Lone Scout, NRL.com
The 2014 Holden NRL Fantasy
season has almost come to an end, with one round of matches left to determine who will take home the big prizes and bragging rights after another gruelling fantasy season. If you're still in the running you hardly need any tips from me, so instead I'm naming my unofficial awards for the players that had us jumping for joy or tearing our hair out this season.
Most Improved Award: Ben Hunt
At the start of the year, Broncos halfback Ben Hunt was a potential cash cow – with Brisbane's lack of alternatives in the halves arguably his most redeeming quality. By the end of the year he has become a genuine NRL Fantasy gun, averaging almost 58 points a week – more than traditional Fantasy guns Johnathan Thurston, Daly Cherry-Evans and Shaun Johnson.
Over the course of the season Hunt's value has increased by a staggering $203,232 with one round left to play. He's come on in leaps and bounds as a player with the increased responsibility on his shoulders at Brisbane this season, and that's made him the biggest surprise success story of Fantasy this season.
Cash Cow of the Year: Manu Ma'u
One of the NRL's best discoveries of 2014, Parramatta's Ma'u was a must-have player in Fantasy, with the $107,000-valued rookie bursting onto the scene with 44 points in Round 1, averaging 50 points a game after the first month of the season and making more than $183,000 in price rises by Round 10. He's been out of action since Round 14, but by then the hard-hitting back-rower had already established his place as one of the best moneymakers of the season.
An honourable mention goes to Roosters back-up option turned Titans starting half Daniel Mortimer, whose price dropped to $84,910 by Round 10 after a string of cameo appearances for the Tricolours and then ballooned to almost $250,000 by Round 25 after his mid-season move to the Gold Coast.
Richie Rich Award: Jarryd Hayne
Hayne started the season as the fourth-most expensive fullback and 35th-most expensive player in Fantasy, but after a frankly astonishing run of form became the first winger/fullback in Fantasy or Dream Team history to be the most expensive player in the game. His price tag peaked at a staggering $523,419 after a run of scores that read 91, 82, 94, 81, and he won't come cheap at the start of next season.
Trade Rage Award: Paul Gallen
Trading the same player in and out of your squad multiple times is one of the frustrating realities of player Holden NRL Fantasy, and this year the most-traded player was probably the high-scoring Cronulla skipper.
When he was fit and available Gallen was among the five best Fantasy players in the league, but the Sharks captain spent frustratingly little time on the field in Cronulla colours this year. An ankle injury in Round 1 ruled Gallen out until Easter, forcing any Fantasy coaches who had him to trade him out instantly, but Gallen only played three games on his return before again being sidelined until Origin II. Three games later a biceps injury sent him to the casualty ward again, and he returned to the field in Round 23 for a single game before being handed a season-ending suspension by ASADA. Any Fantasy coaches out there who traded Gal in and out four or five times this year were entitled to feel a little trade rage.
Overpriced Player of the Year: Josh Dugan
He wasn't a bad player to have come season's end, but Dugan was massively overpriced at the start of the season based on his dominant performances for the Dragons in the second half of 2013. He started 2014 as the fifth-most expensive player in Fantasy at $445,400, but will end with a price tag of just $300,000 – with his mid-season switch from fullback to centre at the Dragons not helping his chances of performing any Jarryd Hayne-style heroics.
Mr Consistent: Cameron Smith
He's the safest NRL Fantasy captaincy option for a reason. The Melbourne skipper's lowest score of the year was a very respectable 45, and his scores only dipped below 50 twice all season. With 10 of his 21 games for the Storm resulting in scores of 70 or better, Smith was the most reliable Fantasy player in the game yet again.
Flop of the Year: Aidan Sezer
The goal-kicking Titans playmaker was a strong Fantasy performer last season, so much so that he started 2014 as one of the 10 most expensive players in the game at a whopping $398,200 – about $230,000 more than Ben Hunt. But a slight drop in form, a 10-week injury in the middle of the season and the Titans' lack of victories since then have resulted in Sezer averaging a meagre 37 points a week this year – forcing his price to plummet by almost $152,000, the most of any player this season.
Slow Burner of the Year: Simon Mannering
When many Fantasy coaches (yours truly included) bought proven, reliable, back-rower/centre Simon Mannering at the start of the year, they weren't expecting the Warriors captain to be averaging less than 30 points a game a month into the season. But those wise coaches who showed some patience (yours truly not included) and stuck with Mannering for the long haul were eventually rewarded by an amazing try-scoring streak from the veteran forward, who crossed eight times in as many games between mid-May and the end of July. Mannering has since become the highest-scoring Fantasy centre and the fourth-highest scoring second-rower of 2014, proven yet again that good things come to those who wait.
Usain Bolt Award for Quickest Out of the Blocks: Andrew Fifita
At half-time of the Sharks' Round 21 clash with Parramatta, it looked like Fifita was on track for one of the great fantasy performances of all time. With fellow all-action prop Paul Gallen sidelined, Fifita was by far and away Cronulla's busiest forward in the first half, topping the hit-up and tackle charts on the way to a staggering 71 Fantasy points in the first term alone. Sadly the big man ran out of steam and was given a rest in the second half, scoring just another dozen points after half-time, but by then he had already made a lot of Fantasy coaches very happy.
Most Effective Half-Time Oranges: Jarryd Hayne
Remarkably, Fifita's effort wasn't the best 40-minute Fantasy performance of the year. That belonged to Jarryd Hayne, who turned back the clock to 2009 and once again became the most destructive fullback in rugby league this year.
The half-time break of Parramatta's clash with the Titans in Round 20 was when Hayne decided to join Fantasy immortality. On just 15 points after the first 40 minutes, meaning he was on track for what would have been his lowest score of the season, Hayne pumped out a massive 76 points in the second 40 to finish on a then-season high of 91. That display featured two tries, three line breaks and a massive 13 tackle busts, and his scores wouldn't drop below 80 for another month.
Fantasy Club of the Year: South Sydney
With Greg Inglis, the Burgess brothers, Adam Reynolds, Issac Luke and breakout Fantasy stars Dylan Walker and Alex Johnston in their ranks, it should be no surprise that the Rabbitohs scored more points in Holden NRL Fantasy than any other club this year. Cross-town rivals the Roosters and Johnathan Thurston's Cowboys ranked second and third, while the Wests Tigers took the unfortunate title of the lowest-scoring Fantasy club in the competition.
Player of the Year: Sam Burgess
Hayne may have finished the season with a bang, Smith may have been Mr Reliable, and Robbie Farah may have averaged more points per game than any other player – despite his Tigers struggling for much of the season – but Sam Burgess outscored them all this year and is a worthy winner of the Fantasy Player of the Year gong. With no Origin commitments or serious injuries he only missed a single match all season, averaged more than 64 points a game, dominated in attack and defence, and was rightly the most popular player in Fantasy with a spot in more than 70,000 Fantasy teams.
Of course the fun's not over yet for Fantasy in 2014. Check back next week for the launch of the new Fantasy Finals competition, with new weekly prizes plus a couple of grand and Four Nations tickets for the overall Finals winner.