It's finally here. After weeks of talking about it, the inaugural Auckland Nines are about to kick off. As many players said yesterday at the official breakfast to launch the tournament, they are heading into the unknown given top-level nines was last played down this way in 1997 and the sevens event was dropped in 2004. Will teams play with a fullback, will they use chip kicks, will Sam Tomkins display the sort of form that encouraged the Warriors to spend so much money on him and will Miss Piggy find Kermit at the end of the rainbow? Stay tuned for answers to (most of) these questions and a whole lot more over the next two days from Eden Park.
The crowd at Eden Park is starting to build up nicely. A lot of fans are wearing team colours and there are a good sprinkling of others in costume. There are super heroes, indians, Mexicans and jail birds. Speaking to one of the tournament's organisers, he was a relieved man to see it was a good balance because they are desperate to avoid the trouble that often mars the Wellington Sevens.
The national anthems of Australia and New Zealand have just been sung and it wasn't a great start. The microphone for the Australian anthem cut out and the woman blasting out the NZ anthem dragged it out horribly. Hopefully the balls are pumped up.
The Warriors are favourites with the bookies but it's hard to know which teams will do well. A first glance, the Warriors, Sharks, Knights, Titans, Broncos and Panthers have sent good teams and are expected to do well. Blue pool looks the strongest with the Sharks, Knights, Tigers and Titans.
The two teams are on the field and the first game kicks off...
Teams are still getting two or three players in the tackles in an effort to slow the play-the-ball. It's quite structured and clearly defence will play a big part in deciding this tournament.
As someone close to me said, "it's been three minutes and I haven't seen a try. I came to see tries."
There we go. The first one goes to Tyrone Roberts after the Sharks lose possession on halfway and Roberts collects it and races in. Knights convert to lead 6-0 with four minutes left in the first half
And the Sharks score the first five-point try as Sam Tagatese scores under the posts. Sharks lead 7-6
That's halftime in the first game, with the Sharks leading 7-6. It's clearly a lot more structured than rugby sevens and the fact players know they will get the ball back helps because they don't have to worry about taking the ball into contact.
Two minutes to go in the first gamd and the Knights lead 12-11.
That might do it. The Sharks have scored through Nathan Gardner inside the last minute and lead 15-12.
And the Sharks win the first game at the Auckland Nines 15-12 and celebrate with wild high fives. Imagine what they will do if they win this thing. There's a fair bit of cash on offer, though, and Cronulla could do with the A$370,000 winner's cheque.
It was a decent contest and, as someone said, the best game of nines they had seen in 17 years (the last Super League World Nines was in 1997). It's clearly a lot more structured than sevens, but there are opportunities there if players can offload in the tackle and shift it wide. Defence will be critical and both teams weren't shy in putting a couple of players into the tackle to slow the play-the-ball.
Up next we have the Tiger and Titans, who are also in the same pool as the Sharks and Knights (blue pool). Feel free to let us know what you thought of the action or drop us a line if you have some questions.
It's hard to know, Ben, with so many players we don't know much about, but Wests Tigers winger Marika Koroibete is acknowledged as the fastest in the NRL and he's here. He just mowed down a Titans player from the opposite flank. Shaun Johnson has wheels, as does Sam Tomkins and if George Jennings is as quick as his brother Michael he will be hard to catch.
The crowd is building nicely, Tiriana. It's probably about half full and it's clear, at this stage, they are interested in the on-field action. There aren't that many in costumes so it's clearly a different sort of crowd to the Wellington Sevens. Needless to say, the organisers are quite happy about that
The Titans lead the Tigers 12-0 at halftime. They have some good pace, especially Albert Kelly
There are a bunch of bananas on the top deck, Gaz. They look pretty fruity
The Roosters and Eels are due up next and neither are expected to be left standing at the end and are two of the least favoured teams at the tournament. The Warriors are due up at 2.25pm for the fifth game of the day.
The Titans, who have been in town all week, are doing it easily over the Tigers. They now lead 22-7 with three minutes remaining. Clearly bungy jumping, jet-boating and sailing are good preparation for a nines tournament
And that's the end of the second game. The Titans beat the Tigers 22-7 and look a tidy outfit with a good mix of pace, power and potency. They could do well at this tournament but they have concerns over Dave Taylor, who was limping quite badly at times during that match.
Results so far:
Sharks 15 Knights 12
Titans 22 Tigers 7
The big interest in this match is how Brad Fittler goes. The 42-year-old played his last game in the NRL in 2004. The game kicks off and Fittler is starting
The Roosters are getting plucked by the Eels and are already trailing 10-0. They have barely got out of their own half.
Mitchell Pearce gets his side back into it with a step through the Eels' defence. It was Fittler-esque.
And just like that, the Roosters lead 11-10 at halftime. They regathered their own kickoff and Tupou scores in the corner.
Imagine what the Roosters could do if they brought a full-strength side: SBW, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Michael Jennings, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves... They now trail 14-11 with six minutes remaining in the second half
Make that 18-11. Possession is critical in this game
Apart from a three-minute period before hafltime, the Eels have dominated this game against an under-strength Roosters and have won 18-11. Brad Fittler didn't look out of place but he didn't do much of note, either. Eels winger Semi Radradra, on the other hand, was excellent, scoring three tries
Up next are the Broncos and Bulldogs. Brisbane are among the favoured teams at this tournament and it will be the first time we see Ben Barba in action since his move from the Doggies. Funny what the draw dishes up at times.
The first Mexican wave for the day is going around the ground. Naturally, the fans dressed as Mexicans are loving it
Brad Fittler said he loved his first experience of the Auckland Nines. He also said he felt a lot better running onto the ground for the start of the match than he did at the end. He gives hope to 42-year-olds everwhere