Bold predictions: Pool by pool breakdown of Auckland Nines
FOR some teams a successful Auckland Nines campaign presents an attractive way to build preseason confidence and fandom. Contrastingly, the tournament is equally valued by other clubs as a chance to blood youngsters and build roster depth.
So watch for teams like the Cowboys, Eels, Knights and hosts Warriors, whose squads suggest title aspirations this weekend. Meanwhile, draw a line through the Storm, Raiders and Panthers - who have all saved their aces for genuine Telstra Premiership quests. Likewise, dismiss the Bulldogs and Dragons, who have never progressed beyond the group stage at a tournament that does not suit their dour, rugged style of play.
Piha Pool: Despite the ultimately turbulent 2016 experienced by the Eels, their Nines roster suggests they'll be up for the challenge of reclaiming their stripped title. Hosts Warriors always turn up for this. Shaun Johnson always seems to find early season spark here and the side will be inspired by 44-year-old Ruben Wiki coming out of retirement. At first glance this could be viewed as the pool of death. However, the Sea Eagles look half the side of the 2016 quarterfinalists without Tom Trbojevic. Dragons = no.
Predictions: Eels, Warriors
Hunua Pool: Cowboys have progressed from their pool in all three years, so expect Paul Green's men to mean business this weekend. They've picked a strong outfit including Thurston, Morgan and Taumaolo, keep an eye on Javid Bowen, while Knights teenage signing Kalyn Ponga will create interest. Roosters will rely on the likes of Latrell Mitchell coming to the party. Meanwhile the Raiders have a pretty poor strikerate at this tournament and apart from halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer have left all their stars at home. Rabbitohs look non-threaterning.
Predictions: Cowboys, Roosters
Clealy the 16th best team of the 2016 Telstra Premiership, the Knights have one statistic on their side - they are one of just four teams to reach the quarterfinals in all four years of the Auckland Nines, alongside Eels, Cowboys and Warriors. Realistically they're out of the frame for the Telstra Premiership, so they'd might as well have a full tilt at the Nines and build confidence. They've been handed an ideal draw - up against three sides historically hit and miss at the Nines. It will be interesting to see how Benji Marshall links with Anthony Milford in his Broncos colours, while James Roberts will relish the extra space. While it's Josh Addo-Carr's his first outing for the Storm, the Nines are clearly not high on Craig Bellamy's agenda, keeping his three ageing superstars on ice. The Tigers are always a darkhorse.
Predictions: Broncos, Knights
Waikehe Pool: How the Sharks' mix of premiership firepower and uncapped youth fares will be interesting. Titans have Kane Elgey back, Jarryd Hayne and of course the Clarence Valley's own Anthony Don. Panthers are planning further ahead. Bulldogs = no. It's a wide open pool, but none of these four teams will get past the quarters.
Prediction: Titans, Sharks
Overall winner: Cowboys