Johnson and Konrad Hurrell. Prop Sam Rapira wasn't disappointed to hear he won't be needed.

The Warriors will field close to their best team at the inaugural Auckland Nines to be staged at Eden Park on February 15 and 16.

Tournament rules dictate each club must field 12 of their top 25, including one of their top-five earners, in their squad of 16 and Warriors coach Matt Elliott said they aim to win the competition. With A$2.25 million ($2.38 million) in prizemoney up for grabs - the winning team will pocket A$370,000 - most clubs are taking the two-day nines competition seriously.

Injuries and a need to rest some key individuals ahead of the NRL season will rob the Warriors of some top-name players, including Thomas Leuluai and Simon Mannering, and there are doubts over the availability of Manu Vatuvei and Kevin Locke. Leuluai is still recovering from the groin injury that wrecked his World Cup campaign and Vatuvei (ankle, knee) and Locke (knee) also returned from the UK with injuries.

Elliott said Mannering's workload needed to be managed carefully.

"It's imperative we support the game and play our best players in it," he said. "I doubt whether Manu and Kevin will play but every other player you'd expect to be a good nines player will be in there. And they are excited about it.

"Shaun just about knocked my door down wanting to play. All of them, with the exception of a small few, want to play the nines. We didn't have any trouble finding volunteers."

Johnson was snapped up by the Warriors as a touch player so is expected to be a potent weapon in the abbreviated format. Tomkins is also expected to excel, along with the block-busting Hurrell, given the extra space.

"I think it will suit ball-playing second-rowers and players who are fast," Elliott said. "We play a lot of small-sided games in training for fitness and skill acquisition and speed is everything. Manu would have been unbelievable in it. Quick, big guys will make a difference, I would say."

It will take time for clubs to work out the best formula for the Auckland Nines, which will run for a minimum of five years.

The Roosters will be shorn of most of their stars, given they take on Wigan in the World Club Challenge a week later.

Roosters coach Trent Robinson confirmed Sonny Bill Williams won't play and also said it was highly unlikely any Kiwis and Kangaroos involved in last year's World Cup final would feature. It's partly why Brad Fittler, who retired from the NRL in 2004, is tipped to play.

What complicates the picture for the Warriors is the proximity of trial matches ahead of the upcoming NRL season. They play the Gold Coast on February 9, Wigan on February 12 and Brisbane on February 23 before opening their NRL campaign against the Eels on March 9.

It means a multi-layered approach to pre-season training - players who take part in nines won't face Wigan, meaning Tomkins is unlikely to face his old club - and Ricky Henry will coach the nines side to allow Elliott to focus on the NRL season.

- APNZ

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