Next year’s NRL Auckland Nines will feature an earlier start time and bigger squads as the Cowboys seek to defend their inaugural rugby league title.

Next year’s NRL Auckland Nines will feature an earlier start time and bigger squad sizes as North Queensland seek to defend their inaugural rugby league title.

The Cowboys won this season’s Nines by defeating Brisbane in the final, after two days of sell-out crowds of almost 90,000 at Eden Park.

Due to the Cricket World Cup, the 2015 event will be held on January 31 and February 1 at the iconic venue, two weeks earlier than last year, with squad sizes increasing from 16 to 18 players in order to alleviate concerns over player welfare.

All 16 NRL teams will compete for prize money of more than $2.4 million.

This year’s event featured the comebacks of NRL greats Brad Fittler and Steve Menzies, and Parramatta legend Nathan Hindmarsh has already indicated he could dust off the boots for 2015.

The nine-player-a-side teams play nine-minute halves and will be split up into groups of four teams.

The top two teams from each group advance to the knockout stage of the tournament, through the semi-final stage and then on to the final.

The 2014 Auckland Nines title was the Cowboys’ first rugby league title.

Their only appearance in the NRL grand final was in the 2005 loss to Wests Tigers.