Rising star set to cut James Graham’s minutes
YOUNG guns arrived, flyers flew, injuries wreaked havoc, old boys wound back the clock and the Cowboys won a second title - Perth's NRL Nines had everything and more.
Check out three things we learned about every NRL club from the 2020 Nines.
1. Jamayne Isaako is under pressure to clinch the vacant No.1 jumper for the NRL premiership. While he scored a try in Brisbane's 12-8 defeat of Melbourne, Isaako was largely disappointing across the tournament. He missed a soft tackle for a Storm try and coach Kurt Richards wanted Isaako to provide more coverage when the Cowboys scored a long-range try on day one. If Isaako wants to be a long-term fullback, he needs to improve his positional play and communication.
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2. Broncos halfbacks Brodie Croft and Tom Dearden are going to wage a fascinating battle for the No.7 jumper in the coming years. When the Broncos signed Croft over summer, the 18-year-old Dearden was entitled to be a tad concerned. Croft has the inside running but Dearden will keep him honest. While the Broncos crashed out in the pool stage, the playmakers were among Brisbane's best. Croft looked sharp in the opening game against the Cowboys while Dearden threw some nice balls, including a try-assist for Jake Turpin on day one.
3. The Nines was a sign that David Fifita and Payne Haas are going to be marked men this season. The Brisbane hulks were tipped to carve-up in Perth but the Cowboys clearly hatched a pre-game plan to muzzle them. Whenever Haas and Fifita got the ball, Cowboys players raced up to cut down any time to build momentum. The Storm followed suit on day two, smashing Fifita just as he attempted to crash over from close range. Fifita and Haas are too talented to be stopped completely but they will have to come to terms with opponents formulating game plans to prevent them winning the ruck.
1. Dean Britt. The hard-running son of former Canterbury prop Darren Britt was superb in Perth. In his debut for the club, after previous stints at Melbourne and South Sydney, young Britt oozed toughness and a willingness to get down and dirty that is everything the Dogs love. A big two weeks of trial matches ahead for Britt and he could cement a starting spot in the Canterbury front-row.
2. Underdogs. The Dogs opening-round pool win against the Eels was everything that the blue and whites will thrive on. Nobody gave them a chance and that's exactly what Canterbury's Nines captain Corey Harawira-Naera said the club will relish in 2020. "We have got them (Eels) in Round 1 of the season, so we wanted to make a statement here,'' Harawira-Naera said.
"I can see where this club is going and hopefully - and I know it's only Nines - we can show our fans what I see. I know we're the underdogs and for me personally, I thrive on it.''
3. Tight kennel. Sure, the Dogs bowed out without reaching the finals, but there was enough shown on day one from Canterbury to suggest their famous fight and character will feature heavily in 2020. Their attitude in defence, particularly, from their rookies, in their 13-10 win over the Eels was impossible to miss. "We've been working really hard on our togetherness and putting the performance out there that we can be proud of, so it was really pleasing,'' coach Dean Pay said.
1. Stop the fight. Scott Drinkwater has won the ding-dong battle for the No.6 jumper for the NRL premiership. Jake Clifford is a promising player but Drinkwater outshone him at the Nines and must partner Michael Morgan in the halves for Round 1 against the Broncos. The former Storm utility was outstanding and he thoroughly deserved player-of-the-tournament honours after steering the Cowboys to victory in the final. Drinkwater is clever, oozes class and his left-foot kick perfectly complements Morgan's right-sided attacking forays.
2. Holy Hamiso. Nines success is no guarantee of dominating in the 13-a-side code but something must go horribly wrong for Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow not to become a 10-year NRL player. It's one thing to have God-given speed and skill but without a good work ethic, the gifted do not make it. The 'Hammer' ticks all the boxes. The 186cm fullback flyer has the drive to succeed and his two kick-and-regather tries, including one in the final, was testament to his confidence and talent. Cowboys coach Paul Green will choke on his Cornflakes but we're calling it now: Tabuai-Fidow will play Origin and Test football.
3. It's easy to get seduced by attacking flair at the Nines but it was a Cowboys forward who made a big statement in Perth. The 'Hess Express' is hungry again. Coen Hess had a forgettable 2019 campaign. Who could forget the dressing-room vision of coach Paul Green berating the hapless Hess in a half-time spray against the Wests Tigers? But the hulking back-rower was very good at the Nines. He ran with vigour and displayed the aggression that won him a Queensland Origin jumper two years ago.
1. The good spies have had the name Cody Ramsey in their black books for a while. But to the rest of the rugby league world, it will be at the 2020 Perth Nines that he arrived.
The Dragons under-20s player of the year finished the Nines as the leading tryscorer with four tries and was also named in the team of the tournament. Still 20, Ramsey will push hard for an NRL debut this season. The good thing for the apprentice plumber is, Dragons coach Paul McGregor can't afford to die wondering and given the Dragons' lack of star power in their backline, you'd back the rookie to earn his dream.
2. The word out of St George-Illawarra is that James Graham's minutes will drop significantly in 2020 as the veteran comes towards the end of his career. Well, meet the man that wants to take his spot: Josh Kerr. Kerr couldn't have done anything more in Perth - and not only in the way he carried the footy. The Dragons need players willing to chase every kick, produce effort upon effort, and a quick look at Kerr's three tries is exactly that.
3. The majority of what the Dragons were able to achieve in Perth was on the back of their big-money halfback Ben Hunt. For me, that's a great sign for 2020. Sure not all of it was gold, but without Gareth Widdop in 2020, Hunt will need to lead and take ownership of the Dragons and that was certainly on show in Perth.
1. While hyped rookie Stefano Utoikamanu didn't exactly tear apart the competition in Perth - and admitted to being "heaps nervous" - the 19-year-old did enough to confirm himself a SuperCoach cheapie that he will definitely play a role in the NRL this year. Asked about appearing for the Eels in Round 1, he said: "I'm working hard and hopefully I get there".
2. Nines favourites Parramatta may have been surprisingly knocked out by St George Illawarra, but coach Brad Arthur insists he got what he wanted from the tournament. "No injuries," the coach deadpanned afterwards. While Maika Sivo was rested from the semi-final loss, given he took a big hit earlier in the day, Arthur insisted the winger was "just tired". Skipper Clint Gutherson was also cleared, despite showing visible discomfort with his arm late in the Dragons loss. "We're good," Arthur said.
3. Eels skipper Clint Gutherson looks in for a big year after being named in the Nines 'Team of the Tournament'. Winger Blake Ferguson also performed exactly as one expects of a NSW Origin star, proving one of the Eels' best over both days.
1. Remember those oldies who found a magic pool in Cocoon? Well, we reckon Kurt Gidley is in the same water aerobics group. Now 37, and two years removed from his last game with Warrington, the Knights Old Boy didn't so much help his Novocastrians into the quarter-finals as prove a genuine star. Truly, you have to reckon the former NSW Origin skipper retired to soon. Undoubtedly Cocoonish.
2. SuperCoach types would do well to keep an eye on Tex Hoy, with the young Newcastle fullback a genuine chance of making his NRL debut this season - most likely around Origin time when Kalyn Ponga heads into camp with the Queenslanders. The son of Newcastle surfing icon Matt Hoy was a standout for the Novocastrians, who were eventually bundled out in the playoffs by Parramatta.
3. No injuries for the Knights which, to be honest, is the one thing every club really wanted to leave Perth with.
1. A refereeing howler not only punted Penrith from the NRL Nines, but cost hulking No.11 Viliame Kikau any chance of being named Player of the Tournament. Outstanding over two days, the Fijian tearaway scored tries, set them up and had old Sydney Swan Nick Davis fearing for his life on the Roosters edge. "He's a beast," halfback Nathan Clearly said afterwards.
2. Penrith No.9 Api Koroisau announced himself as a star off-season buy at the NRL Nines. Apart from enjoying a strong tournament in Perth, it's understood coach Ivan Cleary wants the Manly Sea Eagles import to get back to playing for 80 minutes this season.
3. Just like Hazzard County had Bo and Luke Duke, so the Panthers now have their own exciting pair of cousins. Temora boys Trent Barrett and Liam Martin are both shaping as key to any success out west in 2020. Still only 22, rising backrower Martin was outstanding over two days of the Nines while big cousin 'Baz' is getting plenty of raps as the club's new attacking coach.
1. Undoubtedly the biggest positive for the Roosters was coach Trent Robinson narrowly escaping a manslaughter charge after putting Sydney Swans Old Boy Nick Davis up against Panthers powerhouse Viliame Kikau. While Robbo was not in Perth for the event, his decision to play Davis saw the former Swannie oppose Kikau on day one - and subsequently get owned. Still, he lived, which was a positive.
2. While all the headlines have been about the Roosters chasing Cronulla's Josh Morris, the Nines proved a big tournament for rising centre McKenzie Baker who scored a hat-trick against the Warriors. Elsewhere, good judges say the player with most potential from the Roosters 2020 Nines team is young backrower Egan Butcher, younger brother of Nat.
3. Bundled out after only two games, the Chooks still headed for Perth airport reporting no injuries. Which was welcome news, no doubt, for coach Trent Robinson … but probably more so the North Sydney Bears NSW Cup side.
1. The Bunnies have got a serious weapon on their flanks in Edene Gebbie. In his first season for Souths, the Papua New Guinea International announced himself as a genuine go-to option for Wayne Bennett out wide. Big, fast and menacing in defence, Gebbie looked at home at fullback and wing throughout the entire weekend. Gebbie has spent the past two seasons plying his trade in Queensland's ISC competition, playing with the PNG Hunters in 2018 where he was named the rookie of the year, and the Wynnum-Manly Seagulls in 2019 where he led almost all of the attacking statistics in the competition.
2. Losing a player to injury at the Nines ahead of the season-proper is every coach's worst nightmare - and unfortunately for Wayne Bennett, he's almost certain to be without QLD Origin backrower Ethan Lowe for their first round clash with Cronulla. Lowe suffered a medial ligament injury in his knee with scans to confirm the full extent of the damage. Lowe could miss anywhere between two and six weeks.
3. Damien Cook was without doubt the most influential player for Souths all weekend. Cook was his typically dynamic self, but what was noticeable was his real effort to showcase his ever-evolving kicking game. Cook nailed several long kicks down field out of dummy-half, which will give Souths a huge asset in 2020.
1. At the risk of sounding like a second-rate Buddhist monk, the main thing we learned about Canberra is that we learned nothing. Dunamis Lui and Sam Williams were the only regular first graders to take the field - Elliott Whitehead travelled to Perth and didn't play a second. Ricky Stuart has never taken the Nines very seriously, and this year was no exception.
2. Having said that, there were a few up and comers who impressed. The club is very excited about the future of Harley Smith-Shields, and he showed some very classy touches, as did young centre Matthew Timoko.
3. Of the more established players, hooker Tom Starling impressed. Canberra had plenty of success stories in 2019, but Starling was one who slipped under the radar. The former Knight began the year on a train and trial deal, then was elevated to the development squad and after Josh Hodgson was injured midway through the year Starling played three NRL games off the bench. Quick off the mark and capable of
holding his own despite his size, Starling had a good tournament and will do the job if called upon by Ricky Stuart.
1. Luke Metcalf is a gun. The Nines means different things to different people. For Metcalf, it was the end of a nightmare and the beginning of a dream. The former NSW under-18s halfback missed 12 months of footy after undergoing a knee reconstruction last year. But you would never have known, with his three-try highlights package which included blistering speed, the absolute highlight of the weekend for the entire Manly club. In Metcalf, coach Des has a genuine back-up to Daly Cherry Evans in 2020.
2. Reed Izzard is the son of former Penrith and Parramatta star Craig Izzard - and we're going to be hearing the famous footy name for a long time to come if this weekend was anything to go by. Reed, 22 flew to Perth with a chance to show Des Hasler he's ready for NRL after proving a standout in recent years in the lower grades at the Panthers, the club where his dad and uncle Brad are household names. Reed, originally from Blacktown, signed a three-year deal with Manly and could prove a quality utility with the ability to play five-eighth, back-row and hooker
3. It had nothing to do with impact on the field, but the leadership of Nines captain Marty Taupau has to be admired. There's a wonderful photo of the lethal forward standing on the sideline handing out water bottles to his teammates during the Sea Eagles opening-round pool match. It says a lot about the character of the man who will be instrumental for Manly again in 2020.
1. The Sharks simply can't let Josh Morris go. Of all the hype surrounding the return to Cronulla of young gun Jesse Ramien, it was the veteran centre who made every post a winner in Perth. He scored a hat-trick of tries and in doing so, Morris' performance only reaffirmed why Cronulla would be mad to release him to the Roosters.
2. Shaun Johnson told us before the Nines that despite him being one of the world's best exponents of the shortened format, his only focus was on being ready for round one of the NRL season - not the Perth Nines. Well, Sharks fans will be hoping Johnson is true to his word because the playmakers usual zip and flair was noticeably absent over the weekend.
3. Local junior Connor Tracey is a genuine contender to be selected as coach John Morris' number 14 for round one. Having returned to his home club after a brief stint at Souths, Tracey showed plenty over the two days both in attack and defence. Capable of playing anywhere in the halves, lock or dummy-half, Tracey has a stack of pace and would be perfect for the Sharks as a player that can come into the game and expose tired forwards.
1. Coaches dread the prospect of losing a big-name star at the Nines so Craig Bellamy will be relieved that Cameron Munster came through unscathed. The Queensland Origin sensation had some nice touches, scoring the Storm's opening try of the tournament in their loss to Manly. Munster looks in good shape and the Storm need him to go to another level at five-eighth this season to hit back as a premiership contender.
2. Tino Fa'asuamaleaui is another Storm monster. At just 19, the Queensland under-20s forward is already 113kg and at 195cm, he was a frightening sight for NRL rivals at the Nines. Big Tino flexed his muscle in the Storm's second pool game, using his bulk to crash over from close range against the Broncos. Fa'asuamaleaui played five first-grade games last season and will be looking for a huge 2020 before he joins the Titans next year.
3. Storm legend Cameron Smith could be on the verge of retirement this season but Melbourne have a promising hooker in Harry Grant. The 21-year-old has been linked with a 12-month loan to the Wests Tigers but the Storm have high hopes for Grant. He was busy at the Nines and played with the hunger of a rookie itching to succeed in the NRL. Grant and Brandon Smith are handy options as the Storm prepare for life after King Cam.
1. Yes it's only Nines but already new coach Justin Holbrook is stamping his mark on the club. The Titans' charge to the semi-finals was no fluke. There was a palpable sense of hunger among the squad in Perth and Holbrook's frustration at not making the final underlines his desire to bring a harder edge to the Titans. Holbrook will not tolerate slackers at Parkwood. There is a new energy at the Titans and their excellent Nines showing will inject confidence for the NRL premiership.
2. Ash Taylor looks a rejuvenated figure. The Titans' $1 million man hit rock bottom last season with his mental demons but Taylor says he is happy again and he played accordingly at HBF Park. The halfback showed some classy touches and scored the try against Tigers that propelled the Titans into the quarter-finals. While Taylor missed the semi-final with a minor calf strain, he will be fit for Round 1 and is revelling in the new regime at the Titans.
3. Defence will be a key focus of the Titans' planned fightback in 2020. While Nines is hit-and-giggle for some teams, the Titans displayed a serious intent without the ball in Perth. The Coast leaked more than 1000 points in the past two seasons. That's simply farcical. At HBF Park, Jai Arrow led the way with his ironman efforts and the Titans were consistently vocal in defence across the two days. Tyrone Peachey, Bryce Cartwright and Phillip Sami bounced between awful and average last year but the trio were all outstanding at the Nines.
1. It's the same old story for the Warriors. Until they improve their execution and defensive application, the Warriors will be also-rans in the NRL premiership. The Warriors were awful in defence in their 34-0 loss to the Knights on day one. Then they were beaten by a rookie Roosters side on day two. Some of their tryline defence was woefully soft.
2. Paul Turner was one of the few shining lights for the Warriors. The 19-year-old playmaker scored his side's best try of the tournament, showing a blinding turn of speed to cross in the corner in their 14-8 loss to the Roosters. Turner was the club's Jersey Flegg player of the year last season and is hoping to take the next step as an NRL playmaker.
3. Warriors coach Steve Kearney will be pleased with Hayze Perham. The 20-year-old was chosen to get more exposure against NRL talent and Perham impressed with some incisive running and good ball skills. A former fullback, Perham played two NRL games and is eyeing a conversion to the halves.
1. Is there a better rugby league production line than the Walters clan? Based out of Ipswich, the famous footy family looks to have given us another good 'un following the strong Nines debut of Billy Walters. In his first outing for Wests Tigers, the rookie five-eighth had several strong efforts and proved a handful in attack. The 26-year-old also scored in his side's win over South Sydney while the old man, Queensland Origin coach Kevin, called it from the Fox Sports commentary box.
2. Sadly, the wonderful picture that would've been Old Boy Pat Richards sending young men twisting inside out with his towering kick offs didn't exactly eventuate. The Tigers were bundled out in straight games, with 2005 premiership hero Richards sitting out the second one.
3. On the injury front, the Tigers only concern was Paul Momirovski - who will apparently be good to start the 2020 season, even if he still doesn't know where that will be. Currently part of an ongoing player swap saga with Melbourne, Momirovski suffered an ankle injury on day one but is expected to need only two or three weeks recovery.