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

League: Norton's NZ nines were world-beaters

New Zealand beat Australia 12-10 in their semifinal at the first World Nines in Suva. Photo / Photosport
New Zealand beat Australia 12-10 in their semifinal at the first World Nines in Suva. Photo / Photosport

As the Warriors contemplate their third tilt at the Auckland Nines, they might want to consider picking the brain of Graeme Norton.

Twenty years ago, Norton achieved great success in the game's abbreviated format, coaching a New Zealand side to victory in the inaugural World Nines in Fiji.

It was an impressive though often forgotten triumph, as the Kiwis beat an Australian side featuring Laurie Daley, Andrew Ettingshausen, Steve Renouf, Ricky Stuart, Wendell Sailor, Brett Mullins, Glenn Lazarus and Kevin Walters.

Norton's team won the tournament again in Townsville in 1997, before the event was discontinued when the NRL was created in 1998.

"They are special memories," says Norton. "It was a bit of a journey into the unknown - nobody knew what to expect. But we had a very good team and tactically got things right for the players we had."

It was a well balanced line-up; the creativity of Stacey Jones, Henry Paul and Gene Ngamu, with Richie Barnett, Nigel Vagana and John Kirwan providing pace and elusiveness out wide.

"There was also size and power, with the likes of Ruben Wiki, Stephen Kearney, Tony Iro and Quentin Pongia in the forwards."

Norton had limited time with the team before they left for Fiji but drummed in his basic philosophy.

"We approached it fairly similar to a 13-a-side game," said Norton. "Some people were talking about [rugby] sevens, where they would often go backwards to receive the ball and create space, but that wasn't in our approach. We wanted to be aggressive in defence ... and create momentum through the middle on attack."

Iro also recalls Norton's basic message: "From the first training session, he was emphasising multiple men in the tackle. He kept telling us to 'get three in the tackle'.

"We thought he was crazy but ultimately he was right. Wrapping up the ball was key and, just like today in the NRL, if you managed a dominant tackle, you would buy time for the rest of your defensive line."

The tournament, featuring all the established league nations as well as Japan, South Africa, Morocco and the United States, was staged in Suva in February 1996. New Zealand faced France in the first game.

"We were a bit nervous about that," says Norton. "They'd come to New Zealand [in 1995] and done well."

New Zealand won 22-0, then took care of Japan and Ireland to progress to a semifinal with the Kangaroos.

"That match was a battle, real intense," says Norton. "I remember at one stage, Nigel [Vagana] made six tackles in a set. That summed up our approach."

Australia were beaten 12-10, with tries from Vagana and Kirwan. Norton remembers the former All Black being hounded relentlessly during their stay, treated almost like a deity in rugby-mad Fiji.

New Zealand's perfect tournament was completed with a 26-10 victory over Papua New Guinea in the final. "We had a lot of leaders in that team and that was probably the difference," says Norton. "They made good decisions on the field."

The team was unable to hit the town to celebrate, with a curfew having been set by Fiji's military government, but instead piled into one large room at their hotel.

"A few other teams and players joined us. It was a good time," says Norton, who also coached the New Zealand team which contested the Super League Tri Series with New South Wales and Queensland, and went on to become assistant Kiwis coach under Brian McClennan in 2005-06.

In 1997, Norton's team again beat Australia in their World Nines semifinal by the same 12-10 scoreline before trumping a Samoan team in a final that featured Apollo Perelini, Logan Swann, Jerry Seuseu, and Iva and Tea Ropati.

- Herald on Sunday

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