• Bound for Auckland to take part in the NRL’s Nines competition this weekend are (from left) former Tathra Sea Eagle Adam Elliott, Australian Jillaroos player Kezie Apps and former Merimbula-Pambula Bulldog Euan Aitken. Tom Hughes (not pictured) has also been selected. Aitken, Hughes pride of the Bulldogs
FOUR rising stars of rugby league from the Bega Valley will get the chance to test their skills at the Auckland Nines this weekend.
Bega’s Kezie Apps, Tathra’s Adam Elliott and Pambula’s Euan Aitken and Tom Hughes have all been picked to represent their respective club’s in the NRL opener.
The competition is a shortened nine-a-side knockout weekend featuring 288 players representing each of the 16 NRL clubs and the Australian Jillaroos women’s squad.
Apps is excited by the prospect of the women’s squad getting a showing.
“I had no idea the Jillaroos were going to be invited to go along until a few weeks before our Australian game in November,” Apps said.
“This is the first year the women get to play in the Nines so it’s very exciting.”
Meanwhile, Elliott (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs) and Aitken (St George Illawarra Dragons) were named in the line-up on Thursday.
It will almost act as a trial run for Aitken, who is expected to line-up in the centres for the Dragons’ top squad this year.
“It will be my first opportunity to pit myself against some of the top NRL players in the tournament,” Aitken said.
“It will be a good stepping stone to see how I am going in my development.”
Aitken said he will definitely get to play in three games, with the possibility of four or five matches should things go well.
Elliott is in a similar position with the Bulldogs after being called up to train with the top squad in November.
He played as captain of the Bulldogs’ Holden Cup squad last year, but was hampered by injuries.
Elliott said he hoped to train with Harry Harris at the Bulldogs to put on a few kilos and refine some of his playing skills.
“Anyone can tuck it under their wing and run hard,” Elliott said.
“It’s just about refining some of those skills that makes my game more attractive.”
The second-rower won’t get a better chance than the weekend’s tournament to show off his skills.
Another former Merimbula-Pambula Bulldog also made selection with Hughes to represent the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Hughes joined on with the Rabbitohs at the same time as Aitken and Elliott made their move.
Similarly to them he has been called up to the top squad for training over summer.
Hughes said the Nines will be a good test and is keen to impress the Bunnies’ selectors.
“It’s good to have a go against the big boys and see where I am at,” Hughes said.
“They’ve been watching me pretty intensely over the pre-season I would like to put on a show and prove that I’ve got what it takes.”
He is also excited by the prospect of the number of players coming through from Group 16.
“It’s really exciting, after seeing Dale Finucane come through we’re sort of the next crop,” he said.
“It’s exciting that a small area can produce such talent.”
Hughes said it would be fun to take the field in the NRL and meet some of his Group 16 mates.
“It would be a bit of fun [to put a tackle on them], it would be good,” he said with a laugh.
Apps was selected after an impressive display for the Jillaroos against New Zealand in November.
The hard-running Apps believes her mobility and speed may have aided her selection.
“I believe mobility would have a big part in the selections as it’s going to be a much quicker game with a lot more space to run,” she said.
It has been a phenomenal year for the back-rower, who last played contact league when she was 11.
“What a year. I never would of guessed it,” Apps said.
“I’ve definitely come a long way and have learnt so much along this journey.
“I’ve had a lot of help from Kane Morgan to fine tune everything as so much has changed since I was 11,” she said with a laugh.
NSW coach Mat Head and Australian coach Steve Folks have both provided her pivotal feedback, which has been implemented in to her training and play style.
Despite long hours on the road, Apps said she would not trade the opportunities she has had for anything.
“I am not sure if I will ever get used to the five hour drive up the coast, but you do these things because you love it,” she said.
Apps has hit the peak of the women’s code and the tournament will provide a fun highlight to start the new season.
Meanwhile, for Elliott and Aitken, the Auckland Nines is a prelude to bigger and better things as they aim to launch NRL careers.
The pair had no doubts about strong groundings at their home clubs in Group 16, but said they were adapting to prepare for the top level competition.
“There are definitely things you have to learn coming up here and I am still learning, but [playing with the Bulldogs] certainly gave me a platform,” Aitken said.
Elliott has a love of leadership and said it stemmed from his time with the Tathra Sea Eagles.
“I like being the one to motivate the team and inspire a few of the fellas,” Elliott said.
“It even comes back to the days playing down at Tathra – I think my team-mates would say it comes natural [to me] and it’s just carried on in my footy so far.”
Meanwhile, Hughes said his training had been ramping up and didn’t know how we would compare with local competition.
“First grade trains six days a week, we’re up here doing different weight training and things every day, I’ve put on about 20kg [of muscle] in the last three years.
“[Playing at home] is not something I’ve really thought about, but I wouldn’t mind having a run for the Doggies at some stage.”
The Auckland Nines competition gets underway on Saturday and has over NZ$2.6million in prizes up for grabs.
More than 90,000 spectators are expected to be in attendance across the two days of competition.
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