The writers at NRL.com make their predictions ahead of the 2016 Downer NRL Auckland Nines. Which teams and players should you be keeping an eye out for?
Who will win the 2016 Downer NRL Auckland Nines?
Chris Kennedy: I was going to say the Warriors until the Cowboys rolled up with their ridiculously strong squad and now I think they're looking good to make it two trophies from three visits.
Tony Webeck: The talent is there but the weight of expectation on the Warriors this weekend is 16 times greater than any other side and that may weigh too heavily. In the past two years strong squads full of NRL talent have come out on top so for that reason it's hard to look past 2014 champions the Cowboys. My predictions to progress to the semi-finals from each pool are the Warriors, Eels, Cowboys and Dragons.
Andy Bryan: It is very hard to go past the Cowboys (2014 champions), Broncos (2014 finalists) and Warriors. The Cowboys squad looks to be the strongest of the whole tournament on paper, Brisbane have some great ball-playing forwards with big engines, while the Warriors side will ooze danger with RTS, Johnson, and Lolohea mixed with some hard-nosed forwards. Can the Warriors finally put it all together at home at Eden Park?
Dominic Brock: Two trends that have emerged from the first two Nines tournaments are that the champs (Cowboys and Rabbitohs) have had strong forward packs and good playmakers, so on that basis I'll back the Cowboys to follow in Souths' footsteps and follow up their NRL premiership with the Nines title. Of course the other trend to emerge from the Nines is that it's borderline impossible to predict what's going to happen, so who knows.
Adrian McMurray: As soon as that Cowboys squad landed, my mind was made up. With 13 of the 17 that played in the grand final, plus a club legend, experienced outside backs pushing for a place in the 17 and two young stars of the future, and you've got a group full of talent and confidence. Ball-playing front-rower John Asiata should flourish, while I expect Michael Morgan, James Tamou and Jake Granville to be key.
Jack Brady: If I were a betting man, I would save my pennies and spend it on literally anything else because the Auckland Nines are way too hard to pick. If you were to follow my advice – I wouldn't, it's a trap – I'd look towards the winner coming from the Hunua Pool. Apologies to the Warriors, Broncos, Sea Eagles and Bulldogs.
Which teams will surprise?
Chris Kennedy: There are some relatively unfamiliar names in the Panthers squad but there's a stack of strike power as well. It wouldn't surprise me if they made a dent in the competition this weekend. People aren't rating the Eels but I think they've got a good balance, lots of strike and plenty of NRL experience – I'd be surprised if those two clubs didn't at least get out of their groups.
Tony Webeck: The greatest danger to the Cowboys might be within their own pool in the Panthers. I would not be the least bit surprised if they went all the way with a youthful squad boasting a good dose of NRL experience and bucketloads of speed and skill. The Raiders could spring a few upsets as well although no Sezer and Austin is a loss.
Andy Bryan: The Raiders, Sharks and Panthers all could go deep into the competition if they get on a roll. The Nines are very unpredictable, but these three sides could surprise a few people if they can manage to navigate the group stage. They've got plenty of strike and plenty of edge forwards who should revel in the extra space.
Dominic Brock: The Panthers, Sharks and Dragons are my smokies.
Adrian McMurray: I like the look of two western Sydney rivals Parramatta and Penrith. Both squads seem well balanced with the right ingredients to succeed in the Nines format.
Jack Brady: The Dragons could do some damage. They have missed out on the finals the past two years on for-and-against so it's not like the whole concept is beyond them. All the tools are there for them to be successful at this tournament. Wouldn't be shocked if rivals Penrith and Eels lifted to at least semi final berths either.
Who are the players to watch?
Chris Kennedy: Guys like Shaun Johnson and Semi Radradra could easily light up again but I'm looking forward to seeing how some of the next gen players like Te Maire Martin at the Panthers, Bevan French at the Eels, Carlin Anderson and Tom Opacic at Brisbane, Latrell Mitchell at the Roosters and Josh Addo-Carr at the Tigers all go. Mobile, hard-to-tackle big men like Melbourne's Asofa-Solomona, Canterbury's Shaun Lane and North Queensland's Coen Hess could also be a handful. Last year's Ipswich alumni – Josh Cleeland and Kurt Capewell at the Sharks and especially Matt Parcell at Manly – could be suited to the Nines style.
Tony Webeck: The old blokes of course! Who doesn't want to see Matt Bowen produce a final piece of mastery, Braith Anasta pot a field goal from the sideline or Jason Croker bust through close to the posts for a match-winning try? Of the younger brigade keep an eye on Panther Corey Harawira-Naera, Cowboys flyer Gideon Gela-Mosby, highly-regarded Rooster Latrell Mitchell and not-so-young Titan Shannon Walker in his return from Rugby Sevens.
Andy Bryan: Aside from the obvious candidates – Shaun Johnson, Semi Radradra and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – there are a lot of young players I'm looking forward to seeing in open space. Matt Parcell and Tom Trbojevic for Manly fans, Latrell Mitchell and Joe Burgess from the Roosters and Te Maire Martin from the Panthers are just some to keep an eye on.
Dominic Brock: I can't wait to see Matt Bowen back in action for the Cowboys, plus Roger Tuivasa-Sheck combining with Shaun Johnson at club level for the first time. Then there are plenty of questions elsewhere. Can Ben Barba regain his old flair? Is new Panthers half Te Maire Martin as good as his NYC record suggests? Is Konrad Hurrell really fitter than ever? Is Latrell Mitchell a Roosters star in the making?
Adrian McMurray: After 39 tries in the Holden Cup last season, it's little surprise to see Gideon Gela-Mosby included in the Cowboys squad. Surrounded by premiership winners and club legend Matt Bowen, Gela-Mosby should thrive. Rabbitohs fans will also have a close eye on Cody Walker. With Luke Keary suspended for Round 1, Walker is a good chance of making his NRL debut against the Roosters, particularly with a strong showing in Auckland. Speaking of the Tricolours, Omar Slaimankhel will use the Nines as a platform to push for a spot in the Roosters side, back in the city he once called home after a successful NYC career at the Warriors.
Jack Brady: Dragons recruit Kurt Mann was one of the more underrated performers of last year's tournament so it will be good to see how he stands out in a better squad. His teammate Jacob Host is one for the future too. Young Bulldogs centre Kerrod Holland should thrive in the Nines environment while the quick feet of Damien Cook will be magical to watch when the Rabbitohs play.
This article first appeared on NRL.com