David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

NRL: Cowboys playmaker Johnathan Thurston looking to overthrow 'Nines King' Shaun Johnson

Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson might be the King of the NRL Auckland Nines but star North Queensland halfback Johnathan Thurston is coming to claim his throne next year.

While the Warriors are yet to win the Nines, Johnson has become the face of the tournament over the last three years with his footwork and speed perfectly suited to the short-form tournament.

The 26-year-old Kiwis international will need to be at his dazzling best again next year with his Cowboys and Australian test rival today confirming his debut playing appearance at the Downer NRL Auckland Nines on Waitangi weekend on February 4 and 5.

The two playmakers are set to face off in next week's transtasman test in Perth and during the Four Nations tournament in the UK but Thurston is already looking forward to renewing their rivalry at next year's Nines.

"He's the reason why people come through the gates because he's an entertainer," said Thurston. "The style of footy obviously suits his skill set.

"If our paths cross I'm sure there will be plenty of talking and feedback about it."

The 33-year-old is widely considered the best player in the world, after guiding the Cowboys to their maiden premiership win last year and having achieved almost everything there is to do in the game.

The four-time Dally M and three-time Golden Boot winner was a frustrated spectator when the Cowboys took out the inaugural Nines trophy in 2014 and participating in the preseason tournament remains one of the last boxes to tick on Thurston's career bucket list.

"I'm excited about the Nines and I've got a really good buzz about it," he said. "It's (previously been) more about getting my priorities right, about what I wanted to achieve each year.

"On the back of winning the premiership it was about the World Club Challenge, so without that I'm excited to be playing in the Nines and to also back-up and play for the Indigenous All Stars.

"It's about getting my body right to handle what's needed in the Nines. It's taxing on the body and fast-paced and high-powered stuff so you need to get your body right and I'm confident I'll be able to do that."

While the Nines has become synonymous with attacking play, Thurston says the Cowboys will put a greater emphasis on structure and look to base their game off forward momentum, tactical kicking and strong defence.

"That's something we can be better at, playing the percentages. Because it's Nines, people think you play to the spaces, but you still need to generate some ruck speed to expose those spaces, whether it be on the edge or through the middle.

"You still need to play the percentages of kicking long and trying to pin teams in the corners instead of the middle of the field where they split your defence.

"We'll work on it throughout pre-season especially when we get back in January when training really ramps up."

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