The opening round of the 2012 season has come and gone (and boy was it a rough weekend), so it's time to reveal which 25 players I've selected in my Toyota NRL Dream Team for the start of the season.
Like last season, I'll be aiming to win as many head-to-head leagues as possible for those of you who have added me into your competitions. I can't take out any of the prizes for overall points, so have picked my squad with an eye towards head-to-head glory instead.
My general strategy is to go hard at the money-making cash cows early on, with a view to filling the Scouts with stars by the time the head-to-head league finals swing around. I've also looked to make the most of the new flexible trading system with a fair share of dual position players in my squad.
So without further ado, here's who I've picked and why.
A tricky position this season, with few guaranteed scorers (expect inconsistent scoring in the backline this year, even for the better players). One of my initial choices was actually Nathan Merritt, whose scoring went through the roof last year whenever he played fullback, but after being named on the wing for Round 1 I had to look elsewhere (as a general rule I'd avoid wingers like the plague this year – you're unlikely to get much in the way of consistent scoring from them).
Corey Norman – Will get a clear run at the five-eighth role at Brisbane, in the short term at least, and last year tended to make more kick metres, run metres, tackle busts and tackles than Peter Wallace whenever the two played together in the Broncos' halves.
Kyle Stanley – My first regret. Has plenty of wraps as a promising young player, and was a bit of a surprise when he beat Jason Nightingale to the job of replacing Darius Boyd as the Dragons' new No.1. Had a very tough night at the office in Newcastle on Thursday, spilling a couple of kicks in wet conditions. He might not keep his place in my squad for long...
Konrad Hurrell – An obvious bargain at $77,100, particularly once he was named in the Warriors' 17. Has huge potential as a tackle-busting weapon, even if there are some doubts about his defence.
James Tedesco – Another $77,100 rookie starting for his club side, Tedesco looked like a guaranteed cash cow as a fullback before going down with a suspected ACL injury in Round 1. Unlikely to play again this year. A lot of people have been hit by this one and are looking at new options to bring in, but I'm considering saving the trade and leaving him in my squad for now (more on this in my regular Friday column).
Ken Sio – A bit of a risk (and a breach of the my own "never buy wingers" rule), Sio's DT scoring will basically depend on how many tries he scores. He's a gamble who could pay off if he makes a lucrative start to the season. He's actually made a good start, notching up 130+ run metres and scoring 25 in Round 1. Starts at just $88,100, so should make a bit of cash.
The one position where I'm completely happy with my initial selections, despite a couple of injury worries.
Tony Williams – Not the most reliable player out there but can notch big scores through his ability to break tackles. Started to get 80 minutes a week at the end of last season and looks like the trend will continue this year. Posted a massive Round 1 score and could be the top buy in the centres in 2012.
Dene Halatau – Like Williams, is another centre/second-rower DPP who should get plenty of defensive work done at the Bulldogs, particularly after the exit of Andrew Ryan. Played the full 80 in Round 1.
Jerome Ropati – A strong Warriors centre who is underpriced after an injury-enforced layoff. Picked up an ankle injury in Round 1, hence a low score of 9 first up.
Tautau Moga – A highly-rated rookie who is expected to be one of Brian Smith's first-choice centres this season when he returns from injury. The only player I've selected despite not being named to play in Round 1.
There are many, many options here. A handful of playmakers should score well (seven halves would have been 50+ points-a-week players last year under the new points system) so the keys here were finding value and the odd point of difference.
Kurt Gidley – He's one of the busiest players around, his team's goalkicker, and should be more involved in defence after making a permanent switch to the halves. Gidley's also a dual-position player who could be shifted to hooker when it's time to cash out my back-up No.9. Can break tackles and set up tries (neither of which he did against the Dragons on Thursday night). He looks unlikely to take much of the kicking duties off Jarrod Mullen, if Round 1 is anything to go by, which is a worry. No guarantee to keep a spot in my squad, but I'll see if his scores improve...
Terry Campese – If he stays fit he should be good value at $248,900, despite a quiet start to the season in his first full game in more than a year. The only real worry is the fact he is now likely to share the kicking duties with Raiders halfback Josh McCrone, rather than doing it all himself. He was a mid-50s player for the three seasons before last year's injury-ravaged season and should presumably get close to that form again.
Todd Carney – A dual position half/fullback who will surely improve after an underwhelming 2011 campaign at the Roosters – particularly in his role as the go-to man for the Sharks. Was superb on the weekend.
Adam Reynolds – A goalkicking, first-grade halfback valued at just $77,100. Unless this rookie gets injured or dropped, he's a must-have Dream Team player.
This position, along with hooker, is usually the bread-and-butter of Dream Team scoring. Your second-rowers will probably define your overall tactics – there are plenty of big-scoring options out there if you're chasing early points, and plenty of value buys if you want quick cash.
Corey Parker – Will rival Cameron Smith as Dream Team's top player this season. Scores big points in attack and defence, and kicks goals. My starting skipper.
David Stagg – A tackle machine who can play the full 80 minutes and, theoretically, should have more defensive work to do in the absence of old back-row partner Andrew Ryan. That theory may have been dashed by Des Hasler on the weekend though, with Stagg only given 35 minutes on the park. An upgrade to a certain S. Fensom could be on the cards...
Simon Mannering – Like Stagg, Mannering is a mid-priced 2RF who should also hopefully get through more defensive work than usual with a teammate missing (in this case, with Warriors lock Michael Luck injured until about Round 10). One of the best defenders in the game.
Luke Lewis – A slightly left-field option. Lewis may be injury prone, but he plays the 80, makes a fair share of tackles and – crucially – can make plenty of tackle breaks. Penrith follows their season opener against the Bulldogs with games against the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Eels and Sharks – all bottom-eight teams last year whose defences aren't the strongest. I'm hoping a strong start to the season could make Lewis a strong-scoring money-maker early on.
Jack De Belin – The 2011 Toyota Cup player of the year was a smokey when I bought him as a Dragons bench player, but he was elevated to St George Illawarra's starting side just before the game against the Knights and had a blinder, scoring 43. (My only regret here was that I was so busy sending out the word on Facebook and Twitter that De Belin was in the starting side that it slipped my mind to actually get him into my top 17). A great cash cow option.
Blake Austin – My other back-row cheapie was a toss-up between Roosters young gun Boyd Cordner and Austin, who was confirmed on Friday as being in Penrith's 17 for their clash with the Bulldogs. The Panthers have big hopes for Austin and handed him a new two-year deal over the weekend. Austin's $77,100 price tag gave him more cash cow potential, plus Cordner's 2011 efforts suggested a low-20s scorer, so Austin got the nod. (Of course, then Austin was injured with a corked thigh and scored 11, while Cordner hit mid-40s, but them's the breaks in Dream Team.)
FRONT ROW FORWARDS
A position where it looks like you're better off going for value rather than points. Many of last season's big-scoring props now have rivals in their own team who could take minutes off them this season, with James Graham joining Aiden Tolman at the Bulldogs, Luke Douglas teaming up with Luke Bailey at the Titans, and Petero Civoniceva joining Ben Hannant and Josh McGuire at the Broncos (Sam Thaiday was also switched to front row last week).
So I went for cheaper options whose value should rise during the year, giving me the chance to wait and see which big guns to pick up down the track.
Sam Burgess – Burgess's tackle-busting ability added to a decent workrate makes him a strong prospect at just over $200,000. Had a superb game first-up for Souths on Monday night. His recent injury woes are the only real worry.
Aaron Woods – One of two Tigers props I've included after the exit of Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita and Todd Payten from the club. Those departures mean Woods and Matt Groat should have more to do in the middle of the park for Wests. Comes at a good price too at $175,000.
Justin Poore – A popular cheapie this season, Poore is coming off the bench for the Eels but is a former NSW prop and should be a bargain at $111,4000. Scored in the mid-30s this week, which is all he needs to do to make cash.
Matt Groat – See Woods and Poore above. Should get minutes, even off the bench, and looks good value at a tick over $102,200.
I agonised over this. Cameron Smith was in my lineup right up until lockout day, but in the end I couldn't ignore the (apparent) value of the Tigers skipper. Time will tell whether it was the right move, but the early signs aren't great...
Robbie Farah – With last year's injury niggles behind him, Farah is expected to take on more general kicking in play after the exit of halfback Robert Lui from the Tigers. Only made 20 tackles in Round 1, hence his disappointing score of 27. Still, he can score big points in attack and defence and I expect his scores to lift. He should be a long-term keeper (with Smith to come into my squad down the track).
Travis Waddell – A shameless play for a cash cow here, with Waddell a starting hooker valued at just $111,000. Is a risk of losing his position as Canberra's first choice hooker to Glen Buttriss, but has plenty of potential for making money. Again, scores in the 30s each week will be enough for his value to climb towards $200,000.
This squad netted me a solid if unspectacular score of 776, with plenty of room for improvement in the coming weeks. I have kept a little spare cash up my sleeve in order to give me the room to make any urgent upgrades at the start of the season. I'm predicting a slowish start to the head-to-head rounds but a strong finish come finals time, barring any horror injury tolls.