The NRL returns for 2020 with the NRL Nines (the popular pre-season nine-player shindig) in Perth this weekend.
While a lot of press has been given to the casually un-retired ex-players, there are huge opportunities for current fringe players to catch the eye before the season starts.
Not that a big Nines tournament automatically leads to regular season game time, but it can’t hurt.
Here’s a few players that we think might catch the eye this weekend. Forgive a little PNG bias in advance.
EDWIN IPAPE – Manly
One of the real finds of the 2019 International scene, Edwin Ipape was plucked from obscurity in the 2019 International break to play for PNG against Samoa. At the time he was playing for the second-tier Wynnum side in the competition below, the Queensland Intrust Super Cup.
He shone for PNG that night despite the defeat, and was one of the Kumuls’ best in both of the end-of-season games, including the big win over Great Britain. His best work was the game changing 65 metre try from dummy half just before the break, captured on YouTube for your enjoyment.
On the strength of those performances, he was given a train and trial deal with Manly. The Nines is a great opportunity to show what he can offer, especially given Manly’s hooker depth this season.
NICHO HYNES – Melbourne
Melbourne continue to blessed with a bounty of fullbacks, never more evident in the post-Billy Slater era when they can give away a talent like Scott Drinkwater, who before injury was nailed to be Melbourne’s fullback at the start of 2019.
The Storm’s man to watch this weekend is another fullback, Nicho Hynes, who impressed greatly in his only game in the NRL last season, and has been super impressive every time we have seen him in the Intrust Super Cup for the Sunshine Coast.
He may well have to wait for his turn in 2020 like Ryan Papenhuyzen did in 2019; and like his fellow Falcon, Hynes will be worth waiting for. This weekend we will no doubt get a taste of what the super-talented Hynes can offer the Storm this season.
JESSE ARTHARS – Broncos
Jesse Arthars has been pinched from the Gold Coast Titans for the 2020 season. With the reshuffling of the backline for the new season, he has a real chance to claim the fullback spot over the other main candidate, Jamayne Isaako.
Arthars shone for Burleigh enough early last season to end up spending half a season with the Titans, but the move to the Broncos opens up a chance at playing fullback. There’s nothing like the free space of the Nines to showcase his pace and skill.
EDENE GEBBIE – South Sydney
This PNG International lit up the Intrust Super Cup last season, topping the running metres stats by plenty, as well of plenty of tries scored, and many, many exciting length-of-the-field runs from the back.
Souths recognised what he offers early last season and signed him for 2020. Edene Gebbie did well in the two end-of-season Tests for the Kumuls, after being a little quiet in the mid-season match.
One downside of the hiring of Latrell Mitchell means Gebbie will get significantly less game time now Mitchell has stated his intention of playing fullback, so the PNG flyer at least has the Nines to stake a claim for a position elsewhere in the backline.
BRAYDON TRINDALL – Sharks
The fringe Sharks player gets his turn in the Nines. After a good season with Newtown in the Canterbury Cup NSW, where he scored nine tries in 24 games and led the competition for goals scored and kicking metres, he’ll be looking to impress on the big stage.
Braydon Trindall was man of the match when the Sharks won the Jersey Flegg title in 2018, and has also played for the Queensland Under 20s side.
He may not get too many opportunities to show what he can do in the NRL in 2020; although the Sharks’ current halfback Shaun Johnson is a little unreliable with injury, so it gives Trindall hope that a decent Nines tournament will have him close to NRL selection.
SCOTT DRINKWATER v JAKE CLIFFORD; REECE ROBSON v JAKE GRANVILLE – North Qld Cowboys
The Cowboys have two keys positions to be sorted before the 2020 NRL season gets underway, and they are two of the crucial spine positions.
With Michael Morgan thankfully being restored to the halves, and the signing of Valentine Holmes from the USA to play fullback, that leaves Scott Drinkwater and Jake Clifford to fight it out as Morgan’s halves partner.
Another purchase for 2020 – Reece Robson from the Dragons – provides another selection dilemma for the Cowboys at hooker. Incumbent Jake Granville will be hard to remove, but Robson will be very close to nailing the starting position, more so with a big weekend in Perth.
MATT SOPER-LAWLER – Newcastle Knights
Matt Soper-Lawler has returned home to Newcastle for the 2020 season, after developing a very good reputation for himself in three seasons in the Intrust Super Cup. The try-scoring winger landed a train and trial deal with the Knights in the off season, and sounds determined to make it.
Soper-Lawler scored 54 tries in 67 games in the Intrust Super Cup, and was the leading try scorer in the competition last season with Souths Logan, which was a decent effort in a side that struggled for wins.
One can only imagine what a try scorer like Soper-Lawler could do when combining with Kalyn Ponga in the backline, and this weekend we at least get to see what he can do.
VILIAME KIKAU – Penrith
So maybe he’s not one of the up-and-comers knocking on the door like a lot of the other selections, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy watching the big man light up the Nines.
Given the giant second rower is a handful on the field with 13 opponents, one can only imagine – if he’s fully fit – how much havoc he’ll cause on the fringes.
Perhaps 2020 is the season where he shoots into super stardom and leads Penrith to NRL success, starting in Perth this weekend.
BLAKE FERGUSON, CLINT GUTHERSON, MAIKA SIVO – Parramatta Eels
Another selection of players who should feature regularly in 2020; having this first choice back three available at the Nines is a real statement of the Eels’ intention to be very competitive.
Maika Sivo had a breakout 2019 season, and one is hoping his 22 tries in 25 games is no one off and/or second season syndrome doesn’t kick in.
Blake Ferguson is an enigma, and entertains whenever he is on the field. Clint Gutherson has been one of the NRLs in-form players over the last two seasons: perhaps he’s ready to squeeze into a Blues jersey in 2020?