Auckland Nines: A winner before the kick-off ... and the player queue is forming for next year

By Michael Brown

Isaac Luke wanted to play in the Auckland Nines. Photo / Getty Images
Isaac Luke wanted to play in the Auckland Nines. Photo / Getty Images

The Auckland Nines have been declared a raging success before they have kicked off but it's likely the product will be even better next year as more top-line players take part.

Some clubs have over-delivered on tournament rules, which require that clubs include one of their top-five earners and 12 of their top 25 in their 16-man squads, but others have met the bare minimum.

Most of the biggest names in the game are missing, but that could change for the 2015 instalment.

The proximity of the tournament to last year's World Cup was a significant problem, and most players didn't return to pre-season training until last month.

Some coaches have not supported of the concept, preferring to focus on the NRL competition.

Souths coach Michael Maguire, who left several high-profile players in Sydney, thinks his nines squad could look quite different in 12 months.

"The players I have kept out are the World Cup guys and I know every single one of them wanted to play," Maguire said.

"Issac Luke asked me every day of the last three weeks if he could play but it's my role to make sure he's ready for what is ahead of us. He's a player we would have loved to have brought over.

"We don't have a World Cup at the end of this season so the opportunity opens up to expose a lot more of those players."

The nines will be played at Eden Park for at least three years, with a further option for another two, and it will be hard to argue with the concept if it sells out each year.

Organisers found room for 1600 more seats to bring the capacity to more than 46,000, and some tickets remain unsold.

There have already been ideas floated for a nines series to be introduced but it's difficult to see where that would fit into an already congested calendar and how it could be done without diluting the quality of players taking part - like the rugby sevens circuit, which is largely devoid of Super Rugby players.

What is more likely is expansion to include overseas teams - UK Super League team Warrington wanted to play in this year's event.

"What's really clear with this format is there is flexibility to expand it," NRL chief executive Dave Smith said. "There has already been interest from the international clubs, particularly from the UK.

"It's a product that could allow us to develop and grow even further. We are very open-minded about it but I want to get through the weekend first and see how it goes."

It's a concept that has piqued the interest of many players.

"I think the game has been crying out for something like this for a long time," Wests Tigers captain Robbie Farrah said. "I see this as our version of T20 cricket."

- APNZ

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