NRL.com's Auckland Nines wish list
Much like any other Downer Auckland Nines squad that's ever been, the 10 players NRL.com hope to see at the 2017 edition of the tournament on February 4-5 has a mix of youth and experience.
10. Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys)
One of the greatest individuals to ever play the game is yet to feature at Eden Park in the summer months. Granted international duties for the Kangaroos just prior usually takes precedence, but Thurston will be sure to light up the Nines after his availability was confirmed last October. Smart money says he'd pack a suitcase of headgears too.
9. Luciano Leilua (Dragons)
The younger brother of Raiders centre Joey ended conjecture over his own playing future by re-signing with St George Illawarra just before Christmas. Next stop for the 20-year-old is surely now Auckland. The wrecking ball played the Dragons' final five games of the NRL season and will no doubt add to that in 2017.
8. Blake Ferguson (Roosters)
The Roosters utility is now a proven mainstay in the Australian Test side – as the current Harry Sunderland Medallist – which may work against his potential Nines debut. Regardless the 26-year-old floated around the Roosters' back five the entire 2016 season meaning his ability to handle the occasion shouldn't come into question.
7. Jamal Idris (Wests Tigers)
It's been almost two years since Idris last appeared in the NRL and the game has been poorer for his absence. The former Panthers and Bulldogs cult hero is looking to turn over a new leaf at the Wests Tigers by competing with Kevin Naiqama and Tim Simona for a centre spot. What better way to work out how three fits into two than in Auckland?
6. Greg Inglis (Rabbitohs)
On his day the Rabbitohs skipper is one of the most destructive players in the NRL. The space the Nines would allow the Queensland and Australian veteran is a recipe for disaster, specifically for the 15 other teams. An Auckland Nines berth is one of the few things Inglis is yet to experience across illustrious career.
5. Suliasi Vunivalu (Storm)
Most rookies get their chance to shine in the pre-season Nines tournament but the Storm's Fijian sensation had to wait for the NRL season proper to get a taste of first grade football last year. Vunivalu repaid coach Craig Bellamy's faith with a competition-high try-scoring tally (19) on the wing.
4. Sam Burgess (Rabbitohs)
The England captain is a ready-made Nines star if ever given the opportunity. The robust Rabbitohs forward suits the style of Nines play to a T especially in terms of offloads. Burgess finished with the sixth most offloads (49) competition-wide throughout the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership season.
3. Kalyn Ponga (Cowboys)
Ponga's first taste of Nines football – if selected – will coincide with his final season at the Cowboys. A debut Nines berth will also confirm the 18-year-old remains in North Queensland coach Paul Green's 2017 plans. The Knights-bound fullback will run riot in Auckland if given the opportunity.
2. David Klemmer (Bulldogs)
Imagine the destruction and carnage Klemmer would cause if he only had nine defenders in front of him? Following the likes of James Tamou, Andrew Fifita, Suaia Matagi and George Burgess, if the 23-year-old ever gets the chance to play at the Nines he'd be short odds for a Team of the Tournament spot.
1. Billy Slater (Storm)
The Queensland Origin and Australian veteran has had a wretched run with shoulder injuries over the past two years, which may throw yet another Nines campaign into disarray. On his day, Slater is one of the most exciting players in the NRL. The Nines could prove the perfect platform for him to show he still has plenty of fuel in the tank.