Big boppers will still have a place in NRL Nines

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 14/01/2014

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Naturally we expect fleet-footed little men to dominate next month's NRL Auckland Nines.

Any oval ball sport with fewer players and, therefore, more space favours those who possess speed and a sharp change of direction.

This fast-paced abbreviated format appeals for the headline-grabbing pieces on individual brilliance we'll no doubt witness from the likes of Shaun Johnson and, hopefully, new Warriors' recruit Sam Tompkins also lives up to the hype in his first appearance for the club.

But don't discount the big boppers. They could be the unsuspecting danger men.

Sonny Bill Williams has been touted as the Michael Jordan of rugby sevens. While he's not expected to turn out in the Nines, the same would be true in this arena.

To a lesser extent, other big men could have a similar impact in the 16-team tournament at Eden Park.

All 116kg of Melbourne Storm recruit George Rose won't be sighted charging up the sideline, but those in the mould of English prop Sam Burgess could be destructive.

There's no predicting just yet who will line-up at the inaugural two-day, 31-game event. Each team has to include at least one of their best five players when the 16-man squads are revealed early next month.

But the likes of New South Wales Origin stars James Tamou and Andrew Fifita are prime examples of serious units that can hold the ball in one hand off-load with up to four men in the tackle. The Gold Coast Titans have Dave Taylor; the Brisbane Broncos Matt Gillett and Sam Thaiday. The South Sydney Rabbitohs have Ben Teo and the Burgess brothers. And the Warriors can claim Ben Matulino and Feleti Mateo.

Rolling subs mean desirable ball-playing forwards can be managed wisely, too.

The ability of these athletes to attract defenders and get the ball out the back door to create space out wide for their speedsters shapes as a trump card.

"The speed men will have a field day with the open spaces but the player this game will most suit is the agile back-rowers, those with a bit of footwork and an offload," Wests Tigers captain Robbie Farah identified.

"It's hard enough 13 on 13 to contain those guys. We get coached to get two, three or four into a tackle. When there's only nine on the field it's hard to get numbers into a tackle. That makes those guys more dangerous. One-on-one tackles they can get the ball away."

Defenders will be left in two minds. Go low and an offload is likely to stretch you on the flanks. But trying to mitigate second-phase play by targeting the ball and smaller tacklers may be bumped off.

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NRL coaches will tailor their pre-season to target the regular season, but most will devote at least one week to devising tactics for the Nines. This scenario is sure to be high on the agenda.

"Hopefully, I fit into that category," NSW and Kangaroos enforcer Greg Bird said of the potentially lethal forwards. "That's the place where teams are going to be separated in this tournament. Every team has the speed guys out wide, but it's the guys in the middle that suck the opposition in – guys like Andrew Fifita and Dave Taylor – big, strong guys who can offload and step

"Even two players can't pull down those guys sometimes."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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