Call me crazy. Call me a massive homer. Call me someone still heavily intoxicated from October 6.
But the Sydney Roosters have picked an Auckland Nines team that will surprise some people, especially when you consider the pool they are in who is in the squads they’ll face.
The Sydney Roosters NRL Auckland Nines squad.
Mitchell Pearce (Co-Captain), Jake Friend (Co-Captain), Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Aidan Guerra, Kane Evans, Daniel Tupou, Samisoni Langi, Jackson Hastings, Dylan Napa, Isaac Liu, Nene Macdonald, Jonathon Rueben, Paul Rokolati, Rhyse Martin, Saulala Houma, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Brad “God” Fittler.
Will they win the Nines? I wouldn’t bet on it. But they’ll be extremely interesting and throw caution to the wind, and I’m tipping them to progress past the pool stages. They are incredibly young across the park, picking a squad of up-and-comers for the most part.
Of the 17 chosen, just nine have played first grade before. Of those nine, three have played less than 10 games in the top grade (Napa, Langi and Taukeiaho).
A slim squad was expected given the World Club Challenge is next week and given the RLWC commitments at the Roosters extended to 16 players.
It’s young, but it’s talented and most of all: it’s damn intriguing.
They have picked speed-blessed ball-runners that can get outside their men with ease and bump off tackles. We know what Daniel Tupou is capable of: he averaged 3.3 tackles a game,nearly a line break a match and nearly 10 metres a run in 2013 — and that was in the 13-a-side game.
We also know what SKD can do when he pins his ears back — and this format may give him the opportunity to get some attacking confidence heading into the NRL. Once considered among the most dangerous centres in the NRL, his attack dropped off significantly in 2013 and needs to catch up with his much improved defence if he is to ever regain that mantle.
If he doesn’t step back into the defence and just concentrates on getting around his man, he can be a real threat in the tournament.
Sio Siua Taukeiaho is a winger, a centre, a front rower and a second-rower. He’s six feet and 100 kegs. He’s played just the one first grade game in Round 26 last year, a game the Dragons won. He’s Vatuvei-lite and provides great utility coverage.
Paul Rokolati can put a big hit on for a winger, has some serious pace and evasive skills and can bump off a tackle with ease. Whether he has the strength to compete with the regular first graders he’ll face is another question, but this is the perfect opportunity for the Newtown Jet to show the NRL world what he’s capable of.
The two most intriguing of the “backs” however are Nene McDonald and Jonathon Reuben.
Nene needs to add some weight, and could probably take some diet advice from his NBA namesake who is built like a brick shithouse. But he is light on his feet and has some deceptive strong upper body strength that he can use well near the line. His late footwork at the line is a real weapon; whether it translates to the NRL is another question, but in the Nines he could shred.
And Reuben could be the outside back Roosters coach Trent Robinson said he was looking for during the Fan’s Forum last year. He has the size and clearly the speed to make it in the NRL. He may struggle to break into First Grade with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Toops in front of him, but the Nines are a good introduction at least, and he could become the legitimate backup option Robbo was after with a good showing in Auckland.
Raiders fans are upset the kid was allowed to leave. He has a good head on his shoulders and the talent to excel.
This is where I think the Roosters have a real advantage over the other teams in their pool, because none of their forwards are your typical metre-makers. They are dangerous in their own right and can find a gap where most forwards cannot.
Take Guerra, the hardest player to predict what he’ll do when he has the ball. The Gumby wannabe runs like he’s constantly slipping on a banana peel while trying to grab a railing to stop his fall, but he nearly always falls over the line. Defences rarely if ever have a fucking clue what he’s doing — and I am sure neither do his team-mates.
I wrote a few weeks ago that I expect him to lead the Nines in tries scored by a forward, and nothing has changed.
Dylan Napa will put at least one big hit on, and possibly face a sin-binning. But he can actually run a line and has a good pass just before the defence, and could surprise some people with that aspect of his game during the tournament.
We became very familiar with Isaac Liu last year, and he is the most typical metre eater in the team besides untried rookies Rhyse Martin and Saulala Houma. But he showed some good whole running off short passing at the line in patches last year, and has the size to exploit an offload in a tournament where gang-tackling isn’t a smart tactic.
But this is Kane Evans’ big introduction into the limelight, and Roosters fans are expecting big things from the towering Fijian rep.
He can chew metres if he needs to, and can offload at will if he wants. But his big advantage in this tournament — and the Roosters’ big advantage as well — is his incredible speed for such a unit.
He can leave most backs in his wake, and his long stride can be near-impossible to stop with momentum. This is a glimpse of what all Roosters fans have been waiting to see for two years now.
But they probably aren’t as excited about Evans as they are about seeing two of the most famous names in Roosters’ history line up together.
The Chooks have stacked their team with ball-players, moreso than any other team in their pool that includes Parramatta, Brisbane and Canterbury. At any one point in a given nine-minute session, the Roosters could field Mitchell Pearce, Jake Friend, Samisoni Langi, Jackson Hastings and Brad Fittler.
It’s the last two this writer, and many Roosters fans, are looking forward to seeing.
26 Rounds — with an assist from Twitter’s @SkidzzHDRooster — broke the news a couple of weeks ago that Jackson Hastings was likely to play in the Nines and that the Roosters were set to combine two of the most famous names in the club’s modern history.
Well, with the Roosters’ naming of the squad last night, the story turned out to be true.
Fittler and Hastings are separated by 25 years in age, and both are the players Roosters fans are most drooling to see.
Hastings is as close to what many consider a sure thing in the game of Rugby League. Possessing a body much more mature than his age, he has all the tools: a short-and-long kicking and passing game, a steppy running game, a smart football IQ and goal-kicking.
Like anyone that age, his defence will no doubt needs some work. But like anyone that age, he’s that age. Give him time and he is a can’t miss star in the NRL. The Nines give him the perfect platform to show off his wares, of which many fans have yet to be exposed to.
And Fittler? I’m nervous, excited, scared and exhilarated by having the chance to watch him play again, even if it’s been a full decade since he played a meaningful game. Last night I cried and orgasmed at the exact same time over the thought, a first here at the 26 Rounds offices.
Some of that left-foot step should still be there, and he’s still been active in the game in terms of analysis so his IQ should be fine. You also don’t lose that cut-out very easily.
Defensively? He’ll be targeted. It would be remiss of opposition teams not to run at him every chance they get, and that will try him out at his age.
But it’s nine-minute halves and 18 minute games. They have unlimited interchange.
And it’s Brad Fucking Fittler.
The Opposition: The Green Pool.
Willie Tonga, Kenny Edwards, Bureta Faraimo, John Folau, Manu Ma’u, Fuifui Moimoi, Corey Norman, Pauli Pauli, Joseph Paulo, Nathan Peats, Api Pewhairangi, Semi Radradra, Chris Sandow, Ken Sio, Peni Terepo and Vai Toutai
Ben Barba, Josh Hoffman, Dale Copley, Alex Glenn, Stewart Mills, Kodi Nikorima, Ben Hunt, Martin Kennedy, Andrew McCullough (C), Sam Thaiday, Matt Gillett, Ben Drew, Corey Parker (C), David Stagg, Todd Lowrie, Zach Strasser, Jo Ofahengaue, Jake Granville.
Sam Perrett, Mitch Brown, Chase Stanley, Tyrone Phillips, Tom Murphy, Moses Mbye, Drury Low, Tim Browne, Mick Ennis (C), Dale Finucane, Josh Jackson, Tony Williams, Pat O’Hanlon, Lachlan Burr, Corey Thompson, Lloyd Perrett.
All these teams have a heavy focus on speed as well, yet for some reason the likes of Sam Thaiday, Marty Kennedy, Corey Parker, Fui Fui Moi Moi and Tim Browne don’t strike fear into my heart — at least not in this tournament.
There is danger in these squads though.
Ben Barba will be keen to impress from the jump, as will Tony Williams — who in the shorter game could be devastating (but probably won’t be).
Sandow is also a threat, but has he bounced back after a rough 2013? Norman makes me nervous; a creative player who could thrive in the Nines conditions.
I could give less than a shit for Mick Ennis in this tournament though; and sadly, he stands out as the Bulldogs’ best distributor.
The Broncos will have to rely heavily on Barba manufacturing a better ball-playing game, even though he doesn’t possess the long ball that those in the Roosters — Freddy, Hastings, MP7, Friend and Langi — possess.
Of those teams, the Broncos and Bulldogs seem too top-heavy and forwards-focused, while the Eels strike me as shit.
The Roosters, I believe, will progress to the next round. They won’t win the whole thing, and Roosters fans shouldn’t expect them to. But this tournament is about more than that: it’s about getting excited for the future and reminiscing about the past through a God.
It’s a glimpse at both while we live in a present that is pretty damn good.
Note: Jake Jarmel will sadly be away for the Sunday session, so in his stead the great DMW will do a review of the Roosters at the Nines. He brings an old-school flavour of writing to the table, one that always takes me on a trip down a lane of some kind.