TWO words. Auckland Nines.
The inaugural short-form rugby league tournament finished on Sunday afternoon with a North Queensland Cowboys title, and as Gavin Cooper lifted the trophy it signified more than just the Cowboys’ first ever rugby league title - it showed us the future of rugby league.
The nines has seemingly changed the face of the game forever, in the same fashion rugby sevens enhanced the 15-man game, and the same way Twenty20 revolutionised cricket.
The fast-flowing, high-risk brand of rugby league was played at a feverish pace, and was based as much around stoic, intimidating defence (think Cronulla’s Andrew Fifita and North Queensland’s James Tamou) as it was about breathtaking attacking plays (think New Zealand’s Shaun Johnson and South Sydney’s Dylan Walker).
The tournament didn’t become an endless vision of throw-around, glorified touch football as originally predicted. Instead, the razzle-dazzle was complemented perfectly by grinding, gutsy defensive victories - particularly obvious in the Cowboys’ final 16-7 victory over the Brisbane Broncos.
It also showed us the hard-hitting, simplistic defence of decades previous is not a completely bygone prospect.
The ruck area was almost completely eradicated of the wrestling, game-slowing techniques the competition proper is now synonymous with. When they were evident, they were punished appropriately.
The players loved it, the coaches loved it and most importantly, the fans loved it. The consecutive, capacity Eden Park crowds proved as much.
Since the conclusion of the tournament the most damning criticism has been the emergence of a few serious injuries coming from the tournament.
Simply, injuries are inevitable, either in this form of the game or 13-man trials. Considering the number of serious injuries as a result of the tournament can be counted on one hand, it is hardly a credible argument.
Now, the NRL’s genuine superstars - think Greg Inglis, Jarryd Hayne and Johnathon Thurston - are reportedly chomping at the bit to play in the 2015 tournament. Couple that with the potential of expansion to include Super League teams and we have a seemingly unstoppable short-form rugby league juggernaut on our hands.
The Auckland Nines will not be a modern-day, rugby league version of fabulous 90’s band Right Said Fred - a one-hit wonder.
This tournament has changed rugby league, and is the perfect way to kick the season off.
If anyone can justly refute that I’ll eat my brand new Rabbitohs nines jersey.