THE undeniable success of the Auckland Nines has changed the rugby league landscape forever.
Too big a call?
Multi-millionaire Eric Watson doesn’t think so. And given the New Zealand Warriors owner once decked Hollywood Gladiator Russell Crowe, it would take a brave man to argue.
Last Friday Watson invited all 16 NRL chief executives and NRL chief executive Dave Smith for a barbecue at his house, which has its own golf course.
His soiree was a first. An important first for the game.
Auckland Nines top tries - Day 2 3:28
The top tries from Day 2 of the Auckland Nines.
“Thirteen years I’ve been involved with the Warriors,’’ Watson said. “And I would never have envisaged 16 NRL CEOs sitting in my lounge room and the CEO of the NRL as well.
“Then to have them all come and play at Eden Park ... we all have big dreams, but to imagine it even occurring was beyond any dreams.
“The exciting thing is that the NRL has matured so much. When I was first involved in the game, the CEOs didn’t like each other, the coaches didn’t like each other.
“That extended to how it was operated as an organisation but it got to the point where these guys realised we’re all on the same team.
“The CEOs are all on the same team. They have a brand, they have a business and they have a sport that competes with others. And now they’re getting their act together and the result is this.’’
Stands packed with fans cheering on the Warriors during the Auckland Nines at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand. pic Mark Evans Source: News Limited
By “this” he means consecutive capacity crowds of 46,000 in a country obsessed with rugby union — and New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key walking freely among the masses, smiling for photos with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.
The atmosphere at the event was unlike the raw emotion that grips us during State of Origin. Different too to NRL grand final day, when only two teams matter.
It was a carnival of high-powered rugby league skill and athleticism, a celebration and an advertisement that will leave a footprint in New Zealand long after the yellow five-point try paint has been removed from Eden Park.
Bulldogs, Sharks, Warriors and Tigers merchandise all sold out before midday yesterday.
“It’s like something we’ve never seen before,’’ an NRL official said.
Even Smith, who refuses to sway from the script of “expansion’’ and ‘‘growth’’, couldn’t help having a subtle dig at the rival code as he stared out over a raucous crowd.
“This is much better than sevens,’’ Smith said.
Kodi Nikorima of the Broncos on his way to a try against the Eels during the Auckland Nines at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand. pic Mark Evans Source: News Limited
So impressed with the entertaining, expansive and high-risk style of rugby league that the Nines promotes, one chairman of a Sydney NRL club is already planning to introduce a Nines carnival within his junior league.
“It will be an annual event here, but there could be subsections of mini NRL Nines in other places that feed into this,’’ Watson said. “The value of that commercially for sponsors, for owners, is massive.’’
However, the true measure of where the Nines ranks among the players will come next year.
Will the stars who sat out this year try to twist the arms of their coaches who want to keep them in cotton wool? As Brisbane’s Alex Glenn said: “Everyone in the NRL wants to be a part of this.”