Club captain Paul Gallen will lead the change at Eden Park, with the likes of Todd Carney, Nathan Gardner and Nathan Stapleton set to relish the chance to exploit the wide open spaces the Nines format is sure to provide.
In between community and school visits in New Zealand this week the Sharks have been hard at work figuring out game plans and strategies to best perform under the unique format of the Nines, with former All Blacks Sevens player Jason Tia Tia lending a helping hand.
Ahead of the kickoff to the event and the Sharks first game against the Knights, sharks.com.au has run an eye of the team in giving an insight into the players who will line up for the Sharks on Saturday.
First game is 10.35am Saturday morning (Sydney time) and for those without Fox Sports watch the action amongst friends, with Sharkies Leagues Club showing all the matches live on the big screen.
The Sharks squad list for the NRL Auckland Nines;
1. Nathan Gardner - fullback
After a 2013 season interrupted by injury, Gardner has excelled throughout the pre-season and comes into the 9’s excited about the wide open spaces the format will provide. His speed and footwork could see him turn out to be one of the stars of the tournament.
2. Nathan Stapleton – outside back
If the Sharks were giving a ‘training award’ for the pre-season Stapleton would be amongst the leading candidates to accept it. Supremely fit and having added some muscle to his frame in the off-season, Stapo is set to play a major role for the Sharks this weekend.
3. Blake Ayshford – outside back
Big and strong, Ayshford seems well-suited to the format in that he can do some of the hard work closer to the middle of the field, while supplying some of the flair out wide. Will also be keen to make a first-up impression with his new club.
4. Jonathan Wright – outside back
The Sharks started seeing the best of Wright towards the end of 2013 and if that form continues he will be a threat to opposition backs in the 9’s. Should also enjoy the opportunities Carney and co on his inside are likely to provide.
5. Sosaia Feki – outside back
Cemented a spot in the Sharks top squad in 2013 with a series of enterprising performances and gets his chance to secure a starting berth for round one with a strong 9’s tournament. Back ‘home’ in Auckland Feki will also be out to impress in familiar surroundings.
6. Todd Carney – halves
The Sharks star five eight has been salivating at the prospect of guiding the Sharks around at the 9’s since the brains trust starting formulating game plans and drawing up strategies a month of two ago. Our tip as a strong contender for the 9’s tournament MVP.
7. Daniel Holdsworth – halves
Set to be the foil for Carney, Holdsworth has plenty of skill and experience to be a success at the 9’s this weekend. Will also be intent on impressing the powers that be ahead of the selection of the Sharks NRL team for round one in 3 weeks time.
8. Andrew Fifita – forwards/middle
A big man with a big engine, Fifita has the power, is mobile enough and has the aerobic fitness to make a major contribution to the Sharks cause. How big an impact the forwards will make under the 9’s format is still an unknown, however if anyone can, it is Fifita.
9. Michael Lichaa - hooker
Plenty of good judges are predicting Lichaa has a big future at an NRL level and where better to showcase his skills than on the big stage that will be the Auckland 9’s. Has silky ball skills and a strong running game, which is perfectly suited to the unique 9’s format.
10. Sam Tagataese – forwards/edge/middle
Whether it be bashing an unsuspecting ball carrier in defense or running over someone with the football in hand, Taga always manages to make an impact. If he can find the game and find the ball, he could be one of the surprise packets of the event.
11. Wade Graham – forwards/edge
The glue which ties together the big fellas in the middle and the guys who can run out wide, Graham will play a key role for the Sharks at the 9’s. With the ball skills of a halfback and the running game of a back rower, will be instrumental to any success the Sharks may have in Auckland.
12. Matt Prior – forwards/middle/edge
A new kid on the block, Prior showed his versatility when at the Dragons and while earmarked to play a little closer to the action in the NRL this year with the Sharks, his ability to cover a number of roles this weekend will be invaluable.
13. Paul Gallen – forwards/middle
Those wondering what influence Gal can have on a game in 9’s should just think about the impact he has in every game he plays. Someone will have to do some of the hard work and chances are that will be the Sharks skipper.
14. Ricky Leutele – outside back
Bounced back into rugby league after a year sidelined with injury with an outstanding two try effort in the trial match win over the Sea Eagles. Great feet and good speed, Leutele seems suited to the format of the 9’s.
15. Tupou Sopoaga – forwards/edge
Back on home soil in NZ, the Auckland born and bred Sopoaga will be out to impress family and friends who are sure to flock to the event. His footwork on the edges could be more than a handful for those who mark up against him at the 9’s.
16. Fa’amanu Brown – hooker/utility
A newcomer to the Sharks ranks, Brown couldn’t have been any more impressive in his first game in top company in the NRL trial against Manly. Still eligible for 20’s, the 9’s will be a learning experience but his range of skills might also gives his opponents a few lessons over the two days of the event.
17. Valentine Holmes – outside back/fullback
While certainly not wishing ill on any of the Sharks in the 16-man squad, it would be great to see youngster Holmes get his opportunity at some stage this weekend. Caught the attention of all concerned at the Manly trial and at just 18 is amongst the Sharks most exciting prospects.