Rugby League

NRL Auckland Nines: Canberra Raiders young guns eager to excel on big stage

Canberra Raiders youngster Thomas Cronan wants to make the most of his opportunity on the big stage at the Auckland Nines.

The 19-year-old outside back was playing in front of a couple of hundred people for the Queanbeyan Kangaroos a couple of years ago.

Thomas Cronan, pictured playing for the Queanbeyan Kangaroos in 2014, will play for the Canberra Raiders in the Auckland ...
Thomas Cronan, pictured playing for the Queanbeyan Kangaroos in 2014, will play for the Canberra Raiders in the Auckland Nines this weekend. Photo: Jay Cronan

But the Cooma Colts junior is set to run out in front of a capacity crowd at Eden Park for the two-day NRL pre-season extravaganza in New Zealand, starting Saturday.

Cronan was joined on the flight across the ditch on Thursday by his under-20s teammate Chevi Ellis, who was a late inclusion for forward Mitch Barnett.

Barnett is recovering from thumb surgery in the off-season, but hopes to be available for the club's only pre-season trial on February 20 against the Newcastle Knights in Orange.

Cronan can play full-back or wing and has been in the Raiders junior programs since he was 16.

"I am absolutely stoked for the opportunity," Cronan said. "I'm nervous, but it's definitely exciting.

"It's such a great opportunity to play against top-class players in a quicker competition and to show what we have."

Cronan is one of three under-20s players in the Raiders' Nines squad alongside Ellis and Jack Williams.

Raiders legend Jason Croker is the most experienced player, the 42-year-old pulling on the boots one last time a decade after retiring from the NRL.

The squad also features club captain Jarrod Croker and first-grade regulars Sam Williams, Sisa Waqa, Paul Vaughan and Shannon Boyd.

Cronan is enjoying the chance to get a first-hand view of what is required to become an NRL player.

"It's fantastic to see how they act professionally and to see how organised they are on and off the field," Cronan said.

"It's a big wake-up call. You get that reward and you get a little bit more hungry to make it to the next level."

Ellis was only told of his selection on Wednesday when Barnett failed a fitness test.

Tipping the scales at 99 kilograms and standing 190 centimetres tall, the 20-year-old is a powerful outside back who played in the centres for the Raiders' NYC team last year.

An under-18 New Zealand international who also represented Queensland at under-16 level, Ellis will take on one of his idols in the Raiders' opening game of the tournament.

Former Raiders star and NSW State of Origin representative Josh Dugan will captain the St George Illawarra Dragons for the Nines

"It's very exciting and I rang my family straight away," Ellis said.

"It will be an amazing experience. There's a lot of NRL players like Josh Dugan playing, I look up to him.

"I looked at the draw and saw we play the Dragons in the first game, so it's going to be a great experience playing against an Origin player."

The Raiders face the Dragons in their opening game at 1.10pm (Canberra time) on Saturday before taking on the Gold Coast Titans (5.30pm Saturday) and the Cronulla Sharks (11.30am Sunday).