Nathan Cleary – Penrith Panthers
Despite now being a fairly well-known name in the NRL after a tremendous rookie season, Cleary will still want to prove that 2016 wasn’t a one-off. The son of former Penrith coach Ivan, the young halfback became a mainstay in the Panthers squad towards the end of last season, even beating NRL veteran Jamie Soward to the number seven jersey. One of the most surprising things about his game is his maturity on the ball despite being only 19. The way he takes the ball to the line and the decisions he makes are just like players that have been in the NRL for years. Cleary is undoubtedly an old head on young shoulders, and will be one of his team’s main leaders at the nines.
Nick Cotric – Canberra Raiders
Having only just turned 18, versatile back Cotric is one of the youngest players going into the tournament this weekend, but I highly doubt this will affect the impact he has. Still in his first NRL pre-season, Cotric has been given big raps by many coaches and journalists across Australia, including legendary commentator Andrew Voss. His playing style is very similar to former Raider Josh Dugan, while he is consistent and possesses great speed and footwork. While he may not be ready to play NRL this season, the nines will give him a taste of what is to come in the future.
Matt Dufty – St George Illawarra Dragons
Last year’s nines competition was Dufty’s first senior showing for the Dragons where he will mostly be remembered for his 75-metre bonus zone try against Canberra which left many fans asking “who is this kid?” Since then, he’s been busy ripping the reserve competition to pieces, racking up 23 tries in 22 games last season whilst establishing himself as one of the most dangerous runners outside the top flight. As far as the nines go, Dufty is built for this tournament, as the added space will give the 21-year-old plenty of chances to use his agility and hit top speed, where he is virtually uncatchable. I have no doubt that Dufty will be near the top of the try scoring charts of this weekend’s competition.
Ata Hingano – New Zealand Warriors
This young halfback is undoubtedly one of the leading talents in New Zealand at the minute, and is already playing at a higher level than his age. Still only 19, Hingano has already played finals rugby in the Australian second-tier New South Wales competition as well as in the NRL reserve grade, racking up over 200 points in the latter. He is great on his feet as well as having terrific vision, and has been likened to a young Benji Marshall in the smart way he plays. With Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson in front of him at the Warriors he probably won’t play much first grade this year, but the nines will be an opportunity for him to show what he can offer.
Brian Kelly – Manly Sea Eagles
Brother of Hull FC halfback Albert, Kelly is a fleet-footed threequarter with a real eye for the try line. He too is yet to play an NRL game, but a move from Gold Coast to Manly in the off season could be the catalyst to kick-start this heavily sought after 20-year-old’s career. Kelly has a fairly similar style to his brother, playing off-the-cuff and not being afraid to take initiative when on the ball, which should really suit the nines format. This competition has allowed some of the best young centres in the game to make a name for themselves, and Kelly could be the latest should he have a successful tournament.
Joseph Manu – Sydney Roosters
Much like Latrell Mitchell last year, Manu will be hoping that an impressive nines performance will put him in contention for an NRL jersey when the season starts in March. The rapid centre/winger got a taste of the top flight last season when he appeared in two games for the Roosters mid-season and certainly held his own, while also receiving plaudits for his classic try-saving tackle against Parramatta flyer Bevan French. A real physical presence while also being light on his feet, Manu should be a nightmare for defenders in this format.
Esan Marsters – Wests Tigers
Marsters is one of the most dangerous young forwards in the game at the minute, and will be pushing for an NRL berth in 2017 after two solid seasons in the reserve grade. Scoring 24 tries in 39 games over the past couple of years, Marsters is an agile forward who, with experience, could easily become one of the best back rowers in the world. The 20-year-old has often been complimented for his ball handling abilities and footwork despite being such a physical player, and these skills make him a major threat for the Tigers. The nines’ fast pace will suit Marsters game, so he’s definitely one to watch this weekend and throughout the season.
Kalyn Ponga – North Queensland Cowboys
Ponga has plenty of pressure on his shoulders coming into 2017, after signing an estimated $700,000-a-year deal with Newcastle Knights for 2018 making him Rugby League’s most expensive teenager. Many were disappointed when the 18-year-old was left out of the Cowboys squad for last year’s nines, as his expansive and exciting style would suit the competition perfectly. He’ll be hoping to make an impact this time though, and with two NRL finals appearances under his belt should be primed and ready to take the tournament by storm. Cowboys flyer Gideon Gela-Mosby is another one to keep an eye on.
Curtis Scott – Melbourne Storm
Scott was one of the standout players at last year’s nines and will be hoping to have a similar effect at this year’s tournament. His impressive performances caught the eye of Storm coach Craig Bellamy, who gave Scott a chance at the start of the season. But in just his second senior game, he suffered a fractured fibula that sidelined him for two months, by which time he was unable to break back into the first team. This weekend’s competition gives him a second chance to stake a claim for a first grade jersey and this pacy threequarter could light up the nines if the Storm perform well.
Siosifa Talakai – South Sydney Rabbitohs
Talakai was fast-tracked through the Rabbitohs U20’s system, making only 15 reserve appearances before making his NRL debut last year. And what a debut it was, as he scored with his first touch of the ball against the Gold Coast Titans. Still just 19 and already 178cm and 100kg, Talakai plays with plenty of impact while still having a great burst of pace and has regularly created a dilemma for his coaches as to whether to use him as a centre or a forward. His dynamic style will suit the nines game to a tee and he should be one of the Bunnies key men at the weekend.