JIMMY SMITH: Footy’s back, and there’s no easy winner at the Auckland Nines

Jimmy Smith Columnist

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    Whether you’re a fan of the Auckland Nines (Brad Fittler) or not (Phil Gould, Brian Fletcher) it doesn’t matter.

    All 16 NRL teams will be in action at Eden Park over the course of the weekend to officially signal that the footy is back.

    While the injury toll from the three previous versions of this event have been high, there is no way to guarantee that these injuries weren’t going to occur anyway when months of pre-season training gets pressure tested in competitive situations.

    The upside of the Nines is so great, and the downside so minor, that I believe it is a version of the game that can have wider appeal (more on that later).

    So if it is on, and all teams are playing, the next step is to find a winner. Not easy in an abbreviated form of a game that is notoriously hard to pick in the first place.

    The other complication is trying to work out who wants to win the Nines. As mentioned, all sides are competing, but some sides want to win it more than others, for a variety of reasons outlined below.

    As an aside, a good performance in the Nines usually means positive things for your club, and I am not just talking about the winner’s cheque.

    In 2014 the Cowboys won the first event, beating the Broncos in the final 16 points to 7. A year later the same two sides met in the NRL grand final and the Cowboys needed one extra point (17-16) to secure their maiden premiership victory.

    In 2015 South Sydney, with their win-everything mentality that was applauded at the time, beat upstart Cronulla 18-14 in extra time in a thrilling final only months after taking out the NRL premiership in 2014.

    Now things went askew for the Rabbitohs after that point but Cronulla subsequently broke free of history to record their maiden premiership win just a year later. I have no doubt that some of the confidence gained in the Nines by players like Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird helped propel them to premiership players.

    And in 2016 perennial underachievers the Parramatta Eels produced a convincing win over the local favourites the Warriors 22-4. Yes they were stripped of the title, and of 12 competition points during the year for salary cap breaches. Yes they had star players off the field for extended periods for a variety of reasons, but they still had their best year since 2009 and would have made the semi-finals comfortably with 13 wins.

    As mentioned, some clubs take the whole Nines concept more seriously than others. This is understandable when you look at the cycle of premiership success seen at certain clubs, and club expectations. For Brisbane and Canterbury winning the NRL is their sole focus to the season. They aren’t even sending their coaches.

    Others like the Cowboys and the Rabbitohs have that ‘win everything’ mentality, while some need a positive story to tell their fans.

    Some want to instil some confidence in youthful players who may feature on the big stage later in the year. Others (maybe all of them) think the cash is really beneficial also – $370,000 can buy you plenty more physios for the football department.

    The Cowboys celebrate

    To find a winner we have to take a look at the pools.

    Pool A – Waiheke Group – features the Sharks, Titans, Panthers and Bulldogs
    Penrith have already stated they are looking at bigger fish to fry, so cross them off. The interest will be in second-year star Nathan Cleary and young Dylan Edwards who is a player to watch.

    The Nines still require really good last tackle options, so I am putting a line through Canterbury with no Moses Mbye.

    Keep an eye on Brad Abbey though – slight frame but sublime skills – the Nines is perfect for him. The Sharks also have no natural last play merchant, although they do have eight regular first graders in the squad.

    The Titans look strong. The return of Kane Elgey is so critical to their advancement this year. I expect him to play well. They have nine regular first graders in the squad. And Jarryd Hayne. Cronulla and Gold Coast to go through there.

    Pool B – Piha Group – will be very tightly contested with the Dragons, Eels, Warriors and Sea Eagles
    No Tyson Frizzel dampens my enthusiasm for the Dragons but the need for some positive news, for the fans and the balance sheet, will mean they will be keen. Watch Jai Field play – slight but lightning fast – he could set the tournament on fire.

    The Eels are stacked with Nines match winners in Bevan French, Semi Radradra and company. They have a half in Corey Norman who was Player of the Tournament last year and got better from there.

    I just hope Corey has his passport sorted out this year. The Warriors, aside from Shaun Johnson and Tuimoala Lolohea, don’t seem to have the same pizzazz as years gone by. They have Rueben Wiki though. He might not run past many this weekend but they will know if he runs over them.

    The absence of Tom Trbojevic robs us of watching a wonderful talent and of Manly a chance of winning. Dragons and Eels to progress here.

    Pool C – Rangitoto Group – has Newcastle, Wests, Brisbane and Melbourne as its quartet
    The Knights will be relying on two very inexperienced halves to guide them around and finish their sets in Jaelen Feeney and Brock Lamb. Tough assignment.

    The Wests Tigers have picked 11 regular NRL players and will be lead by Luke Brooks who I think is in for his best year in the game. Also Kevin Naiqama will be one to watch – his athleticism will cause all teams problems in Auckland.

    The Broncos have nine regular first graders but what a nine they are: Darius Boyd, Benji Marshall, Matt Gillett, Jordan Kahu and James Roberts will all have their moments. The x-factor for them is Anthony Milford. He is very, very difficult to contain with four extra men on the field; heaven help them when there is only eight others by your side.

    The Storm has gone with a really young squad. Scott Drinkwater keeps getting mentions from his senior players – players who don’t hand out compliments unnecessarily – so keep an eye on him.

    The other I hear is flying pre season is Curtis Scott but the one I want to see is Josh Addo-Carr. Is there a player in the NRL that is more suited to Nines then the former Tigers flyer? Tigers and Broncos to progress here.

    Pool D – Hanua Group – Group of Death – is the most competitive of the four pools featuring the Cowboys, Roosters, Raiders and Rabbitohs
    The Cowboys – wow – 14 first graders including Johnathan Thurston. Yep JT is playing the Nines. If he plays long minutes – can you imagine trying to take him off? – they will win it. The whole thing I mean. Morgan, Taumalolo, Hess, Feldt and Ponga will help out nicely.

    Javid Bowen’s flashy feet will provide plenty of headaches as well. The Roosters will need good finishes to sets but not sure they will get them. Joseph Manu is the one to watch – him running down Bevan French in that great try saving tackle last year just showed how explosive he is.

    Roosters player Latrell Mitchell is congratulated by Mitchell Pearce

    Canberra has sent a young squad that contains their two regular halves in Blake Austin and Aiden Sezer. The more they play together, in any format, the better for them long term in all competitions. South Sydney have a number of flyers in their team but quality finishing might make it tough for them. Cody Walker was good last year and I expect more of the same from him this year, starting at the Nines. Cowboys and Rabbitohs to progress here.

    So we are now down to eight teams. But we have our winner, depending on how Paul Green plays this. If he lets his big guns run out there when he and they want, they have too much class and firepower.

    The bookmakers have rightly installed them as favourites. The team that jumps out at me is the Dragons. The other bit of value from a betting point of view is the Titans at $9.

    Top try scorer for the tournament is a bit of fun as well. Gideon Gela-Mosby you would think will get plenty of games, and he’s got game, so $9 favourite is right for him. Semi Radradra at $15 will literally take some stopping and the roughie is Matt Dufty from the Dragons at $51 – he is fast and backs up like a delivery truck.

    So there it is Roarers. I know you will disagree with some, most, maybe all of this. As long as you are watching on Fox Sports or listening on Triple M – I’ll be calling the games with Anthony Maroon and the whole call team on Saturday and Sunday – then I am happy to be proven wrong.

    Jimmy Smith
    Jimmy Smith

    A well-known and respected NRL commentator, Jimmy Smith played professional rugby league in an 11-year career that included stints in both the NRL with the Roosters, Western Suburbs and South Sydney, and England's Super League with Salford. He earned over 150 first grade caps before hanging up the boots and switching to the commentary box. You can find him on Twitter @ThatJimmySmith.