Nine-a-side format gets serious prizemoney
Former Australian and State of Origin rugby league representative Willie Mason told Dean Lonergan he was dreaming when Lonergan first told him he wanted to hold a nine-a-side rugby league tournament in Auckland involving all 16 NRL clubs.
Lonergan and fellow Duco Events director David Higgins dreamed up the idea for the nines tournament but Mason - who plays for the Newcastle Knights in the NRL - originally gave the idea little chance of getting off the ground.
"To get all 16 teams over [to New Zealand] is a massive job because the NRL is very protective of their players and everything like that. [Dean Lonergan] talked to me about a year and a half ago about it and I said 'you're kidding yourself'. I said even if you get it past the NRL, there is still that much red tape to cut through."
However, everyone has their price and the $2.6 million that has been stumped up for prizemoney has prompted all 16 NRL clubs to commit to coming to the inaugural nines tournament to be held on February 15 and 16.
Mason admitted the money on offer now had the clubs taking the competition seriously.
"You're going to see the Greg Inglises and Billy Slaters and all the superstars of the game. Everybody who is available and hasn't had an operation will be made to play because of the money that's available to win," Mason told The Southland Times.
"You can win more in two days than you can in a whole year in the NRL. You can get more money in this tournament than if you win the [NRL] grand final. Obviously, the grand final is more prestigious but for a lot of clubs to win a couple of million dollars would certainly help a lot because financially not every club are in the black."
This week Mason has made a whirlwind six-day tour of New Zealand promoting the nines tournament.
He was scheduled to be in Invercargill yesterday, where some Southland Boys' High School under-15 rugby league players were going to get the chance to meet the 1.96m Australian, but a problem with his flight out of Palmerston North meant he couldn't make it.
Mason felt one of the other key positives to the tournament was the promotion rugby league would get in New Zealand.
"I think having it in New Zealand is great. If we can pack out Eden Park for two days, which is the plan, rugby league can really make a noise in New Zealand."
The 33-year-old frontrower agreed it would be the little quick men like Shaun Johnson, Cooper Cronk and Slater who would be the stars of the nine-a-side format, but he felt there was still room in the shortened game for big men like himself.
"It depends where they defend with the fullback but you're only missing four players in each team so there's going to be room for defence. In sevens you don't really see defence, but in nines there's going to still be physicality and that's where there's going to be room for big boys."
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