Playing NRL Fantasy isn't just about picking high-scoring players. The real key is spotting undervalued gems; those players who you can snap up for a bargain and who will earn you points – and more spending power – during the season. With player prices moving from Round 1 in NRL Fantasy, spotting the cash cows early on is crucial if you want to put together an all-star squad by the business end of the season.
With an increased $6.5 million salary cap, any regular starters who cost less than $200,000 could be bargain buys in NRL Fantasy. Below are 15 of the best prospects at this stage of the year, ordered by starting price, with more great cheapies sure to emerge from the Auckland Nines and NRL trial games in the lead-up to the start of the new season.
Matt McIlwrick – Roosters (hooker, $199,000)
Having moved from Canberra to the Roosters in the off-season, McIlwrick has emerged as a potential early-season cash cow with first-choice hooker Jake Friend still recovering from shoulder surgery. At this stage it's hard to say how many weeks Friend will miss at the start of the year, but if McIlwrick looks set to start for the first month of the season he is certain to make some price rises. Beware though that his game time is likely to drop off significantly or disappear altogether once Friend returns, so he remains a risk.
Ryan James – Titans (front-rower or second-rower, $192,000)
James is a huge talent whose game time was limited by injury last season, reducing him to about 26 points a game. He's got the ability to boost that scoring by 10 points or more, and with dual position status and a bigger role in a pack that has just lost Luke Bailey, Mark Minichiello and Ashley Harrison, it's hard to ignore James as a cash cow option at the start of the new season.
David Klemmer – Bulldogs (front-rower, $191,000)
David Klemmer showed during Australia's Four Nations campaign at the end of last year that he can make a massive impact when he gets game time – something he's been a little short of at the Bulldogs behind workaholic props James Graham and Aiden Tolman. Klemmer played about 20 minutes a game for the bulk of last season and about half an hour a game during the Dogs' strong finals campaign, and that figure is only likely to increase following his performances for the Kangaroos. He could be the next George Burgess if he gets decent minutes on the park this season, a quest that will be aided by the departure of workhorse Dale Finucane to the Storm.
Jake Granville – Cowboys (hooker, $189,000)
The search for a long-term replacement for Aaron Payne has seen the Cowboys try out Rory Kostjasyn, Ray Thompson, Cameron King and one-time Fantasy flop Scott Moore in the hooker role in the past couple of years, and a new contender arrives this season in the form of former Bronco Granville. Expect to see the recruit come off the bench early on behind incumbent rake Kostjasyn, but if Granville can make the starting spot his own he looks great value at $189,000.
Iosia Soliola – Raiders (centre, $186,000)
You may remember Soliola as a very good young centre for the Roosters (and Kiwis) in the mid-late part of last decade. Since he left our shores in 2010 he's moulded himself into a very good second-rower – good enough to have helped St Helens to a Super League title last year. Initially only available as a centre in Fantasy, Soliola will quickly gain dual position status if he is named, as expected, in the Raiders back row from Round 1 ahead of the likes of Joel Edwards and Jarrad Kennedy. He's also likely to see some juicy price rises with workhorse lock Shaun Fensom set to miss the opening few rounds.
Jordan Kahu – Broncos (winger/fullback or centre, $165,000)
This promising young Bronco can play pretty much anywhere in the backline and is available at both centre and wing/fullback. He played about half a season in first grade in 2013 but just two games last year, meaning he comes at a bit of a discount. With Brisbane's first-choice fullback Darius Boyd set to miss the first half of the year with injury, Kahu is a strong chance of filling in at the back where he could make some decent coin. Just bear in mind he could be out of a job when the Broncos return to full strength so may need to be sold coming into the Origin period.
Mitch Cornish – Raiders (half, $164,000)
Last season, Brisbane's Ben Hunt was an underrated half who was picked in a lot of Fantasy teams (mine included) mainly because he was a first-choice NRL halfback with a $166,500 price tag. By the end of the season Hunt was not only a major moneymaker but also the strongest performing half in NRL Fantasy. This year, Cornish has a similar starting price and is tipped to get an extended run in the No.7 at Canberra, and although he's unlikely to match Hunt's meteoric rise he's still a big chance of making an impact. He does have more competition for halves spots than Hunt did, with Josh McCrone and Sam Williams both waiting in the wings if Cornish struggles (new signing Blake Austin is expected to play at five-eighth). But with the Raiders looking to the future there's every reason to expect Ricky Stuart would persist with Cornish for the medium term at least.
Justin O'Neill – Cowboys (centre, $160,000)
Brent Tate's retirement leaves a centre spot open at the North Queensland Cowboys, and although there's a lot of competition – Matthew Writght, Kyle Feldt, Tautau Moga – O'Neill would be the most attractive option for Fantasy coaches due to his low starting price. The former Storm centre only played four games last season, including an injury-shortened appearance in Round 8, so is almost certain to rise in value if he is a consistent starter for North Queensland.
Beau Champion – Eels (centre, $146,000)
A veteran with a decade of experience at the top level who was relegated to a back-up option at the Rabbitohs last season, Champion arrives at Parramatta with the chance to claim the centre spot vacated by Will Hopoate's move to fullback. Fellow recruit Brad Takairangi will be Champion's main competition, but Champion's sub-$150,000 price tag would make him a popular cash cow if he gets a run at the start of the year.
Lachlan Coote – Cowboys (wing/fullback, $137,000)
The former Panthers fullback missed the entire 2014 season through injury after moving to the Cowboys, with Michael Morgan taking on the job of replacing Matt Bowen in the No.1 jersey. Morgan excelled in the new role and appears to have a mortgage on it now, meaning Coote will likely be battling Robert Lui for the five-eighth spot alongside Johnathan Thurston. If he gets the nod ahead of Lui for Round 1 he'd be a bargain in Fantasy – and would also be a big chance of getting dual position status in the game as well.
Matt Duffie – Storm (winger/fullback, $137,000)
A Storm winger with a horror run of injuries in the past couple of years, Duffie has the speed and leaping ability (he's a former sprinter and high jump star) to finish off plenty of tries outside Melbourne's playmaking maestros Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater. He's just got to get in the starting side and stay fit first.
Tom Learoyd-Lahrs – Storm (front-rower, $136,000)
Injury has wrecked this prop's last couple of seasons, with Learoyd-Lahrs failing to play a game for Canberra's first-grade side last season after featuring just eight times the previous year. And yet he's a former NSW and Australian Test player who's still (just) on the right side of 30. That makes him the kind of player Craig Bellamy can get the most out of, and assuming he plays decent minutes from the starting pack or off the bench he could well be a steal at $136,000.
Michael Chee Kam – Sea Eagles (second row or centre, $136,000)
A young gun with a point to prove in the final year of his contract with Manly, Chee Kam finally got his chance with a cameo off the bench in Round 26 last season and looks a chance of seeing more game time this season after the exits of star back-rowers Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart. But the arrival of Feleti Mateo and Luke Burgess plus the presence of Tom Symonds, Josh Starling, Jesse Sene-Lefao and Dunamis Lui means Chee Kam would still be doing well to squeeze onto the interchange for Round 1.
Jack Bird – Sharks (centre, $128,000)
Jack Bird is a player with huge potential, having starred in the Holden Cup for the Dragons last season, and could get his chance in the top grade this year. A second-rower in the lower grades, Bird is set to switch to the centres when he gets his NRL chance – something that may come sooner rather than later in a Sharks outfit brimming with talented forwards but lacking a little punch in the outside backs. Fellow former Dragon Gerard Beale will take one centre spot but there will be competition for the other, particularly if the Sharks struggle early on.
Euan Aitken – Dragons (centre or winger/fullback, $128,000)
The Dragons are reportedly so impressed with the 19-year-old Junior Kangaroo that he is in with a serious chance of leapfrogging the likes of Charly Runciman, Eto Nabuli and Peter Mata'utia to grab a wing spot on the opposite flank to Jason Nightingale. With Brett Morris having left the club, coach Paul McGregor may just look to the future by naming Aitken as a bolter in his place. He can play at centre too after playing there for the Junior Kangaroos at the end of 2014.
Snap up some bargains and take on your mates in NRL Fantasy.