The 2019 World Cup 9s goes down this weekend in what will be a fun showcase of rugby league. Trying to grab on to more substance from the 9s would be a bit weird, so I'm not overly fussed with who wins or even which players flex, although the rugby league nerd in me has a couple of notes from the squads named to share. These notes tend to lean into players to watch out for and hopefully this will offer a bit more information for your viewing experience.
Aotearoa Warriors fans should be paying close attention to the 9s as there are a few Warriors juniors who will be in action for various teams. Cook Islands will have Kayal Iro out wide, Junior Pua up the guts as well as Brody Tamarua, with Tamarua being the super intriguing player to watch out for. Tamarua hails from Kaitaia (look into Muriwhenua when you're bored) and was a slick operator for the Junior Warriors this year, playing at lock or in the halves and sometimes a bit of edge forward. Tamarua is a notable selection because of his size and skill. With decent mobility, Tamarua will offer play-making to a Cook Islands squad that's a bit light on halves and that's all good when you have forwards with the skills like Tamarua.
One of the halves Cook Islands do have is Tevin Arona, who previously spent time with Warriors reserve grade before heading back to Christchurch. Arona was part of a strong Canterbury Bulls team who lost the national final to Akarana a few weeks ago, then Arona was named in the Aotearoa Residents team. Most folk won't know of Arona, but he's going to be the primary organiser for Cook Islands and currently stands as one of, if not the best domestic players in Aotearoa.
Steven Marsters has been a highly touted prospect for a few years now since leaving Auckland to join St George Illawara Dragons and this will give many observers the chance to see Marsters playing on a reasonably big stage. Part of the intrigue here is that Marsters will move to South Sydney Rabbitohs for next season and World Cup 9s provides Marsters with an opportunity to shine before trying to make an impression with the Rabbitohs over summer.
Selestino Ravutaumada is another Warriors junior who will be on show this weekend as part of a deep outside back group for Fiji. A few weeks back, Ravutaumada lined up for Aotearoa Under 19 Junior Kiwis having gone to school at Rotorua Boys High School and Ravutaumada is joined by Suliasi Vunivalu (St Kentigern College) in playing 1st 15 rugby in Aotearoa and now both in the Fiji 9s squad.
Taane Milne is in an interesting wee position having only been given a slither of NRL footy at the Warriors this year. Milne is signed for next season and will be eager to impress here before heading back to Mt Smart where team selection isn't exactly settled after a dud of a NRL season.
Charbel Tasipale also played for the U19 Junior Kiwis recently and has been named for Lebanon. Tasipale plays as an edge forward for Parramatta Eels Jersey Flegg and started on an edge for Junior Kiwis.
Here is a break down of where the players in this Aotearoa squad come from, now including Adam Blair who replaced Braden Hamlin-Uele.
Northland: Corey Harawira-Naera, Dylan Brown, Adam Blair.
Auckland: Ken Maumalo, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Shaun Johnson, Leeson Ah Mau.
Waikato/BOP: Briton Nikora, Jeremy Marshall-King, Zane Tetevano, Kevin Proctor.
Wellington: Joseph Tapine.
Canterbury: Jamayne Isaako, Kodi Nikorima (/Manawatu).
Born and raised in Australia: Reimis Smith, Bailey Simonsson (both with All Black/Kiwis fathers).
As you can see right in the middle of this team photo is Starford To'a, who doesn't appear to be named in the squad but is obviously with the squad. I can't spot Jeremy Marshall-King in these team photo, which is likely due to the death of his father and in honour of his father, Marshall-King is expected to play. To'a likely came into the camp as cover, which is a slick move from coach Michael Maguire to integrate a player who has earned rep honours at every junior level. You can spot matua Benji in this photo as well, lending his experience to the camp.
Dean Blore is named for Samoa and talk about a complex eligibility situation; Blore played for the U20 Junior Kiwis last year, playing against brother Shawn who lined up for Junior Kangaroos and now Blore is playing for Samoa 9s. This may have come via former Junior Kiwis captain Jarome Luai, who is a Penrith Panthers comrade of Blore and has graduated into the Samoan top team recently.
There is also the selection of Danny Levi, who must have some Samoan aiga in the mix. This is somewhat interesting because Aotearoa has just one specialist dummy half in Marshall-King, with Kodi Nikorima likely slide in there every so often. Levi was overlooked though after a weird season with Newcastle Knights and will be out to showcase his talents.
Blore and Luai were both raised in Australia, if not born and raised. Players who came up playing junior footy in Aotearoa are: Bunty Afoa, Danny Levi, Michael Chee Kam, Ligi Sao.
Warriors fans would be wise to pay close attention to William Fakatoumafi - Otahuhu Leopards junior and former Southern Cross Campus student. Fakatoumafi played a bunch of games for the Jersey Flegg Warriors this season as a fullback and in the halves, which is reasonably bonkers when you consider that Flegg is U20s and Fakatoumafi made the Aotearoa Residents U18 team this year. Fakatoumafi is the only played from that U18 Residents squad who will play in the 9s, although Fakatoumafi's 2017 National Secondary Schools Tournament Team featured Kayal Iro and Selestino Ravutaumada who will play at World Cup 9s along with Starfora To'a who I mentioned for Aotearoa.
FYI: the 2018 NZSSTT had Ravutaumada and Junior Pua who are now playing World Cup 9s.
Peter Hola is also named for Tonga, capping of a delightful 2019 for the Marist Saints junior. Hola is a robust middle forward, with kinda creepy similarities to Jason Taumalolo and the presence of Hola only adds to Tonga's forward pack depth.
Players from Tonga's squad who came up through Aotearoa junior footy: William Fakatoumafi, Delouise Hoeter Sione Katoa (Panthers), Peter Hola, Jason Taumalolo.
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Peace and love 27.