Finally, my 2017 rugby league journey has started! There was a festival of action over the weekend as the NRL took their nines concept back to Auckland for the fourth time. Over the course of two days we got to see every NRL team and an international women’s nines three game test between New Zealand and Australia.
We have had three different winners in the previous three years in the shape of North Queensland, South Sydney and Parramatta – although the Eels had their crown stripped after some previous salary cap breaches. After a fantastic weekend, 2017 has added another name to the trophy with the Sydney Roosters triumphant after a fantastic final in which they beat the Penrith Panthers 10-8.
I fully believe that as much as I don’t think every NRL sides went with their best available teams, we were still given a fantastic tournament. Following the NRL on snapchat showed that the fans day in Auckland was booming, while the players were really enjoying their footy in a relaxed, fun and exciting environment as the teams took turns to take over the feed. We got an insight into players down time, preparation and what it’s really like to be pitch side.
Day one was frenetic, the crowd built up nicely to welcome the home side New Zealand Warriors in the fourth game of the day. Unfortunately, the hosts were disappointing and went down to Quarter Finalists Manly Sea Eagles. It was the Gold Coast Titans who opened the competition defeating NRL Premiers Cronulla Sharks 25-4 in a game where the Titans, led out by Jarryd Hayne, put down a marker that they could be potential dark horses. The Panthers and Eels followed the Titans in blowing away their opponents until the Warriors-Sea Eagles game, where just four points separated them.
This paved the way for a string of closely fought intense battles. North Queensland Cowboys brought a fantastic squad over to Auckland and really set the benchmark in their opening game, beating eventual champions Sydney Roosters 27-15 as they were led around the park by Johnathan Thurston. Despite the presence of the great JT, it was Kalyn Ponga and Gideon Mosby-Gela that stole the show with blistering pace, strength, footwork, and agility. Newcastle Knights registered their first win in all competitions since April last year when they beat West Tigers 18-10. Jordan Turner opened his try scoring account with the Canberra Raiders who needed a last minute try to see off previous winners South Sydney. Meanwhile the Brisbane Broncos cruised past Melbourne in their opening game.
Round two was the start of the groups where teams had to win to keep alive their hopes of progressing to the Quarter Final. The home crowd were shocked at their sides inability to register a point as Parramatta gave the Warriors a 17-0 hiding. Penrith and Gold Coast eliminated Cronulla and Canterbury respectively and left their round three game to decide who would finish top of the group. St George and Manly played out a cracking game but the Sea Eagles had enough points on the board to survive a Dragons comeback. Brisbane and Melbourne clinically disposed of Newcastle and Wests while the Cowboys romped home to a 35-6 win over the Raiders. Closing day one and round two of the nines were the Roosters as they beat arch-rival South Sydney Rabbitohs as the Bunnies were done in the closing stages of the game.
Round three was a dead round already for some teams starting with Cronulla, who brought some respect back after annihilating Canterbury 28-4. Penrith closed out their group by beating Gold Coast 22-4 with the Titans star man Jarryd Hayne suffering a knee injury. The Warriors had one final chance to give the crowd what they wanted, but they failed to beat the Dragons and ended their campaign with zero wins. Parramatta progressed through beating Manly 17-12 with the Wests Tigers beating Brisbane, but it wasn’t enough to progress. Elsewhere, Melbourne, North Queensland and Sydney Roosters sent home Newcastle, South Sydney and Canberra Raiders.
Now we were into the business end of the competition and the Quarter Finals. Manly put up a very stern test for finalists Penrith but went down 16-12. Gold Coast, again with no Hayne, were the second team to not register a single point against Parramatta, losing 17-0. The Cowboys, with a star NRL roster, failed to beat an inexperience Melbourne side and left the competition dejected. But the main talking point from this round was that of Jordan Kahu who failed to take a conversion before the stop clock had ended; he lost the right to challenge the kick after a late Brisbane try brought them to within the single point of beating the Roosters. They went out, losing 15-14 and Kahu has since apologised to the fans on twitter about the incident.
After the Eels were the team dishing out the nil points to their opponents, it was their turn to be beaten without scoring a single point. Finalists the Panthers ran out easy 13-0 winners over their rivals. The other Semi Final was scintillating as the Melbourne Storm took on the Sydney Roosters who left it late, but ended up snatching a place in the final after winning 21-16.
The Final was a game of two halves as the Roosters took a 10-0 lead into the sheds. A superb dominant performance from the Chooks meant the Panthers had to do something special in the second stanza. They replied well scoring two tries but failed to land the conversions, meaning the 2017 Downer NRL Auckland Nines winners were the Sydney Roosters.
We got to see some of the young players looking to get a first-grade shirt this season at this competition and perhaps surprisingly the final two teams, the Roosters and Panthers, had rather inexperienced line-ups. Meanwhile the Cowboys, who blooded young sensation Kayln Ponga at the back, were unable to make it to the final despite having household names Thurston, Morgan and Granville.
Try of the tournament was a tough choice, but the Cowboys have another young superstar on their hands and he scored a freakish try. After dropping the ball, he managed to kick it before hitting the ground and then slipping over still beat the defender to put the ball down. Remember the name Gideon Gela-Mosby.
Elsewhere, St George unearthed an electric talent of their own who in his two competition games, amazed fans with three superb lengthy tries – expect Jai Field to feature at WIN stadium a few times this term. Connor Watson of the eventual winners Sydney Roosters received the nines MVP award.
Team of the Tournament
1. Bevan French (Eels)
2. Kayln Ponga (Cowboys)
3. Gideon Gela-Mosby (Cowboys)
4. Dylan Walker (Sea Eagles)
5. Connor Watson (Roosters)
6. Corey Norman (Eels)
7. Nathan Cleary (Panthers)
8. James Tamou (Panthers)
9. Jason Taumalolo (Cowboys)