By Jack Brady
The inaugural NRL Auckland Nines was an undeniable success. No matter if you were lucky enough to be in attendance at Eden Park last weekend, like yours truly, or were one of the thousands watching from the comfort of your own home – everyone was absolutely treated to game play never before seen on a Rugby League field. Whether you were left stunned, mesmerised, happy or livid – the Auckland Nines had it all.
While the North Queensland Cowboys prevailed as champions with a 16-7 victory over the Brisbane Broncos in the final, the real winners were the fans. Whether it be the crowd going utterly crazy over the New Zealand Warriors or booing ‘Kiwi traitor’ James Tamou whenever he went near the ball, fans trying to work the abacus determining whether their team could still make the finals and front-rowers scoring long range tries – Rugby League well-and-truly shone in a new and exciting light.
Walking around Eden Park was a spectacle in itself. Those wearing their team’s jersey were left feeling underdressed with thousands using the Nines as a fancy dress extravaganza. From thousands of minions to the Pope, Jesus to Hulk Hogan, Egyptians to Crayons, Policemen without pants and banana suits – the Auckland Nines ticked most boxes of every party theme in the book.
On the field, the Rugby League community embraced the fact that there were only two scrums the entire tournament, the magnificent try-scoring ability of Cowboys winger Zac Feldt and the massive left hand ‘don’t argues’ delivered from Melbourne prop Mitchell Garbutt as he ambushed his opponents during a spectacular 40 metre run down the sideline to score. Throw in the rather successful returns of Steve Menzies and Brad Fittler, the latter scoring a 70-metre intercept try, the numerous injuries suffered and the fact that every club managed to win at least one game and you’ll soon realise that the Auckland Nines was a recipe for success.
It is by no accident that the ‘Brady Foray: Top Five Players of the Auckland Nines’ come from teams who managed to outlast most others in earning their way towards the semi-finals. Without further ado, these players are:
5. Corey Parker (Broncos)
While the newly appointed Brisbane captain may have only scored one try throughout the tournament, one cannot deny how influential Parker is for his side fortunes – an influence that has proven to be essential for his state and country in recent seasons. With the Broncos looking to gel together quickly following the departure of Peter Wallace and the retirement of Scott Prince – Parker was an absolute lynchpin for the Brisbane Nines squad consisting of Round One hopefuls and up-and-coming halves Ben Hunt and Kodi Nikorima. Parker’s consistent presence in the middle of the field allowed for Hunt and Nikorima to flaunt their stuff out wide. Parker’s ability to keep the ball alive under-pressure is a world-class attribute and it goes without saying that without him, Brisbane would not have gone as far as they did in the competition.
4. Sam Tomkins (Warriors)
When Sam Tomkins signed with the New Zealand Warriors late last year, many pointed out that perhaps he was being paid more than he deserved considering he was an unproven performer in the greatest rugby league competition in the world. Those who watched him saw him play for Wigan in the Super League and in this past weekend’s Nines competition now know that he has laid the platform for a big 2014 season. While he didn’t cross the white stripe, kicking a lone conversation – Tomkins had a hand in two tries and was a contributing factor in several others. His reverse-hand, half-field cut-out pass earlier in the tournament to halfback Shaun Johnson lead to one of the tries of the tournament. Tomkins was essentially the Warriors yin to Johnson’s yang. Expect a big year from the Englishman.
3. Sam Tagataese (Sharks)
For those present at Eden Park this past weekend you may have noticed the performances of Sharks prop, Sam Tagataese. While his bigger name teammate, Andrew Fifita made the ‘official’ team of the tournament, Tagataese undoubtedly overshadowed him when it came to crunch for Cronulla. Fifita, who in the semi-final walked off the field after abusing his teammates only to be saved by the halftime siren and in the meantime avoid the embarrassment of the camera’s glance, was rather disappointing in the pool games. Tagataese, who’s barnstorming hit ups laid the platform for the rest of the side, will be forever known as the first man to score a five point try in Rugby League. His third try of the tournament, a brilliant 40 metre dash down the sideline, kicked off Sunday’s proceedings in the very first minute of play and allowed the Sharks to take advantage of the game from the get-go. Tagataese’s star will only continue to rise.
2. Shaun Johnson (Warriors)
The ‘official’ MVP of the Nines tournament – Shaun Johnson created brilliance after brilliance throughout the tournament with relative ease. His four tries, ten goals and [surprisingly] lone try assist laid the platform for his Warriors Nines side. Captaining the side for the tournament, Johnson and the Warriors blissfully made it through to the quarters without a hitch – the halfback forcing the local crowd to fall even more in love with him in the meantime. By mid-Sunday, Johnson was trying too hard to spark a magnificent play, by attempting to do so every set. A failed chip-and-chase on his own goal line in their quarter final against the Rabbitohs, while winning 17-0 signified the beginning of the end for the Warriors. A semi-final shutout to the eventual winners, North Queensland, completed this fall from grace for Johnson and the Warriors in what was otherwise a brilliant tournament performance displayed by the halfback.
1. Antonio Winterstein (Cowboys)
Who would’ve thought he had it in him? Antonio Winterstein, a man who has played over a hundred games in the top grade in what could only be described as a solid career, arrived at the Auckland Nines and displayed skills never before seen from the 25 year-old. Perhaps it could be the format of the game that allowed Winterstein to shine? Otherwise this could be Winterstein screaming from the rooftop, showcasing he is ready to take his game to the level. Scoring three tries and assisting in another, Winterstein blasted opponents with speed, his strength in busting and palming off tackles and a sidestep to die for. Winterstein kicked off proceedings in the Grand Final against the Broncos by turning Josh Hoffman inside-out with an absolute glorious sidestep. His performances were just as deserving for MVP status within the overall tournament – hopefully he can find solace in being awarded the Brady Foray ‘Player of the 2014 Auckland Nines’.