The start of the NRL season is just three weeks away, with the pre-season trial games up and running and NRL Fantasy coaches across Australia and New Zealand tweaking their squads ahead of the all-important Round 1 team lists.
During the NRL season I'll answer questions each week from Fantasy coaches about the best buys on offer, and this year I'm kicking things off early with this pre-season Q&A.
Is Cam Smith due to be ready by Round 1 after his ankle surgery?
(From Ashley Walpole)
Probably not. Smith – probably the greatest NRL Fantasy player in the game – had been expected to miss the first month of the season after having surgery on his ankle in December, meaning you'd have to look elsewhere for captaincy options for your Fantasy team. Fellow Storm star Billy Slater suggested Smith could return sooner than expected in a radio interview last week, saying, "Hopefully he won't be too far away from Round 1", but in all likelihood Melbourne will play it safe with their skipper for the start of the season.
Robbie Farah, Issac Luke and James Segeyaro are the three most popular big-scoring hookers in Fantasy right now, while Jake Granville, Michael Lichaa, Adam Clydsdale and Matt McIlwrick (who may start in place of the injured Jake Friend at the Roosters) are the leading cash cow options.
Do you need to have a gun hooker or could you go with two cashies?
(From Darren Lawrence)
This is a question that will probably split Fantasy coaches down the middle. Hooker is a very interesting position this season, with a lot of good Fantasy options around but only two spots in your squad. Any combination of two names I mentioned above could be a successful pairing; it really depends on what you want.
Certainly the quickest way to make money for your team would be to opt for two cash cows in the hooker position, with guys like Lichaa and Clydsdale both expected to get more game time as their team's starting hooker this year. Granville is a riskier buy but would make a ton of cash if he starts for the Cowboys.
On the other hand, you want to have a high-scoring captain in your team (who will earn double points) and Farah fits that bill, while Issac Luke and James Segeyaro are both potentially undervalued 80-minute players who could benefit from this year's rule change around the ruck – forcing defenders to release from the tackle at the same time to allow for quicker play-the-balls.
There's no "right" option here, but I'll probably go for one high scorer and one cash cow. If you pick two cash cows make sure you get a quality captaincy option somewhere else in your squad.
With Kenny Edwards out for the season who do you see playing big minutes in the Eels' back row?
(From Benny Pinder)
Edwards will undergo surgery after tearing his ACL at the Auckland Nines so he's expected to miss a fair bit of game time, if not the season. It opens up the chance for one or two players to step up and play a big role this season. Last season's Fantasy cash cow sensation Manu Ma'u ($359,000) might get a start but Fantasy coaches will be hopeful Eels coach Brad Arthur opts for the hard-working Tepai Moeroa ($269,000) instead.
Moeroa showed at the end of last year he was capable of playing the full 80 in the pack, posting Fantasy scores of 34, 58 and 61 the three times he played 80 minutes – well above his season average of 31. Beware though, Moeroa only averaged 21.5 in games where he didn't play the full 80, and with 80-minute man Anthony Watmough now in the Parramatta pack there is a little less game time to go around.
Thoughts on Feleti Mateo and Tohu Harris? Mateo could be more consistent at Manly but risky and Harris's minutes could increase greatly.
(From Brandon Scott Lee)
How do you rate Feleti Mateo this year? He has massive potential but has never been at his consistent best. Will he be a bit of a cash cow being at Manly?
(From Cameron James)
Both these guys have potential to improve, and if they score well they'd be underpriced at $242,000 (Mateo) and $301,000 (Harris). Harris could take Ryan Hoffman's old spot in the Storm starting pack and play 80 minutes, having averaged closer to 50 minutes a game last season, mostly off the bench. If that happens, his weekly scores could rise from the mid-30s up to about 50. No guarantees that will happen, but he's a decent chance.
Mateo is a trickier one to predict. A super talent who is already in a lot of Fantasy coaches' "never again" list due to his habit of producing one great game and then a string of quiet games, Mateo played around 40 minutes a week off the Warriors bench last year and will presumably play more in the Manly starting pack this year, replacing fellow ball-playing big man Glenn Stewart. But how his club switch will affect his Fantasy scoring remains a mystery. If he plays 10 more minutes a game his scores should rise from high 20s to mid 30s – which wouldn't really justify buying him – so he probably needs significant minutes plus improved performances to be a quality Fantasy buy. Both are possible, but you're taking a gamble with him at this stage.
How do you feel about Nate Myles at lock Lone Scout? You mentioned him and that one game last year but do you think there is any chance he could be a consistent 50+ scorer at lock?
(From Joshua Paduch)
He could be, but it's more to do with the change in personnel at the Titans this year than any positional switch for Myles. He actually still wore the No.10 in the game he played at lock and made 58 tackles last season – with a reshuffle before kickoff meaning regular lock Ashley Harrison moved into the halves – and it's always a risk to read too much into a single game in Fantasy. The biggest reason Myles could get a larger role this year is the fact that experienced forwards Harrison, Luke Bailey and Mark Minichiello have all left the club. That makes Myles – now the sole club captain – a more crucial player than ever before, and it could increase his game time from the 55 minutes a game he played last year. He's shown at rep level he's a big worker when given the minutes, so the potential is there for him to make the step up. Beware though, he only made more than 50 points once in the NRL in 2015, and only had seven tackle breaks and one line break all season, so he'd need big tackle counts on a regular basis to become a quality Fantasy scorer.
With the new tackle rule this year do think there will be a lot more dummy-half running? Or will defences just commit two to the tackles which will then open up more offloads?
(From Matt Garrity)
It's tough to predict exactly how the rule change will affect the game, beyond slightly quicker play-the-balls. It didn't appear to have a massive effect on the Charity Shield, so I wouldn't necessarily base significant Fantasy decisions on the rule change at this point. It may improve some players' attacking stats a little (run metres for dummy-halves, offloads) and also boost tackle counts a little overall (with a faster game meaning more tackles). On the other hand, it could also lead to more missed tackles if there a fewer men in the tackle, and also reduce the tackle counts of players who are generally the third man into a tackle. So it's a factor to keep in mind when considering what type of players to pick, but it's difficult to know how much of an impact it will have on Fantasy scores over the course of the season.
Who should I choose between Dugan and Tomkins?
(From Marty Eigner)
Both these guys are among the best in the winger/fullback position in Fantasy (Dugan is available at centre as well) and both have good reasons to improve their scoring this year. Josh Dugan played six games at fullback for the Dragons last season before switching to centre for the rest of the year, and while his scoring stayed pretty consistent at about 43 points per game, all his big scores in the centres were dependent on tries. That's not the case at fullback, where he made scores of 58 and 60 last year without scoring a try (instead hitting about 200 run metres and grabbing nine tackle breaks in each game). His likely return to the back should help his scores this year, although he does have a worrying injury record.
Sam Tomkins isn't changing positions this season but he did improve significantly after a slow start to his first year in the NRL, averaging 35 points for his first six games at the Warriors and 45 after that – including a monster 93-point effort (with two tries, three line breaks and 10 tackle breaks) against Parramatta. He should pick up where he left off this year, and with the Warriors looking stronger on paper he could get even more attacking stats.
Dugan probably has more upside (my guess is he could average close to 50 this season, Tomkins mid-to-high 40s) but he's also a bigger injury risk. You probably haven't got space for both of them at the start of the year with Dugan costing $385,000 and Tomkins $383,000, so decide on whether you want to take the gamble on Dugan or play it a little safer with Tomkins – or ignore both and stump up the extra $40,000 for Rabbitohs superstar Greg Inglis.
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