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

Jimmy Smith Columnist

By Jimmy Smith, Jimmy Smith is a Roar Expert New author!

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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.

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    The Crowd Says (33)

    • Roar Rookie

      February 3rd 2017 @ 9:30am
      Squidward said | February 3rd 2017 @ 9:30am | ! Report

      I haven’t seen that indigenous kid in years from the preview pic. What was his name Anthony something. Had crazy eyes like he was bending

      • Roar Guru

        February 3rd 2017 @ 10:50am
        Magnus M. Østergaard said | February 3rd 2017 @ 10:50am | ! Report

        Anthony Mitchell, carves it up for the Blackhawks since Cowboys didn’t renew his contract around 2014/2013ish.

        • Columnist

          February 3rd 2017 @ 10:56am
          Jimmy Smith said | February 3rd 2017 @ 10:56am | ! Report

          Last year at the Cowboys was 2014 Vincent.

      • Columnist

        February 3rd 2017 @ 10:51am
        Jimmy Smith said | February 3rd 2017 @ 10:51am | ! Report

        Anthony Mitchell is his name Squidward. Met him when he was at the Roosters. Before that Eels and after that Cowboys and then Blackhawks in Q Cup. Played Indigenous All Stars a couple of years as well – really nice bloke.

        • Roar Rookie

          February 3rd 2017 @ 1:06pm
          Squidward said | February 3rd 2017 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

          Yeah I remember his time at the Chooks. Was a good little player. Why I was so surprised that I’d forgotten the last name/hadn’t seen his face in a while

    • Roar Guru

      February 3rd 2017 @ 10:20am
      Ron Swanson said | February 3rd 2017 @ 10:20am | ! Report

      Mitchell, think he was at the Eels and Roosters too. I could be wrong.

      Nice preview Jimmy, Warriors will make it through over the Dragons and watch for the Bulldogs to exceed expectations with the worlds largest play maker (slimmed down version).

      Couldn’t agree more on it’s merit. So many a young talent has announced himself on this stage. Tommy Turbo, Solomone Kata, Bevan French to name a few.

      Cowboys and Bronco’s look the winners with the Rabbitohs the dark horses. Reynolds and Walker will have plenty of pace and mobile forwards to go to and could prove to be a handful for all sides, top 2 included. Also factor in only one Burgess brother was selected which will decrease knock on’s by 66.66% for the men in myrtle and green!

      • Columnist

        February 3rd 2017 @ 10:55am
        Jimmy Smith said | February 3rd 2017 @ 10:55am | ! Report

        Hey Ron Adam Reynolds out of the Nines big loss for the Rabbitohs. Kasiano with more minutes will be a frightening prospect for the Bulldogs. Skillful and aggressive – add endurance and you have a champion.

    • Roar Rookie

      February 3rd 2017 @ 10:36am
      Joe said | February 3rd 2017 @ 10:36am | ! Report

      Top try scorer will be between Bevan French and Gela-Mosby. Winner will come from Cowboys, Eels, Broncs. They have the essentials for Nines….elusive and long passing half, speed merchant and big mobile forwards with offload. Surprise packets will be Bulldogs and Storm. Storm have all the ingredients but a young team and Dogs will cause some damage with their two big boppers Klemmer and Kasiano with some skills from the latter busting a few teams open. Also look out for Linc Port in the Storm team…train on from reserve grade but apparently has some speed and skills…might be double trouble with Josh Ado-Carr.

      • Columnist

        February 3rd 2017 @ 10:58am
        Jimmy Smith said | February 3rd 2017 @ 10:58am | ! Report

        I like all the assumptions you made Joe. The one I hear has gone from a boy to a man is Curtis Scott. He is still eligible for Holden Cup!

      • Roar Guru

        February 3rd 2017 @ 11:53am
        ScottWoodward.me said | February 3rd 2017 @ 11:53am | ! Report

        Linc Port spent most of his youth competing in long jump and triple jump events in China, Guam and PNG as part of an indigenous athletics group where is competed against Olympians.

        • Roar Rookie

          February 3rd 2017 @ 12:47pm
          Joe said | February 3rd 2017 @ 12:47pm | ! Report

          Sounds like he’s a perfect fit for the Nines. Looking forward to see how he goes tomorrow.

    • February 3rd 2017 @ 11:27am
      Worlds Biggest said | February 3rd 2017 @ 11:27am | ! Report

      James welcome to the Roar, what a pleasure to have the Sydney Uni 2nd Grade 2001 premiership winner amongst our ranks ??!

      • Columnist

        February 3rd 2017 @ 11:35am
        Jimmy Smith said | February 3rd 2017 @ 11:35am | ! Report

        Thanks Worlds Biggest – very happy to be here. But this is where I am going to have to pull you up – I was not a Sydney University 2nd grade premiership winner in 2001. It was 3rd grade actually. Beat Eastwood 18 – 14 very comfortably with them getting a late try!!

    • February 3rd 2017 @ 11:38am
      Worlds Biggest said | February 3rd 2017 @ 11:38am | ! Report

      Either way, unless you correct me again, you had the fairytale finish winning a Grand Final in your last game of footy !

    • Columnist

      February 3rd 2017 @ 12:00pm
      Jimmy Smith said | February 3rd 2017 @ 12:00pm | ! Report

      Will have to correct you again WB – my last game of footy was at University Oval No. 2 (or at altitude as we used to call it!) Playing the Easts Beasts in about Rd 4 of the competition I had my nose splattered across my face. That told me it was time to pull the pin on contact sport!

      • February 3rd 2017 @ 1:25pm
        Worlds Biggest said | February 3rd 2017 @ 1:25pm | ! Report

        Well played Sir, whilst your footy career finished that day I sure hope you beat the Beasties !

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