The brand new Toyota NRL Dream Team Finals game is upon us for the first time, with more cash prizes up for grabs and another four weeks of addictive Dream Teaming to enjoy.
Picking your team for the finals is a different beast from usual Dream Team for a few reasons.
One, there are only 13 players in a team, meaning you need to be sure your whole lineup will take the field this weekend before you lock in your lineup. Two, there are no price changes, so there's no need to hunt for cash cows like you would with regular Dream Team. Three, there are unlimited trades between weeks in Finals Dream Team (as only four clubs will be involved in next week's games) so you don't need to plan ahead with your selections – just buy players who you think will score well this weekend.
With all that being said, I think it's worth basing your team selection decisions on how you think the four matches will play out in Week 1 of the finals series. If you think a certain club will take a big win, then look at recruiting one or two of their outside backs who could bag a few tries. If you think one game will be a low-scoring tackle-fest, then snap up one or two hard-working forwards from that match.
To help out, I've run through each team in action this weekend, their best Dream Team players, and how their opponents this week could shape their DT scores.
Top Dream Team players: Ben Barba (WFB), Josh Reynolds (HLF), James Graham (FRF), Aidan Tolman (FRF), Josh Jackson (2RF), Krisnan Inu (WFB/CTR)
This week's opponents: Manly are the reigning NRL champs and go into this game as favourites, despite the Bulldogs winning the minor premiership. They're the third best defensive team in the NRL in terms of points conceded, but are still ranked the fifth worst in the league for missed tackles, giving the likes of Ben Barba the chance to make a few tackle breaks this week.
This looms as the game of the weekend and should be a tight one, meaning the possibility of plenty of tackles for the forwards (good news for Graham, Tolman and Jackson). Josh Jackson is an obvious cheapie at just $129,300, particularly after last week's 77, but will the possible return of Dene Halatau mean a reduction in the youngster's minutes?
Top Dream Team players: Daly Cherry-Evans (HLF), Tony Williams (2RF/CTR), Matt Ballin (HOK), Anthony Watmough (2RF), Jamie Lyon (CTR)
This week's opponents: The Bulldogs have been a class act in 2012, ranking third in points scored, second in points conceded, and topping the NRL for offloads. Canterbury's prowess in offloads and line breaks mean the Sea Eagles defenders could leak a few missed or ineffective tackles if things don't go their way on Friday night.
Daly Cherry-Evans is the highest-priced half in Finals Dream Team and is a solid bet, but he's unlikely to post a monster score unless Manly are able to put a lot of points past a very solid Dogs lineup. Tony Williams and Jamie Lyon are both very strong options in the centres, particularly if you're backing Manly to get the win, while Matt Ballin is a point-of-difference option in the tricky hooker role.
Top Dream Team players: Cameron Smith (HOK), Cooper Cronk (HLF), Billy Slater (WFB), Ryan Hoffman (2RF)
This week's opponents: South Sydney have had a great year, ranking fourth in both points scored and conceded, and second in the NRL for most line breaks and offloads. But despite the stats their recent record suggests Souths could struggle against the league's top teams. Since round 13 the Bunnies have taken on nine bottom-eight teams, and won all nine games. But they've also met four finals-bound teams, and lost all four.
Cameron Smith doesn't come cheap but is the safest bet as captain in Week 1 of the finals since Corey Parker stopped kicking goals and playing 80 minutes for the Broncos. Fellow 'Big Three' superstars Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater could also cash in with good attacking numbers if the Storm outclass the Rabbitohs in Melbourne. On that point, the Storm's cheap outside backs could be great value buys if they are able to grab one or two tries on Saturday night.
Top Dream Team players: Issac Luke (HOK), Greg Inglis (CTR, WFB), Dave Taylor (2RF), Sam Burgess (FRF, 2RF), Adam Reynolds (HLF), John Sutton (HLF), Nathan Peats (HOK, 2RF)
This week's opponents: The Storm go into this week's game as favourites and boast the defensive record in the NRL, with the fewest points conceded and the second-fewest missed tackles – meaning Souths' attacking stars can't expect too many tackle breaks. On a positive note for Rabbitohs defenders, Melbourne rank fourth last in tackle breaks this season.
Issac Luke's demotion to bench hooker rules him out of contention as a Dream Team player, and also means starting No.9 Nathan Peats isn't a totally reliable option either. Adam Reynolds and Sam Burgess are always solid bets – although they may not get their usual boost from attacking stats – while Greg Inglis will need to have a big game if the Rabbitohs are to be in contention on Saturday. Second-rower Chris McQueen is both cheap and available in the backline, but beware his minutes have plummeted in the past couple of weeks and he's coming off recent scores of 17, 13 and zero.
Top Dream Team players: Johnathan Thurston (HLF), James Tamou (FRF), Gavin Cooper (2RF), Matt Bowen (WFB), Matt Scott (FRF), Kane Linnett (CTR)
This week's opponents: The Broncos are the weekend's biggest outsiders, but still boast a very talented line-up as well as the most tackle breaks of any team in 2012.
As short-priced favourites playing at home, the Cowboys can be expected to score a fair share of points this weekend, which is great news for attacking dynamos Johnathan Thurston, Matt Bowen and North Queensland's outside backs. Kane Linnett in particular has been a very impressive Dream Team scorer in the back half of the season.
Top Dream Team players: Corey Parker (2RF), Andrew McCullough (HOK), Sam Thaiday (2RF), Ben Hannant (FRF), Justin Hodges (CTR), Alex Glenn (2RF), Josh McGuire (FRF)
This week's opponents: The Cowboys have been the top-scoring team in the NRL this year, boasting the most line breaks and third most tackle breaks in the competition. That means Brisbane's defence will be put to the test.
As this week's biggest outsiders, it's worth being wary of the Broncos. Corey Parker's stocks have plummeted in recent weeks, so only pick him up if you're confident he's returned to full fitness and will get the goalkicking duties back again. Busy defender Andrew McCullough will be a popular option at hooker considering Cameron Smith's hefty price tag. Justin Hodges could score 80, or could injure himself in the first 10 minutes.
Top Dream Team players: Shaun Fensom (2RF), Josh Dugan (WFB), Jarrod Croker (CTR), Josh Papalii (2RF), Josh McCrone (HLF)
This week's opponents: The Sharks have stuttered into the finals after a superb start to the season, and could be ripe for the picking. Despite the flair of Todd Carney they have been the fourth lowest-scoring team in the league, with only the Roosters making fewer line breaks.
Canberra have flown under the radar to make the finals and their players are the dark horses in Finals Dream Team, with home ground advantage giving the Raiders a huge chance of knocking out Cronulla this week. Shaun Fensom should make his customary 40+ tackles, and goalkicker Jarrod Croker could be the big winner if the Green Machine pile on some points. Tackle-busting fullback Josh Dugan is an injury doubt, with standby No.1 Reece Robinson another good option at the back if Dugan is ruled out.
Top Dream Team players: Paul Gallen (2RF), Todd Carney (HLF), Andrew Fifita (FRF), Wade Graham (HLF), Jeremy Smith (2RF), Jeff Robson (HLF, HOK)
This week's opponents: The Raiders can be patchy in defence but they've been very polished in attack, making the fewest errors in the NRL. They're also in hot form after five straight wins and will be full of confidence in front of a home crowd on Sunday.
They've been one of the real success stories of 2012 but the Sharks have run into the Raiders at just the wrong time and will need a big performance to keep their season alive. Of course, Paul Gallen will put in a huge effort again after last week's 94 and is always a good captaincy option, while Todd Carney's performance against his first NRL club will be crucial to Cronulla's chances. Andrew Fifita has had a massive second-half of the season, Dream Team-wise, and looks good value in the front row.
Hope that gives you a few more ideas for finalising your Finals Dream Team squad. Of course, it's also worth taking a few chances – just about any player could have a big game this weekend and prove the difference in the race for the $500 weekly prize.
So make sure you get a good league together with mates, family, and colleagues, and buckle up for four more glorious weeks of Toyota NRL Dream Team. (If you need to find a league to join, there are plenty on offer from fans at my Facebook page.)
At the end of the line is a $3000 top prize – will it be yours?