Scout Report: 7 NRL Fantasy lessons from 2014

As another season comes to an end, it's time to look back at what we've learned from the season that was – the kind of lessons that will help us climb the rankings or win more head-to-head leagues next year. 

This time last year I wrote this article, summing up a few things we learned from 2013's campaign of trades and tactics. It was a popular article but by the time this season arrived even I failed to follow some of my own advice. I've slipped down the rankings a little this season – I finished in the top 100 in NRL Dream Team in 2013 and am currently ranked 107th in NRL Fantasy – but at least I've shown it's possible to finish fairly close to the top despite making a few horror mistakes (trading out Simon Mannering in Round 3, anyone?). 

Of course, Fantasy isn't done for 2014 yet – stay tuned for the Holden NRL Fantasy Finals mini-game, with $500 weekly prizes up for grabs, plus a $1000 grand final prize and $2000 plus Four Nations tickets for the overal Finals winner.

Some of last year's lessons hold true again this season, but a few other key tactics revealed themselves due to the new nature of this year's competition. Here's what I've taken out of the year that's been in Fantasy – with a full rundown on all my trades at the bottom of the article if you're interested.

1) Keep your starting 25 flexible

The increased salary cap this year meant Fantasy coaches suddenly had the opportunity to squeeze quite a few big names into their squad at the start of the season, but the freedom that allowed turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. It meant I could fit two legendary Fantasy No.9s – Cameron Smith and Robbie Farah – into my initial squad, but by doing so I wasn't able to bring in any genuine money-makers in the hooker position. The main effect of this was there was no way I could get new Broncos 80-minute man Andrew McCullough into my side without trading out a keeper – meaning I missed out on one of the buys of the season (McCullough averaged in the mid-60s for the first half of the year and gained more than $100,000 in value).

So get a few keepers into your side across your squad by all means, but keep in mind you'll want to make some early trades to jump onto those great value buys.

2) Go get those cash cows

An obvious one, sure, but by the end of the season it's clear which teams have made good use of cash cows early in the season and which ones haven't. There are three keys to making the most of the early money on offer: 
- Get a fair share of cash cows into your starting squad (for me there were the likes of Manu Ma'u, Ben Hunt, Josh Starling, Michael Dobson and Nathan Peats);
- Don't hesitate to cut loose the cheap players who don't look like making money (Luke Brooks, John Palavi and Brenton Lawrence, in my case); and
- Swoop on the cash cows who impress in the early rounds of the season (like Tinirau Arona). That doesn't mean picking up every cheap player who comes along, just ones with good base stats and job security, like Arona or Ma'u.

Once the cash cows have reached their peak the best Fantasy coaches move them on for genuine keepers or new cash cows (Alex Johnston, Kurt Mann, Isaac De Gois and Daniel Mortimer were among this year's good mid- or late-season cash cows) and put that extra salary cap spending power to good use.

3) Don't give up on the keepers

Not every Fantasy keeper bursts out of the blocks at the start of the year. Dual-position Warriors workhorse Simon Mannering didn't post a score higher than 35 in the first month of the season, while Fantasy legend Corey Parker suddenly found himself playing at prop for the Broncos and started scoring 40s and 50s rather than his typical 60s and 70s. Both players caused Fantasy coaches to panic, despite the old "keep the keepers" rule.

My biggest Fantasy regret this year is probably losing faith in Mannering, and by the end of the year both players re-established their credentials: Parker is now ranked fifth amongst all front- or second-rowers for Fantasy points per game in 2014, while Mannering is easily the top-scoring Fantasy centre of the season. Trading out a gun player ahead of the Origin/bye period is one thing, but losing faith with a keeper altogether based on a couple of scratchy scores is a definite no-no.

4) Beware injury-prone players... they tend to get injured

Every experienced Fantasy coach has a "never again" list – a group of players they won't allow themselves to buy in future after being burned in the past. Veteran Raiders playmaker Terry Campese and Knights skipper Kurt Gidley both earned spots in my list in years gone by. 

But even if you don't go that far, it's worth at least bearing in mind a player's injury record before snapping them up in Fantasy. Some players with an injury-prone past – like Josh Dugan and Michael Gordon – have defied history and been consistent performers this year. Others – like James Tedesco, Josh Mansour and Justin Hodges – have again spent significant time on the sidelines in 2014. Don't necessarily write these off as Fantasy prospects altogether (Mansour has been superb when on the field this year) but keep in mind they may cost you more trades down the track if they get injured again.

5) Make best use of the rolling lockout

The fact captains and vice captains were locked in at the start of each round this year made things a little trickier to manage late changes across the weekend, but there is still an art to fielding a strong side each week. 

For one thing, ensure you have a few captaincy options in your side and don't name any player who is in doubt as your captain or vice captain. Paul Gallen's ASADA suspension caught some people out last week, but it didn't come out of the blue and the safer option was to pick an alternate skipper.

For another, play it smart and structure your 17 around the weekend's fixtures. If a player is in doubt or playing later in the round, put them on your substitutes bench. This way if they are ruled out you can easily swap them out for another reserve from any position. Get any players involved in a Friday (or Thursday) night game into your starting side, as you know they'll be locked in once the weekend starts anyway.

Yes this might mean you have Paul Gallen listed as a bench player while Josh Jackson is in your starting side, as was the case for me last week, but it can come in very handy if you need to make a late change.

6) Don't get too carried away with bye-round planning

It's never easy to tell how effective planning for the bye rounds is. Certainly if you're playing purely to win a head-to-head league then you're better off ignoring Origin and the byes altogether, saving those crucial trades for the end of the season instead. Those who did play head-to-head matches on bye rounds (a new feature this year) were still probably better off not burning too many trades on improving their scores for those tricky weeks, as their head-to-head opponents were just as likely to be understrength. But even those aiming to climb the overall rankings should probably be wary of going all-out in the bye rounds.

I planned far enough ahead to have a full 17-man team – or close to it – for each of the major bye rounds, but it came back to bite me as well. I picked up Trent Hodkinson on the assumption Mitchell Pearce had the NSW halfback role sewn up, and then a few drinks later Pearce was out of Origin contention and Hodkinson was in. Then the Bulldogs' new half Moses Mbye promised to be a cash cow and a handy bye-round pickup, only to be ruled out for eight weeks through injury. Then I snapped up Josh Dugan in the knowledge Jarryd Hayne had a mortgage on the NSW fullback role after his heroics in Origin I, only for Dugan to switch to right centre for the Dragons and make the Blues side there. 

That mean three trades all but wasted, and new trades needing to be made to cover them. Which leads me to...

7) Don't run out of trades

The simplest rule to write down and the hardest one to follow. My lack of patience with trades means I currently have a suspended Paul Gallen sitting unused in my reserves, while cash cows Isaac De Gois and Daniel Mortimer remain in my squad despite the fact I have the cash to upgrade one or both to genuine keepers like Andrew McCullough or Johnathan Thurston. Trade Rage remains the biggest enemy of the Fantasy tragic, and one many of us will look to battle yet again next season.

What are your big mistakes of 2014, or your best buys of the season? I'll hand out my unofficial NRL Fantasy Awards next week to the Fantasy player of the year, most-improved, biggest flop and more.

The Scouts original 2014 team
Cameron Smith, Robbie Farah;
James Graham, George Burgess, Brenton Lawrence, Josh Starling;
Sam Burgess, Corey Parker, Jason Taumalolo, Manu Ma'u, Nathan Peats, John Palavi;
Daly Cherry-Evans, Ben Hunt, Luke Brooks, Michael Dobson;
Simon Mannering, Jack Wighton, Willie Tonga, Matt Allwood;
Anthony Milford, Sam Tomkins, Will Hopoate, Michael Witt, Dale Copley.

The Scouts final 2014 team
Robbie Farah, Isaac De Gois;
James Graham, Corey Parker, George Burgess, Ben Spina;
Sam Burgess, Trent Merrin, Paul Gallen, Josh Jackson, Jason Taumalolo, Dayne Weston;
Cameron Smith, Adam Reynolds, Ben Hunt, Daniel Mortimer;
Jamal Idris, Tim Lafai, Nene Macdonald, Peter Mata'utia;
Jarryd Hayne, Greg Inglis, Josh Dugan, Alex Johnston, Zac Santo.

The Scouts 2014 trades analysis
(Round; trade; type of trade; good trade/bad trade)
Rd 2: Brenton Lawrence ($313,082) > Tinirau Arona ($134,558) – Cutting a mid-range player for a cash cow; good trade
Rd 2: Luke Brooks ($171,800) > Gareth Widdop ($279,091) – Upgrading a mid-range player to a potential keeper; OK trade
Rd 3: Simon Mannering ($285,312) > James Tedesco ($253,929) – Misfiring keeper for another potential keeper; bad trade (Tedesco got injured, while Mannering was back to his best by the end of the season)
Rd 4: John Palavi ($114,920) > Mike Cooper ($240,285) – Cheap flop for mid-range potential cash cow; mediocre trade
Rd 6: Sam Tomkins ($270,536) > David Nofoaluma ($262,218) – Potential keeper for potential keeper with good bye schedule; sideways trade
Rd 6: James Tedesco ($290,718) > Jamal Idris ($310,900) – Injured player for potential keeper; good trade
Rd 7: Robbie Farah ($518,915) > Sonny Bill Williams ($345,224) – Injured star with bad Origin/bye schedule for star with good bye schedule; good trade
Rd 7: Daly Cherry-Evans ($365,586) > Trent Hodkinson ($383,862) – Injured star with bad Origin/bye period for in-form scorer with a good bye schedule (who then got picked for Origin) – unlucky trade 
Rd 8: Tinirau Arona ($270,567) > Jake Friend ($348,384) – Peaked cash cow for scorer with good bye schedule; good trade
Rd 9: Willie Tonga ($162,070) > Alex Johnston ($117,209) – Peaked cash cow for new cash cow/keeper with good bye schedule; good trade
Rd 9: Will Hopoate ($196,607) > Tim Lafai ($292,780) – Peaked cash cow for keeper with good bye schedule; good trade
Rd 10: Gareth Widdop ($260,685) > Kurt Mann ($115,553) – Mid-range player for cash cow; good trade
Rd 10: Nathan Peats ($280,405) > Josh Jackson ($290,194) – Peaked cash cow for keeper with good bye schedule; good trade
Rd 11: Mike Cooper ($241,674) > Shaun Fensom ($418,534) – Mid-range player for keeper; good trade
Rd 11: Michael Dobson ($200,949) > Moses Mbye ($114,218) – Peaked cash cow for cash cow with good bye schedule; unlucky trade (Mbye got injured and missed the Bulldogs' Origin round games)
Rd 11: Trent Hodkinson ($336,070) > Adam Reynolds ($262,334) – Keeper with bad bye schedule for underpriced keeper with good bye schedule; good trade
Rd 12: Matthew Allwood ($172,655) > Peter Mata'utia ($110,917) – Peaked cash cow for cheapie; good trade
Rd 12: Jamal Idris ($274,363) > Josh Dugan ($343,765) – Keeper sidelined indefinitely for keeper; good trade (although Dugan was then picked for NSW in the centres)
Rd 14: Michael Witt ($189,913) > Isaac De Gois ($137,659) – Peaked cash cow for new cash cow; good trade
Rd 14: Dale Copley ($194,440) > Nene Macdonald ($107,000) – Peaked cash cow for cheapie; good trade
Rd 14: Anthony Milford ($321,553) > Josh Mansour ($374,632) – Mid-range scorer for keeper; OK trade (the injury-prone Mansour later got injured)
Rd 15: Manu Ma'u ($258,971) > Paul Gallen ($405,966) – Peaked cash cow for keeper; good trade
Rd 15: Moses Mbye ($135,880) > Daniel Mortimer ($89,463) – Cheap dud for cash cow; good trade
Rd 17: Jack Wighton ($243,034) > Jamal Idris ($262,556) – Injured player for keeper; good trade 
Rd 18: Jake Friend ($377,609) > Robbie Farah ($508,073) – Borderline keeper upgraded to star player; good trade
Rd 18: Jason Taumalolo ($223,086) > Dayne Weston ($81,405) – Mid-range scorer for cheapie; good trade
Rd 19: Paul Gallen ($472,707) > Andrew Fifita ($381,947) – Injured star for another star; good trade
Rd 19: David Nofoaluma ($257,691) > Greg Inglis ($308,983) – Injured keeper for star; good trade
Rd 20: Josh Starling ($197,880) > Ben Spina ($96,166) – Peaked cash cow for cheapie; good trade
Rd 20: Josh Mansour ($334,477) > Jarryd Hayne ($430,039) – Injured keeper for star; good trade
Rd 21: Sonny Bill Williams ($306,220) > Trent Merrin ($335,653) – Injured keeper for another likely keeper; OK trade (Merrin struggled to regain his early-season form)
Rd 22: Shaun Fensom ($398,875) > Paul Gallen ($472,707) – Injured star for another star; good trade
Rd 22: Kurt Mann ($189,809) > Zac Santo ($96,166) – Peaked cash cow for cheapie; good trade
Rd 23: Andrew Fifita ($426,962) > Jason Taumalolo ($280,929) – Injured star for potential keeper; OK trade