NRL Fantasy is in for a big change in 2018, bringing a whole new strategic element to the most addictive rugby league game there is.
For the newcomers, NRL Fantasy is the free-to-play game that could earn you great prizes and (just as importantly) give you bragging rights over your mates. Pick a team of real NRL players, and if your players perform you'll win in the game. Take on your buddies each week in a head-to-head league and if things go to plan you'll be crowned the champ in your league grand final.
The new season will bring an increased salary cap of $9.4 million and – by popular demand – a new scoring category for forced drop-outs, but the most significant addition to NRL Fantasy will be a new 21-man squad structure with a ranked bench.
In previous years, NRL Fantasy coaches picked a 25-man squad with set requirements for each position – two hookers, four props, etc – and then selected a 17-man playing squad each week. If one member of your 17 didn't take the field, then only the lowest-scoring player in your reserves was automatically added into your 17 for that round. If you had more than one player not take the field that week, it was bad luck.
This year you'll get much more control over the look of your squad. You'll still be required to pick a starting 13 of a set formation – a hooker, two front-rowers, three back-rowers, two halves, two centres and three winger/fullbacks – but after that the choice is yours.
The remaining eight players in your squad can come from any position, and you'll rank them from one to eight. The first four will be your interchange, and their scores will count for that round, while players five to eight are your emergencies.
If a player from your starting line-up doesn't play during a round of footy, the highest-ranked player of the same positon in your reserves will automatically come into your starting side. If that player is on your interchange bench, or if one of your interchange bench players doesn't play, the highest ranked emergency will join the interchange. This can happen for up to four players (ie. all your emergencies) as long as your starting team maintains the right formation – you can't have a hooker replace a centre in your starting side, for example.
You still get 34 trades for the season, and will be able to make up to two a week in regular rounds and four in Round 13, 15 and 17 during the State of Origin period. It's a lot of trades considering only two rounds will be affected by byes in 2018, but with a smaller squad size those trades will become all the more valuable when you need cover for injuries and suspensions.
The revamped squad is a big change to the game, and here are some of the ramifications that come to mind…
Busy over the weekend? No worries
The introduction of the rolling lockout a few years ago was a godsend for Fantasy coaches – especially those who could keep an eye on late team changes before each match. If one of your players was injured or dropped on game day you could easily substitute or trade him out of your side during the weekend. But it made things tricky for those who were busy or working over the weekend and who could miss a crucial late change and be stuck with a low-scoring auto emergency.
The new bench system fixes that, giving you full control over who your preferred replacement is in the event of a late withdrawal. If you're going to have a busy weekend you can set and forget your squad, with up to four back-up options ready even if your squad is hit with a string of late team changes.
The unrestricted eight-man bench may bring a temptation to load up on players from positions that traditionally score well in NRL Fantasy – forwards and second-rowers who make a lot of tackles, for instance – but remember you'll want at least one player covering every position in your starting side. If one of your starting centres is a late withdrawal and you have no back-up centres in your squad, you'll be a man short that week.
While the old 25-man squads allowed you the freedom of including several very cheap non-playing reserves in your squad late in the season, this year you'll want as many decent scorers in reserve as possible to cover for injuries and suspensions.
A whole new strategy
Deciding on the make-up of your eight reserves is now a brand new tactical element to the game. Do you play it safe with solid scoring reserves in every position, plus a couple of dual-position utilities for extra security? Or do you gamble on a forward-heavy bench and pray for no injuries in the backline?
Your tactics here will no doubt change throughout the season, and at this stage it's anyone's guess what the most effective strategy will be.
Even with improvements to the scoring system in recent years there is a tendency for the best Fantasy teams to have a similar feel to them by the business end of a season. That will surely change now with Fantasy coaches having the chance to field whatever bench they like. It will make late-season match-ups in head-to-head league finals more tantalising with well-balanced squads coming up against underdogs more likely to take a gamble.
Round one squads are more crucial than ever
The best strategy at the start of a Fantasy season is to snap up as many 'cash cows' as possible – cheap players who will rapidly rise in value, thus freeing up more salary cap space for you to spend on star players down the track. But with just 21 slots available in your squad picking the right cash cows early on is vital. As always, staying in touch with the latest news and keeping an eye on my Fantasy tips articles on NRL.com is a great way to make sure you pick a strong starting squad for 2018.