NRL launch Auckland Nines at Eden Park with worries about player participation

NRL launch Auckland Nines at Eden Park with worries about player participation

Today's NRL Auckland Nines launch at Eden Park saw the NRL and event organisers do their best to dispel fears over elite player availability while insisting all 16 NRL clubs are united in their support of the tournament concept. A detailed media release and video presentation featured messages from big-name Australian players and officials pledging their allegiance to the February 15-16 event, while Nines organisers downplayed the initially negative response from across the ditch. Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy was one notable figure clear in his opposition to the Nines when he raised the issue of player burnout last month, saying: "Unless we're going to get fined or thrown out of the comp or something there won't be any of our World Cup players playing in the Nines."

Today's NRL Auckland Nines launch at Eden Park saw the NRL and event organisers do their best to dispel fears over elite player availability while insisting all 16 NRL clubs are united in their support of the tournament concept.

A detailed media release and video presentation featured messages from big-name Australian players and officials pledging their allegiance to the February 15-16 event, while Nines organisers downplayed the initially negative response from across the ditch.

Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy was one notable figure clear in his opposition to the Nines when he raised the issue of player burnout last month, saying: "Unless we're going to get fined or thrown out of the comp or something there won't be any of our World Cup players playing in the Nines."

A statement from event organisers today confirmed there would be no special dispensations for representative players, with Duco Events' David Higgins saying: "Let's be clear, there is no exemption for World Cup players."

With big name players from Manly, Cronulla, Brisbane, Gold Coast, West Tigers, and heavyweight officials such as Wayne Bennett, Mal Meninga and Laurie Daley, all speaking in support of the Nines, any lingering concerns over elite Australian players involvement are misguided, insists co-promoter Dean Lonergan.

"If you have a look at the players that we have got coming and committed , the likes of Paul Gallen, Sam Thaiday, Robbie Farah, Todd Carney, gee whiz, Greg Bird. These are some of the biggest names in the game," Lonergan said.

"The NRL's going to be here with all of their 16 clubs, all of their stars are going to be in town, and we expect the majority of them to take the field.

"I would expect a very strong turnout of stars."

Just how much field time these stars get is another matter, however, with Paul Kind, NRL head of commercial operations and marketing, indicating the short nature of the Nines matches will allow clubs to carefully manage the workloads of their star players.

"Billy Slater last year didn't play All Stars but he wanted to play 15 to 20 minutes of football before he went on to the World Club Challenge," Kind said

"Play that out next year, and the likes of a Billy Slater or Jonathan Thurston may come and play perhaps only one or two games of nines, but you've got 18 minute games and you've got unlimited interchange.

"So I think what you'll see is a lot of players here, game-time wise, they'll be cared for by coaching staff and some will play a lot, some will play a little.

"It will take clubs a year or two to find their feet on that."

Here in Auckland, the wider public's initial response to the Nines has been lukewarm with questions hanging over the choice of Eden Park as the venue - never a happy hunting ground for Kiwi league teams -and doubts that the Nines could come close to matching the Wellington Sevens experience.

Lonergan, unsurprisingly, says the Nines' arrival in Auckland can be likened to the Warriors winning entry into the Winfield Cup, and has no doubts it will blossom into a cherished occasion on New Zealand's sporting calendar.

"I think this will be the biggest occurrence in rugby league since the Warriors made the NRL, which is by far and away the biggest thing in rugby league history in this country," he said.

"I think very quickly this tournament will grow to have that sort of significance."