It was the perfect start on a perfect day.
The Auckland Nines arrived in spectacular fashion, unveiling a dream script of the Warriors dominating the opening day by virtue of their two biggest stars.
Shaun Johnson and Sam Tomkins more than lived up to their advanced billing as the potential wizards of the abbreviated form of the game, running off the high-octane adrenaline of a sun-baked full house who roared them to impressive victories over Canberra and Manly yesterday.
It left the Warriors as favourites to take off the $375,000 winner's purse at Eden Park today but also had former club great Stacey Jones salivating about the combination of Johnson and Tomkins taking the New Zealand franchise to even greater prizes this season.
"They are going to cause a lot of trouble for other teams this year if they keep going like that," said Jones after watching the pair taunt Canberra in a 25-14 win and combine again to see off the dangerous Sea Eagles 24-5.
Johnson and Tomkins were at the forefront of a pulsating performance from a young Warriors squad who were also well served by fellow speedster Glen Fisiiahi.
"It has been a pretty good day for us," said Johnson who admitted the Warriors were feeding off the local fans' energy.
"The crowd has been awesome. The response to the tournament has been mind-blowing. All the players have been talking about it."
Tomkins took only minutes to show Warriors fans why he is so highly rated.
The English import was lightning quick out of dummy half, showed strength beyond his stature in confrontations and a nice ball-playing game to go with his startling pace in playing a hand in the Warriors' opening two tries against the Raiders.
"He's done exactly what I thought he was going to do," Johnson said. "He's not the biggest player, but he's got a big heart."
Tomkins was equally complimentary of Johnson and said the pair's combination would only get sharper as the season progresses.
"He is good, he is a talented player," Tomkins said. "He has got good hands and good feet. That goes throughout the team. We showed out there that there are some real quick guys in our team, so they are going to cause some problems. Today we showed a glimpse of what we can do, we can certainly get a lot better."
The Warriors have a last pool game against North Queensland today but are all but confirmed in the quarterfinals. The next most impressive teams were Parramatta - despite being one of the worst sides in the NRL last year they beat the Roosters and Bulldogs and look well equipped for this form of the game - and Ivan Cleary's Panthers, the only other side to win both games.
Brilliant Auckland weather and some stunning league ensured the nines bounded into the consciousness of Auckland fans and the wider Kiwi sporting public.
The tournament's first day's success was also noted across the Tasman. Writing in Sydney's Sun-Herald, veteran league writer Steve Mascord said the event had "the hallmarks of something grand" and was the "PR equivalent of a right hook" to rugby in New Zealand.
"There are those who say Auckland is actually 'a league town' - or close to becoming one, anyway," wrote Mascord.
"Fans came dressed as everyone from Caligula to Steve Matai, they cheered like they were actually paying attention and Warriors stars Sam Tomkins and Shaun Johnson were so good it gave you goosebumps," wrote Mascord.
Former Aussie great Brad Fittler, who turned out for the Sydney Roosters, was effusive in his praise of the format and the event itself.
Fittler, who received the biggest cheer of the day with a runaway intercept try against Brisbane, has already put his hand up to play in next year's tournament. He urged every club to include one former great in their 2015 tournament squads. The 42-year-old came out of retirement for the nines after 10 years out of the game.
"Out on that pitch it's awesome," he said.
- Fairfax Media
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