By STEVE MASCORD
PROMOTERS of the Auckland Nines aren’t keen to add teams next year – but if the concept is to be of any lasting benefit to rugby league aside from generating truckloads of cash, the NRL must insist on it.
A full house at Eden Park yesterday saw nines league revived at the top level in the southern hemisphere after a 17-year absence and by almost any measure, it was a triumphant return.
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.
This was en event that had the hallmarks of something grand; guides meeting officials and media in their hotel lobbies, fleets of buses, closed streets and even a dedicated lane in customs at Auckland Airport.
In a country where rugby union reigns and some of the old vestiges of anti-league bigotry survive, the NRL Nines is the PR equivalent of a right hook to the temple of the other code.
There are those who say Auckland is actually ‘a league town’ – or close to becoming one, anyway.
But in the past month, people have slowly got their heads around the potential of Nines to expand the sport as a whole. It beggars belief that most of us didn’t know until this week that rugby league nines is to be played at the Commonweath Games THIS year.
The game seems almost embarrassed about this.
We also have the Cabramatta Nines which showcases a host of international teams – this month, Canada sent a team – and annual tournaments in the north east of the United States and Las Vegas.
Nines has also been played recently in the UK, Germany and elsewhere and now Salford owner Marwan Koukash wants Super League’s Magic Weekend at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium turned into a Nines tournament.
But this new NRL administration is probably unaware of all that.
They have big plans and great expertise but a lack of perspective and knowledge on the state of the game outside their own big-buck Australasian bubble. It’s the same administration that decided on Friday to allow its clubs to raid Super League with transfer fees outside the cap, whereas if they raid each other, the fees are included.
And if there was one negative at Eden Park it was the thought of Wigan – one of our game’s most famous clubs – sitting in the grandstand getting suntans. They wanted to be out there. So, too, did Warrington and there are suggestions even cash-strapped Bradford were clamouring for a spot.
The NRL needs to identify whether it is promoting rugby league as a whole or just itself. And if it’s the former, it needs to determine how the Nines can assist in that objective. Nines will not help expand rugby league while we leave the Super League champions sitting in row G with a few bags of chips.
I understand my earlier idea of having state teams full of NRL stars in the Auckland Nines and using the tournament for some pre-season publicity in non-league states was a bit harebrained. Would the crowds have flocked yesterday to see the might of Tasmania take on the superstars of South Australia? Probably not.
But the NRL needs to get something out of the nines other than money. Underdogs, minnows and exotic combatants are part of the DNA of sevens and nines. That’s where the charm lies – although many assume it is located behind the bar.
Turn the other tournaments into qualifiers for the NRL Nines and you have an international ‘circuit’ overnight, with a minimum outlay. From there, it’s not too far to see dedicated nines franchises. Why not allow Brad Fittler, Darren Lockyer and Steve Menzies to play for the Washington DC Slayers next year?
What are we so scared of? The fact that Wigan won the World Sevens in 1992, perhaps?