Got a question for the Lone Scout? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. The best of them will be answered in a Q&A column next week ahead of the start of the 2012 NRL season.
There are many strategies you could take when picking your Toyota NRL Dream Team squad. Do you squeeze in as many big name players as possible? Do you stack your squad with bargain-basement cash cows? Do you choose a bunch of players from your favourite club? Do you call your team the 'Alan Tongue Memorial XVII' and try to exclusively pick redheads?
As you may suspect, some strategies work better than others (although I am keen to see how that rednut brigade would fare).
For mine, there are two broad gameplans you should think about when picking your Toyota NRL Dream Team squad, and they depend on what your ultimate goal for the season is. Do you want to win your league against your mates, or do you want to win the whole competition?
Of course it is possible to do both if you play your cards right and get a little lucky, but each goal requires a slightly different approach. I touched on this last week when discussing the bye rounds, but your gameplan should also determine how you pick your initial 25-man squad and the way you use your trades during the season.
Beat your mates: The head-to-head gameplan
For all the prizes on offer in Toyota NRL Dream Team (and there are a lot of them), the real reason a lot of us love playing the game is the chance to take on and beat your buddies.
No matter what your goal this year, you really should get involved in a 16-team league with mates, colleagues, family members, or even strangers in a random league. (There's an extra incentive for starting your own league too, with 10 lucky coaches to win $200 each just for starting a league and filling it up with 16 mates before March 1.)
If you are focused on winning your league – while having a decent shot at the Eliminator and weekly top score prizes along the way – then there are few things to keep in mind when picking your squad.
First up, head-to-head match-ups only start in Round 4. That gives you three rounds in which you can track the performance of your players and potential trade targets, without worrying too much about actually scoring points. This gives you a little more leeway to pick potential cash cows at the start of the year, rather than guaranteed scorers.
As I mentioned last week, the major split rounds are also "bye rounds" in head-to-head competition, meaning you don't have to worry about getting 17 players on the field in those weeks. This means you can save up your trades during the Origin period.
Unlike the overall comp, the winner of a head-to-head league is determined the same way as in the NRL – through a top-eight finals series, run according to the McIntyre System. So your goal is not necessarily to be the league's highest scorer for the season; it's enough to make your league's top eight and then peak at the right time of the year, with your team at its strongest during the finals series.
These factors should change your trading strategies in a few ways. One, you should focus on snapping up money-making bargains at the start of the season in order to give yourself plenty of salary cap space at the business end of the year, when you'll be bringing in the big guns.
For that matter, if you're only focused on head-to-head, consider keeping a bit of spare salary cap cash when the year begins – it could make it easier to pick up those big trades early on.
Head-to-head players should also avoid trade rage at all costs. Trades can be invaluable, so don't waste them when you don't need to. You want half a dozen up your sleeve for the last four weeks of the regular season (the Dream Team finals period); you never know, a trade or two could make the difference in your grand final.
Going all the way: The overall points gameplan
It's another story if you're making the commitment to chase the Toyota FJ Cruiser – the top prize for the overall champion in 2012 (who will be presented with the title by NRL chief David Gallop in Grand Final Week). There are also prizes for the runner-up, and for the highest-scoring fan from each of the 16 clubs.
If you're looking to be in the running for these prizes, you're going to have to take a different approach from the purely head-to-head players.
First up, every point matters. That means you will need to get your team firing on all cylinders from the get go. It also means you'll be aiming to have a full team of 17 players in action every week – including the split rounds during the bye period.
One key is to get your team scoring well as early as possible. Your initial squad is crucial; both last year's winner Matt Orrock and NRL.com's new DT guru Rob Bruns (who also knows what it takes to win) agree that DT coaches chasing the overall title should spend the whole $4.2 million salary cap at the start of the season – leaving nothing in the bank. There's no point having money in reserve when you could be scoring an extra 50 points every week.
You want depth in there too. All 25 players in your squad should be scoring points on a weekly basis (that means try to avoid risking players who won't get picked for Round 1). The cash cows are still important, but don't pick them at the expense of scoring points at the start of the season.
Secondly, don't be afraid to trade early. Matt, Rob and I all advocate using five or six trades in the opening three weeks of the season, just to get your team performing well as soon as you can.
And while the head-to-head coaches save up their trades over the Origin period, the coaches chasing overall points will need to make the most of their trades to survive the bye rounds. Last year's winner used two trades a week between Round 9 and Round 13 – the start of the rep period – and used another six trades between Round 16 and Round 18.
It meant he used his final trade in Round 23 – a time when many head-to-head players would still have trades to spare – but by that stage he was leading the overall competition and was able to hold on for the win (he actually tied for first place, but won by virtue of registering his team earliest).
General trading tips
Your ultimate target should be to finish the season with 17 or 18 genuine Dream Team stars in your squad, plus one or two solid back-up options. (The rest of your squad at that stage can be $77,100 nobodies.) You don't want to be left short if your team gets hit by injuries at the end of the year, but by the same token there's no point having expensive players sitting on the sidelines for your team either.
You have 30 trades to use for the year – it should be more than enough if you use them wisely. Plan out at the start of the season how you want your team to change over the season, and how you want to use your trades. Which of your players do you plan to keep all season? Which ones are there just to make you cash?
For example, if your initial squad includes five keepers – big-scoring players you want to stick with all year – that means you have 20 trades in hand to either cash in on or upgrade every other player in your starting squad, and you still have 10 trades left to cover for serious injuries, form slumps, or the Origin period. A bit of planning can go a long way when it comes to making sure you don't run out of trades.
Disappointed I haven't mentioned any player names this week? I'll get back to the specifics before the season kicks off next week, with a start-of-season Q&A article. Send me your questions at email@example.com and I'll pick the best of them to answer next week.