It's time to talk tactics with a fortnight left before the start of Toyota NRL Dream Team for 2012. Two big issues will present themselves when the season gets underway: selecting your team's captain each week, and planning for the byes.
Both are a little trickier this year than they were last year, with the new Dream Team points system making the captaincy question less clear cut and the new NRL schedule creating a few more headaches on the bye front.
Picking your Dream Team captain
First up, the captaincy question. For the uninitiated, your Dream Team captain scores double points each week (and if the captain doesn't play, the man you select as vice captain will score double points). You can change your captain and vice captain every week. It's an important choice to make; the right captain could be the difference between a win and a loss in head-to-head leagues, or the difference between a Toyota FJ Cruiser and the runner-up prize in the overall competition.
To make the most of the captaincy, you're best off having one or two genuine big stars in your team – even if you're trying to save some cash up your sleeve at the start of the season.
The big guns in Dream Team are the easiest to spot – just look at their price tags. Corey Parker and Cameron Smith are the top dogs, both valued at well above $400,000, followed by Manly half Daly Cherry-Evans, Sharks champion Paul Gallen, Eels workhorse Nathan Hindmarsh and playmaking five-eighths James Maloney and Jamie Soward.
So you should just grab one of those guys and stick with him as captain all year, right? Not so fast.
Different types of players generally score well in different types of games. So your tackle-hungry forwards will generally do well when they come up against strong sides and have to do plenty of defending. Your playmaking halves will score well through try assists and kick metres when their teams are dominating against the weaker teams.
So consider choosing your busiest forward as skipper when he's playing one of the NRL's top teams that week, and opt for your big-name half when he's expected to have a field day against one of the competition's minnows. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but it's something worth keeping in mind.
Admittedly, the equation is easier if you have goalkicking workhorses Smith or Parker in your team – just pick them regardless, unless they're backing up from State of Origin.
Beating the byes in 2012
Now, onto the question of byes.
Every NRL team will have two byes during the 2012 season. In four rounds of the year – the three preceding each State of Origin game and the weekend after Origin III – four or more clubs have a bye at once.
How you handle the byes depends on your goals for Dream Team this year. (This starts getting a little tricky, so bear with me.)
For DT coaches focusing purely on beating their mates and winning their head-to-head league, those four rounds (Rd 11, 14, 17 & 18) are bye rounds in Dream Team as well, meaning there are no head-to-head match-ups. Forget about them.
But for the hardened Dream Team coaches who are chasing the ultimate glory and a brand new Toyota FJ Cruiser, these rounds are potential nightmares that you will need to plan for ahead of time.
These are the teams that will be out of action for the big bye rounds:
Round 11: Broncos, Raiders, Storm, Knights, Titans, Eels
Round 14: Sea Eagles, Bulldogs, Dragons, Cowboys, Eels, Rabbitohs
Round 17: Sea Eagles, Bulldogs, Storm, Roosters, Tigers, Titans
Round 18: Broncos, Panthers, Dragons, Cowboys
The savvy coaches will note these down (and plenty of the die-hards out there set up their own Excel spreadsheets to keep track of the byes). For the record, the Broncos, Eels, Bulldogs, Cowboys, Sea Eagles, Dragons, Storm and Titans all have two byes in these rounds, so players from those clubs could be worth avoiding where possible (if you're chasing overall points, that is).
That's easier said than done of course, so a simpler target is to simply fill your 25-man squad with players who will get game time each week, preferably from a large spread of clubs, to make sure your team is flexible enough to get close to 17 players on the park every week. Players chasing overall points will strongly need to consider trading out Origin-quality players ahead of Round 11, particularly if those players will be out of action in the above bye rounds as well.
For the head-to-head coaches out there, you can basically ignore those rounds and focus on scoring as much as possible in the other weeks.
But it doesn't mean you can ignore the byes altogether. A closer look at the NRL draw reveals five other weeks during the rep period also involve teams having byes (Rounds 10, 12, 13, 15 and 16).
Round 10: Tigers, Rabbitohs
Round 12: Warriors, Sharks
Round 13: Panthers, Roosters
Round 15: Raiders, Knights
Round 16: Warriors, Sharks
In those rounds, the Warriors and Sharks both have two byes, while the Tigers, Rabbits, Panthers, Roosters, Raiders and Knights each have one.
So head-to-head coaches should think about avoiding Warriors and Sharks players (or at least having back-up options in your squad for when those players are unavailable). Alternatively, coaches going for the overall title should consider snapping up Warriors and Sharks, as they will at least be involved in all the main bye rounds (Origin duty notwithstanding).
The bye schedule means it's worth having plenty of depth in your squad this season, no matter what your goal is.
Next week I'll take a deeper look at how your gameplan (head-to-head or overall points) should shape your initial squad and your use of trades throughout the season.
If you've got any particular questions about Toyota NRL Dream Team, feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and don't forget to follow me on Twitter and Facebook for updates on the latest DT-related news.