The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys gained a true sense of the excitement surrounding the inaugural NRL Auckland Nines when they joined the 15 other clubs at today’s official welcome in downtown Auckland.
In front of thousands of passionate rugby league followers, the Cowboys’ 17-man squad walked in third in a mini Olympic Games-style parade of the teams who will vie for their share of $2.5 million in prize money on Saturday and Sunday.
After a couple of showers threatened to keep some of the fans away, the sun came out right on time just after noon to warmly welcome the overseas visitors, although it was clear the hometown NZ Warriors will have a huge edge in crowd support at Eden Park.
North Queensland face the tournament favourites in their third pool game on Sunday after starting off with matches against Manly and Canberra on Saturday.
“It was definitely a great turnout today,” Cowboys forward Tariq Sims said.
“I can't wait to play in front of a loud, wild bunch of footy-crazed fans.”
In a huge logistical operation, 16 coaches delivered the teams to Aotea Square, bringing together more than 200 of the NRL’s best players at the one venue.
After being introduced to the crowd, the festivities included a traditional Maori welcome, an interview with each of the 16 club captains, a short Q&A session featuring questions from the crowd and an autograph session with two players from each team.
NRL chief executive Dave Smith said the Nines had been embraced wholeheartedly by the New Zealand public.
“It's amazing, it's outside our wildest expectation the way it has been received,” Mr Smith said.
“The city is absolutely on fire. There is a real energy behind the event.
“I don't think there is anyone in New Zealand who isn't aware rugby league has come to Auckland.
“The teams are here to win. It is a serious tournament. Eden Park hasn't been sold out for an event since 1992 so that shows what a success it is.”
Earlier today, Cowboys Nines captain Gavin Cooper and coach Paul Green were among those on show at the captains and coaches breakfast, which attracted almost 500 guests.