Beginning on February 4, the Downer NRL Auckland Nines again take the main attention for Rugby League fans at the start of February. It is a reduced form of the game, but the entertainment and excitement should be more than enough to kick-off the preseason for 2017 rugby league fans, before the competition hits full pace by March.

The fourth year of the ‘nines format’ tournament, it is still an unfinished product. Fans do not always know not what to expect come this weekend in Auckland. The predictions are more guesswork, than an exact science. The NRL (National Rugby League) sides all take composite sides to the Auckland stadium–more for fitness than for ‘finesse’ training–as they use the event to blood players and combinations.

Auckland Nines Kicks-Off Saturday

In a few hours, the two day tournament begins. A mix of anticipation, concern and excitement exists, as teams from the NRL will line-up into four pools. Each has been given a unique, New Zealand cultural theme name: Waikeke, Piha, Rangitoto and Hunua.

The local team, the NZ Warriors are in Pool B, the Piha group, and this is a key to the events local relevance; representative of Maori culture, and of the competitions home in Auckland–Warriors country. The locals get a great reception here, and may go in as favourites yet again.

All teams will play three matches against other teams in their group on the opening day. In ‘a winner takes all’ tournament with over $2.4 million dollars in prize money, after Day One the sides are defined into Cup quarter finalists–the top eight sides fighting it out for the title. The rules are the same as a full Rugby League game, but only nine men on the field (instead of 13), and five inter-change players over the nine minute halves. It is an entity in itself. Very exciting, as seen in the below video;

It is fast, much like Sevens Rugby but it involves many variables from the league game and the set-of-six tackles are less strategic, more reactionary. Expect to see teams go for kicks on the first tackle [similar to a first-down] and then they may like to run the ball on the sixth-tackle; chancing their arms more than in the regular season.

Stars Out in Force at Auckland Nines

For many, the star-attraction is a key factor in attending. The reason that Auckland sports fans support this concept so strongly. That has been consistent for the first four years, and credit to the NZ event will see many of the top NRL stars on view this weekend.

Johnathon Thurston is top of that list. The Queensland Cowboys leader has not directed his team in Auckland before, so fans hope Thurston is fit to play most matches. He will do his best to provide the Cowboys with a title they do not hold, and has been involved in most of the local promotion. The Cowboys will face teams in Pool D, the ‘Hunua’ group alongside the Roosters, Raiders and Rabbitohs.

Some of the other stars include Jarryd Hayne, Semi Radradra [cleared to play by the Eels] and George Burgess. Fringe players will be the biggest beneficiaries though, given their chance to prove fitness and to show form ahead of the man teams selection for Round One of the Telstra Premiership–beginning on March 2.

Downer NRL Auckland Nines Brings a Challenge

And while some would prefer the tournament to be not ‘in season’ – not at a time that could cause injury before the season opens – it does pay to be cautious. And this is directly attributable to why Shaun Johnson of the Warriors now saying that he will choose the matches he plays/time on-field; to limit his exposure to an injury risk. He told NZME “In the past I haven’t started the season as well as I have expected for myself and I really want to change that. I don’t want to burn out and don’t want to be injured like last year.

“I want to be feeling good going into next week’s trial and the season.”

While that may limit his use over the weekend, it certainly should not lesson the sides focus on winning their ‘first ever Nines title’. The crowd support is huge, and even when losing in the final last year, crowd support will be a key for the local team.

Others will treat the Auckland Nines as a ‘fitness test’. Current Premiers Cronulla will look to blood new men, in a bid to ensure they can defend the long-awaited title won in 2016. Quick, nine minute bursts that test teams composure, decision making and players natural abilities. The weather forecast is fine, the crowd is appreciative of teams that show flair, so watch out for more ‘side steps than hard running’. The smaller, more agile players will thrive inin the nines game, as the big men take a back seat.

If the performances go their way, expect the local team to go well. Invariably, the Warriors may have a good chance to win, considering the conditions and home town support. New coach Stephen Kearney is keen to begin the year well, and with Reuben Wiki leading the team, the ‘feel good factor’ that he olds ith the league fans might see them win their first Downer NRL Auckland Nines title.

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New Zealand v Australia Women’s Rugby League Match

In a proactive scheduling decision, organizers have done a fine job in adding an International Women’s match-up. In a great addition to the schedule, and at such a unique venue [Eden Park] thestage is set for the women to shine.

Jillaroos squad
Kezie Apps, Chelsea Baker, Annette Brander, Brittany Breayley, Sam Bremner, Ali Brigginshaw, Karina Brown, Allana Ferguson, Kody House, Amelia Kuk (debut), Renae Kunst, Corban McGregor, Caitlin Moran, Ruan Sims, Maddie Studdon and Simaima Taufa

Kiwi Ferns squad
Alexandra Cook, Amber Kani, Atawhai Tupaea, Georgia Hale, Honey Hireme, Kahurangi Peters, Kimiora Nati, Krystal Rota Lanulangi, Veainu Lilieta Maumau, Luisa Gago, Ngatokotoru Arakau, Nora Maaka, Sarina Fiso, Tanika-Jazz Noble and Teuila Fotu-Moala

So as well as the Downer NRL Auckland Nines, there is the women’s rugby league ‘exhibition game’ to look forward to, with plenty of entertainment from promoters DUCO to maintain a good atmosphere. Not just a booze filled weekend the behavior and enjoyment of the fan experience will be key. And the women’s game will bring value and experience for those teams, as well as good exposure for the sport.

More Than Just a Practice Game

Starting this morning, the entire weekend will certainly be enjoyable–more than just a few practice games–as teams focus on the big prize. $2.4 million in prizes means that reaching the final four is good motivation to earn some ‘coin’. A key element for some, and a small incentive for biggest stars of the game.

The Downer NRL Auckland Nines are going to be exciting–no doubt. How the future of the Auckland event goes is in question (once the contract is up in 2018, that would be an opportunity for challenges from cities likeTownsville, Perth or even Singapore) so fan support and viewer numbers are critical KPI that will keep the tournament in Auckland.

Still, this weekend is going to be great. It might be one of the most entertaining and sensational results if the Warriors can win, and hopefully ‘not the last’.

“Main photo credit”

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