New Zealand's newest sporting party has kicked off at Eden Park, with some of league's greatest players being welcomed onto Eden Park by a crowd dressed as pirates, pixies, cowboys and assorted cartoon characters.
The Cronulla Sharks - featuring one of league's hardest men, Paul Gallen - kicked-off the NRL Auckland Nines when they faced off against the Wayne Bennett-coached Newcastle Knights shortly after 12.30pm.
It is one of 16 matches on the opening day of the two-day tournament, which will attract more than 45,000 sports fans to Eden Park both today and tomorrow.
Among the crowd on hand to witness today's kick-off was Brian Collett, dressed as an African warrior.
He said: ''This is going to be a great sporting party.
"Everyone seems to be in a great mood and ready to have an awesome time. It's going to be mean checking out the footy, as well as all the fun in the crowd."
David Berryman, who came dressed in the colours of his beloved Warriors, said: "I'm just looking forward to two days of non-stop action.
"I really hope this event can be even better than the sevens in Wellington. It's a great idea and as a league fan it's cool to be able to watch some of my favourite players so early in the year."
The Nines were launched with a brief opening ceremony, starting at 11.45am, featuring a formal Maori welcome to the 16 competing clubs.
Auckland mayor Len Brown made a short address, with several league fans booing him following last year's revealations surrounding his private life.
NRL chief executive Dave Smith said he believed nines promoters Duco Events had struck onto a winning formula.
Not only would the tournament attract a huge crowd to Eden Park, but it was also likely to benefit rugby league in New Zealand long term.
''This is a fantastic opportunity to grow our game in New Zealand and for our clubs and players to share in a significant new investment in rugby league,'' Smith said.
''It is an exciting format that will attract new fans and television audiences and it provides a stage for rising stars to emerge and showcase their skills alongside the biggest names in our game.''
He said the reaction the NRL had witnessed in Auckland in the lead-up to the tournament had exceeded the sporting body's ''wildest expectation'' for the first year of the event.
The initial NRL Auckland Nines contract has secured the City of Sails hosting rights on an initial three-year term, with an option for a further two years.
While the debut event is restricted to just the 16 NRL clubs, the NRL has been approached from officials from SuperLeague clubs in the UK interested in sending teams down under to future tournaments.
Some of rugby league's greatest playing and coaching talent had spoken out as staunch supporters of the NRL Auckland Nines concept in the months leading up to kick-off.
Queensland great Mal Meninga predicted it ''will be our advertisement for rugby league around the world''.
New South Wales legend Laurie Daley said the nines would be a ''wonderful spectacle''.
As well as a huge crowd - many of whom had donned fancy dress or the replica jerseys of their favourite club for the event - players from the NRL clubs were also welcomed by a sizeable police and security contingent at Eden Park.
Police and security guards are patrolling the streets surrounding Eden Park this weekend, as well as monitoring behaviour inside the ground, in a bid to avoid drunken and loutish behaviour.
Last weekend's IRB Sevens tournament at Wellington's Westpac Stadium was marred by evictions and arrests.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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