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

League: NRL Nine stars with mix of experience and youth worth a look

David Skipwith and Michael Burgess pick nine players to keep an eye on at weekend.
Jason Taumalolo will play his first game since last year's NRL grand final. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Jason Taumalolo will play his first game since last year's NRL grand final. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Shaun Johnson

All eyes will be on the 25-year old Warriors Nines captain as he makes his long-awaited playing return after recovering from the broken ankle that ruined his 2015 NRL season.

After six months on the sidelines, Johnson is confident he'll have no trouble finding his best form, and the inaugural 2014 Player of the Tournament is under pressure to steer the host club to an elusive Nines title.

His combination with new recruit Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be worth the price of admission alone.

Braith Anasta

Making a shock comeback cameo appearance for his old club, Anasta will return to the field for the first time since retiring in 2014.

Braith Anasta, a 2004 premiership winner with the Canterbury Bulldogs. File photo / Getty Images
Braith Anasta, a 2004 premiership winner with the Canterbury Bulldogs. File photo / Getty Images

A 2004 premiership winner with the Canterbury Bulldogs, the 34-year-old former five-eighth went on to play the bulk of his 288 first grade games with the Roosters before joining the Wests Tigers.

He has kept himself in good physical nick and his ball-playing and organisational skills should aid an inexperienced Roosters side.

Jason Croker

Turning 43 next month, 'Toots' Croker will make a playing return for his beloved Canberra Raiders after hanging up the boots on a 317-game career in 2009.

Twenty-five years after making his NRL debut, the occasion will allow him the chance to play alongside 19-year-old halfback and nephew Lachlan Croker.

Never one to shirk the tough stuff, Croker will add plenty of starch and experience to help guide the way for coach and former teammate Ricky Stuart's side.

Matt Bowen

Another club great making a return to his former side, the 33-year-old fullback will slot into the North Queensland Cowboys attack for the first time since leaving the NRL at the end of the 2013 season.

Matt Bowen. Photo / Getty Images
Matt Bowen. Photo / Getty Images

Two seasons with Wigan in the UK Super League will have done little to blunt his lethal running game and the two-time NRL top try-scorer (2004 and 2005) will relish the open spaces and combine well with the likes of Michael Morgan and big Jason Taumalolo.

Tom Trbojevic
(Manly Sea Eagles)

An early favourite to claim the title as fastest man of the tournament, the 19-year-old Manly fullback's dynamic run-ning game will inject plenty of thrust into the Sea Eagles attack.

Younger brother of squad captain Jake, Trbojevic debuted at last year's Nines and showed glimpses of his rare ability, with eight tries in just nine NRL games last year.

The lanky teenager has worked hard to add some bulk over the off-season and will be looking to further impress coach Trent Barrett ahead of the NRL season.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

If the Nines format is perfect for Johnson, the shortened game also feels like it has been engineered for teammate Tuivasa-Sheck. No one ran for more metres in the NRL last year and if this weekend goes to plan, the 22-year-old will also be racking up big numbers at Eden Park.

His support play will be crucial in determining the Warriors' fate, as he aims to establish an early understanding with Ben Matulino, Ryan Hoffman and Albert Vete. He is also one of the best cover defenders in the game.

Bradley Abbey

The Bulldogs have high hopes for the former Warriors NYC fullback who choose to depart Mt Smart at the end of last year rather than bide his time behind Tuivasa-Sheck and Tui Lolohea.

A prodigiously talented player with an eye for the tryline, he gets his first chance to impress coach Des Hasler. Abbey should thrive running off the likes of Sam Kasiano, Greg Eastwood and Tony Williams.

Josh Dugan

More than ever, Dugan is the key to the Dragons' effort this weekend. The New South Wales fullback will be the main source of attacking inspiration from the back and will also need to marshal a young-looking squad as skipper. One of the quickest men in the game, Dugan is also deceptively strong and dangerous from any area of the field.

Jason Taumalolo

After missing the Kiwis tour to England due to injury, this will be Taumalolo's first hit-out since the epic 2015 grand final.

Able to play through the middle or range further wide, Taumalolo is one of the hardest players to tackle in the game.

He's part of an impressive Cowboys line-up, with almost all the grand final squad named for the Eden Park tournament, and they are well placed to repeat their 2014 Nines success.

- NZ Herald

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