The Aquis Gold Coast Titans may be fielding nine players new to last year’s NRL squad, and six youngsters who have had only one NRL appearance between them, but that’s what makes this weekend’s Downer Auckland Nines campaign exciting.
The new-look Titans side sent over to take on Cronulla, Canberra and St George Illawarra in the Piha Pool, with the quest of making the quarter-finals for the first time, is certainly that.
The six who between between them have just 30 minutes experience in the NRL are Ash Taylor (who debuted for the Broncos in round 26 last year but withdrew with injury before half-time) and debutants Brian Kelly, Greg Leleisiuao, Shane Wright, Nathan Davis – all under 20s players in 2015 – and prop Jeff Lynch who has come from the Raiders.
New to the club this season are Taylor, Davis, Lynch, Chris McQueen, Tyrone Roberts and Shannon Walker, who had previous stint before heading off for four seasons representing Australia in the Sevens version of rugby union, while Wright, Leleisiuao and Kelly were in our under-20s last year.
That means only four players in the Auckland Nines squad a year ago are back – David Mead, Anthony Don, Daniel Mortimer and Lachlan Burr.
“It’s a great opportunity for some of the young guys to show what they are capable of in a great atmosphere and I’m looking forward to them performing,” said coach Neil Henry.
“There is not a lot preparation you can put into the tournament with trials just around the corner but we’ve got plenty of speed, and youth with some senior players there too so hopefully we will do well.
“The young guys playing NRL for the first time are pretty excited and I’m sure they’ll make a good account of themselves.”
McQueen wears the Titans jersey for the first time but he knows what it takes to have success here – he was part of the South Sydney side that won the tournament last season. They beat the Sharks after going into golden-try extra-time.
He has played in the two previous Nines tournaments which makes him our most experienced player in this form of the game while Greg Bird is back in the line-up after missing last year’s series through injury.
The Titans, like a young North Queensland Cowboys who won in 2014, will go into their group as underdogs but there is plenty of pace, skill and exuberance in this side. And having little known youngsters brings the weapon of unpredictability to take on our opponents.
Kelly and Leleisiuao showed their evasive skills, and pace, in the under-20s last season and Titans fans are excited about seeing Holden Cup player of the year in 2015 Taylor, a young player also with plenty of pace, in action for the first time.
Shane Wright is a mobile back-rower who has impressed in pre-season training and Nathaniel Peteru is another “under the radar” player who is keen to do well in his return to hometown Auckland.
Our opponents in the Piha pool have selected strong line-ups with Jason Croker, at age 43, an interesting inclusion in the Raiders side while the Sharks and Dragons have picked plenty of their high profile players.
2014: North Queensland Cowboys beat Brisbane Broncos 16-7 in the final
2015: South Sydney Rabbitohs beat Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 18-14
GAME 1: v Sharks - 3.35pm NZ, 1.35pm EST, 12.35pm Qld.
GAME 2 v Raiders – 7.30pm NZ, 5.30pm EST, 4.30pm Qld.
GAME 3 v Dragons – 1.05pm NZ, 11.05am EST, 10.05am Qld.
Gold Coast Titans: 1. Anthony Don, 2. David Mead, 3. Nene McDonald, 4. Brian Kelly, 5. Greg Leleisiuao, 6. Ashley Taylor, 7. Tyrone Roberts, 8. Agnatius Paasi, 9. Matthew Srama, 10. Jeff Lynch, 11. Chris McQueen, 12. Greg Bird, 13. Lachlan Burr, 14. Daniel Mortimer (c), 15. Shane Wright, 16. Nathaniel Peteru, 17. Shannon Walker, 18. Nathan Davis.
Canberra Raiders: 1. Jordan Rapana, 2. Kato Ottio, 3. Jarrod Croker (c), 4. Brenko Lee, 5. Sisa Waqa, 6. Lachlan Croker, 7. Sam Williams, 8. Shannon Boyd, 9. Kurt Baptiste, 10. Paul Vaughan, 11. Jason Croker, 12. Jarrad Kennedy, 13. Luke Bateman, 14. Thomas Cronan, 15. Chevi Ellis, 16. Jack Williams, 17. Zac Santo, 18. Rhys Kennedy.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks: 1. Ben Barba, 2. Jordan Drew, 3. Gerard Beale, 4. Ricky Leutele, 5. Mitch Brown, 6. Jack Bird, 7. Chad Townsend, 8. Matt Prior, 9. Matt McIlwrick, 10. Sam Tagataese, 11. Luke Lewis (c), 12. Joseph Paulo, 13. Chris Heighington (c), 14. David Fifita, 15. Kurt Capewell, 16. Jayden Brailey, 17. Josh Cleeland, 18. Bessie Aufaga-Toomaga.
St George Illawarra Dragons: 1. Josh Dugan (c), 2. Reuban Garrick, 3. Euan Aitken, 4. Tim Lafai, 5. Kurt Mann, 6. Drew Hutchinson, 7. Josh McCrone, 8. Dunamis Lui, 9. Mitch Rein, 11. Jacob Host, 12. Jake Marketo, 13. Jack de Belin, 14. Kiti Glymin, 15. Kalifa Faifai Loa, 16. Matt Duffy, 17. Sebastine Ikahihifo, 18. Jay Gallagher, 19. Tyrone McCarthy.
TITANS AT THE NINES IN 2015: Will Zillman (c), James Roberts, Anthony Don, David Mead, Josh Hoffman, Brad Tighe, Kalifa Faifai Loa, Aidan Sezer, Daniel Mortimer, Christian Hazard, Kierran Moseley, Ryan James, Mark Ioane, Matthew White, Lachlan Burr, Kane Elgey, Dave Taylor, Matt Robinson.