Last year the Downer NRL Auckland Nines gave a surprising amount of insight into how the NRL season would play out – based on the weekend try-fest I predicted Bryce Cartwright would impress, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck would make a slow start to the season, the Titans halves would click quickly, the Eels backline looked good and Ben Barba was somewhere near back to his best.
So what less for NRL Fantasy have we learned from the 2017 edition, won by the Roosters against a young Panthers outfit in the final?
The Dragons have some new attacking weapons
They may not have made it to the knockout rounds, but the St George Illawarra Dragons certainly provided a few attacking highlights from the Nines – and that's not something you usually associate with the Dragons. Those highlights came largely from two sources – lightning quick rookies Jai Field and Matt Dufty. Field in particular shone with two solo long-range tries and looks a player who can produce something from nothing – a trait the points-shy Dragons would have loved to have had in recent seasons. He'll be competing with Josh McCrone and Shaun Nona for the No.7 jersey in the NRL this season, with Benji Marshall now at the Broncos and Drew Hutchison out with an ACL injury. His size is an issue – while he's an attacking gem he could be a defensive liability, which is bad news in Fantasy – but attack has been the Dragons' weakness in recent years so it's not out of the question that they give the young gun a chance in the top grade sooner rather than later. Dufty meanwhile is an outside chance of taking the Dragons fullback spot, although Test star Josh Dugan is likely to retain it rather than be shifted to centre again.
Connor Watson can play
As the star player for the champion team at the Nines, there was no doubt Connor Watson would be named the tournament MVP. But can he grab a starting spot at the Roosters this season? It doesn't look likely with Luke Keary now at the club, with news out of the Roosters that Keary has been quickly forming a sharp halves combination with Mitchell Pearce and Watson saying he's happy to play a utility role this season. But after outshining some star playmakers across the Nines tournament there's a chance Watson could get his chance in the No.6 for the Roosters at some stage if the Keary and Pearce combo doesn't gel as well as expected. That means Watson will be one to keep tabs on during the season; if he starts on the bench his scores will probably be low – meaning his price will drop – but if he wins a starting spot later in the year he could become a handy mid-season cash cow.
Could James Tamou become Fantasy-relevant?
One of the standouts for surprise Nines grand finalists the Panthers was James Tamou, who not only provided some much-needed size and power in the middle but also ran away for two solo tries on day one of the Nines. The new recruit looked super-fit in his first competitive run in Penrith colours. Obviously you don't buy props in Fantasy for their try-scoring prowess, but it's the combination of that fitness and the fact he's suddenly the top dog at a new club – rather than arguably the third-best big man at a Cowboys side featuring Matt Scott and Jason Taumalolo – that suggests Tamou could be set for a bigger role this year. He played about 45 minutes per game and scored 42 points per game last season, but if that workload goes up he could potentially start to push towards the 50-point return you want from a Fantasy forward. Like Watson he's probably not one to pick in your starting squad, but a player to keep an eye on in the early rounds.
Jordan Kahu in top form
His hesitation in slotting a match-winning conversion may have cost his team a chance of winning the tournament but Bronco Jordan Kahu was still one of Brisbane's best in the Nines, scoring half a dozen tries as well as being one of the few consistent goal kickers across the weekend. He's set to start at centre this season after spending much of last season on the wing, and with Corey Parker retired he's likely to become the Broncos' full-time goal-kicker as well. With an average in the high 20s last year it's debatable whether he has the improvement in him to become a genuine Fantasy gun, but he'll certainly take some strong form into Round 1.
Eels prop a smokey
Tim Mannah may be Parramatta's top prop but two new front-rowers at the club in Nathan Brown and Suaia Matagi both impressed at the Nines – with Matagi going as far as to be included in the team of the tournament. A journeyman who's already played for the Warriors, Roosters and Panthers despite only starting his NRL career in 2013, Matagi has had only limited minutes and limited Fantasy scores in previous seasons – playing less than half an hour a game last year for a 21-point average. But maybe Eels coach Brad Arthur is getting something out of him that previous coaches couldn't, and if Matagi can lift his output and minutes this year he could become a bargain at $204,000.
Kalyn Ponga is a future star
The massive deal Newcastle offered Cowboys rookie Kalyn Ponga looked like a Hail Mary play when news about it surfaced, but after a star showing at the Nines the teenage sensation looks like he could be worth every penny. With Shaun Johnson-like footwork Ponga frequently confounded opposition defenders at the Nines and the little fullback outshined teammates like Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan at the tournament. Diminutive speedsters in the Ponga mould aren't always Fantasy gold, but his knack for breaking tackles like Ben Barba did in his Dally M-winning season could easily convert into some big Fantasy scores. Of course, he's not moving to the Knights until 2018, and at this stage he still doesn't make the cut for what is an excellent Cowboys side. But if Lachlan Coote goes down with an injury at some stage in 2017, watch the Fantasy coaches swoop on his likely replacement.
Curtis Sironen a cash cow?
Former Wests Tigers forward Curtis Sironen was one of a few new recruits who looked good for Manly at the Nines (new winger – and potential Fantasy cash cow – Akuila Uate also looked dangerous as you'd expect in the Nines format). Sironen grabbed a couple of tries and generally looked fit and sharp. He averaged just 27 Fantasy points from his eight games last year which is a worry but those included scores of 3 and 5 from a couple of games in which he played 10 minutes or less. He played at least 70 minutes four times last year and averaged 39 in those games – so if he can match those numbers at the Sea Eagles he could be a handy money earner in 2017.
Is this the year of Mitchell Aubusson?
The short answer? No. Look, he's a good player, he seems like a great bloke, and he was excellent for the Roosters at the Nines (apart from putting up one poorly conceived bomb that actually travelled backwards by the time it bounced… and still somehow led to a try). The back-rower even did a good job of playing as one of the Roosters' chief playmakers. But that utility value that makes Aubusson such a handy NRL player is exactly what makes him a nightmare for Fantasy coaches – one week he'll play the full 80 minutes in the forward pack (and score well in Fantasy), then the next week be shifted to centre to cover for an injury in the backline (and score badly). Those erratic scores make Aubusson one of the most frustrating players to have in your Fantasy squad, so don't do it to yourself.