2016 AUCKLAND NINES: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED FROM DAY TWO

2016 AUCKLAND NINES: FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED FROM DAY TWO Written by SHAYNE BUGDEN, February 7, 2016

HERE’S five things we learned from Day Two of the 2016 Auckland Nines, as Parramatta collected the trophy with an upset 22-4 victory over the Warriors in the final.

1. Corey Norman was a standout in every Parra game and stood above every other player in Auckland and was a no-brainer for player of the tournament. Sure, Bevan French set a tryscoring record and Semi Radradra is now the all-time leading tryscorer in Nines history, but neither of them would’ve made such a mark if it weren’t for Norman, who seemed to throw the last pass or be the footballing brains behind 90 per cent of the Eels’ scores. He and the wingers will grab most of the limelight, but don’t overlook Vai Toutai. He consistently ran like a man with a point to prove, scoring his share of meat pies and providing a killer last pass to put French over in their semifinal. Junior Paulo deserves a mention for some outstanding work in the middle of the park, too.

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2. Chins up, all you crushed Warriors fans. The silver lining to these Nines was the return of Shaun Johnson, who demonstrated that he hasn’t lost any pace or stepping ability since he shattered his ankle last year. His last-minute try against the Broncos was a thing of beauty, showcasing the blinding acceleration and mind-boggling changes of direction that have become his hallmarks. Considering the severity of his injury and the fact the screws in his leg actually broke during his rehab, the speed of his return to the field – and the quality of his play – was remarkable. Aside from what appeared to be a cork, he came through unscathed. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck had several brilliant moments and his partnership with Johnson should be one of the highlights of the season.

3. There was a period there when the Titans were shaping up to be a great feel-good story. After all the setbacks they’ve had in the offseason, not least of which was the loss for the year of Kane Elgey, getting to within one game of the final was an excellent effort for a club that’s seemingly always under the gun. And if they’d made it a bit further we might’ve seen Agnatius Paasi pick up the player of the tournament gong. There wasn’t a better forward in Auckland. Not only did he run over people and bend the defence at will, he had a great motor for a big man and showed great pace on the many times he broke the line. Then there’s that kicking game he seemingly pulled out of nowhere. If he keeps that up in the season proper he’s got cult hero written all over him.

4. Cronulla… what happened? The Sharks may have lost Valentine Holmes, but they still lobbed across the ditch with one of the strongest squads of any side. Coach Shane Flanagan told RLW the boys were up to avenge last year’s defeat in the final and take out the whole shebang. They were well on their way, going undefeated on day one and looking very good in downing the Titans and Dragons, but that 18-6 loss to the Raiders must’ve hurt badly. Just one more point from that encounter and they’d have progressed to the quarter finals. Now their justifiably optimistic fans will be scratching their heads.

5. What will the coaches take out of the Nines? If they’re lucky, a very short injury list and a reason to feel quietly confident about their side’s depth. Lots of young players excelled in Auckland, and while Cameron Munster, Jamie Buhrer and Jayden Hodges did get significantly hurt, most coaches aside from Manly’s Trent Barrett will be pretty relieved to have come through relatively unscathed. On the rare occasions the commentators stopped talking long enough for us to hear the instructions players were getting in the halftime huddles – a great and rare opportunity to hear tactics first-hand – the message was often to support each other with the ball and turn up for each other in defence. And while Barrett’s casualty list was long, he’d have to be proud of the way his side fought through it.

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