Newastle's Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Kalyn Ponga.

With 34 trades, 21-man squads and a new open bench in 2018, there are a lot of ways to assemble a star-studded NRL Fantasy team these days.

My first lesson of 2018 is that you can get a lot wrong and still finish well inside the top 1% of teams. From wasting four trades on Cameron Murray, to trading out Tevita Pangai jnr and Andrew Fifita way too early, to having Bryce Cartwright in my squad for the first month of the season, I made my share of blunders but scrapped my way through it to win a few head-to-head leagues and finish 18th overall.

Here's my round one squad, with a bit of cash left in the bank under the $9.4 million salary cap:

Cameron Smith (c), Damien Cook, Slade Griffin, Siliva Havili
Jai Arrow, Matt Lodge, Leilani Latu, Mark Nicholls
Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Trent Merrin, Robbie Rochow
Daly Cherry-Evans, Brodie Croft, Bryce Cartwright
Latrell Mitchell, Richie Kennar
Kalyn Ponga, James Tedesco, Sione Katoa, Jamayne Isaako

It turned out my starting squad was one third keepers, one third cash cows, and one third duds. The keepers are in bold, the cash cows are in italics, and the duds I traded out in the first four weeks of the season. Latu, Nicholls, Taukeiaho, Merrin, Croft and Cartwright all fizzled as money-making options while Katoa was injured early on. (By trading Katoa out I could get another cash cow into my squad making money, safe in the knowledge I could trade back down to a cut-price Katoa later on.)

My starting squad had a fair few dual position players and bench depth in all positions (with Isaako covering the centres and winger/fullback) and I made use of the flexible bench to have four hookers in my starting 21.

So that's a 66% strike rate with my starting squad, and it was a bit higher (close to 80%) for my trades.

I focused purely on moneymakers in the first five rounds, with my first trade for a keeper (Shaun Johnson) coming in round 6. The last cash cow I bought was Lachlan Lewis in round 16, with my focus purely on points rather than cash for the last part of the season. 

I intentionally brought in a non-playing reserve in the last few rounds for loophole purposes (more on that in a moment) but before then I focused on having all of my squad in action every week. I also made use of the open bench when making trades, which allows you to trade two players regardless of position (pick a player to trade out, put him in your reserves, trade him out, bring in whichever player you want to trade in, move him into your starting side). 

Here's my final squad, with my top 17 in bold.

Damien Cook (c), Cameron Smith, Cameron McInnes
Martin Taupau, Andrew Fifita, Jai Arrow
Jason Taumalolo, Jake Trbojevic, Ryan James, Rhyse Martin
Daly Cherry-Evans, Shaun Johnson, Nathan Cleary, Mitchell Pearce
Latrell Mitchell, Esan Marsters, Enari Tuala, Mason Cerruto
James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

I've looked back through all my trades for the year (you can do this via the trades page on the Fantasy site and scroll down to the very bottom) to see where I got things right and what I got wrong this season. I've listed them all at the bottom of this article, but first a note on the "bench loophole" that was created this year.

The loophole: is it worth it?

The new ranked bench – which meant your 18th man automatically replaced any bench player who didn't take the field – opened up a loophole which allowed you to see how certain reserves performed before deciding whether to include them in your 17. If you had a non-playing reserve in your squad, you could see how your 18th man played, and if he scored well you could switch your NPR onto your bench (say in spot 17) thereby ensuring your 18th man's score would be added to your total.

I used the loophole three times this year, and for a total benefit of -3 points. In round 23 I did get Ryan James's 64 ahead of Kalyn Ponga's 38 (when he was playing out of position at five-eighth). In round 24 it backfired, when I played Rhyse Martin ahead of Jai Arrow after seeing Arrow score 39, only for Martin to leave the field injured on 10 points. And in round 25 I got Mitchell Pearce's 83 points from outside my 17, but if I hadn't set my team up for the loophole I would have had Pearce in my starting 17 anyway.

It remains an option to consider next season, but don't count on it getting you too many bonus points in the long run.

Lone Scout's trades in 2018 

Round 2: Leilani Latu $325k > Corey Thompson $283k; Sio Siua Taukeiaho $526k > Viliame Kikau $287k – Good trades, duds for cash cows

Round 3: Brodie Croft $509k > Cameron Murray $528k; Sione Katoa $212k > Tevita Pangai jnr $472k – Good trades

Round 4: Mark Nicholls $264k > Jeremy Marshall King $258k – Good trade

Round 5: Trent Merrin $673k > James Fisher-Harris $432k; Bryce Cartwright $378k > James Maloney $378k – Good trades

Round 6: Cameron Murray $673k ($145k profit) > Shaun Johnson $865k – Murray benched, jumped off board for a keeper. Good trade

Round 7: Tevita Pangai jnr $515k ($43k profit) > Jack Gosiewski $291k; Robbie Rochow $519k ($206k profit) > Jaydn Su'A $323k – One good trade (peaked Rochow for a new cow), one bad trade (not-yet-peaked Pangai for a very slow-moving cash cow)

Round 8: Matt Lodge $502k ($137k profit)> Mitch Rein $411k; Slade Griffin $569k ($187k profit) > Cameron Murray $673k – One good trade, one bad trade (Murray back at lock for Souths, but wouldn't become a keeper)

Round 9: Jack Gosiewski $344k ($53k profit) > Rhyse Martin $228k; Richie Kennar $382k ($154k profit) > Esan Marsters $574k ­– Good trades

Round 10: Corey Thompson $497k (214k profit) > Jason Taumalolo $844k – Good trade

Round 11: James Maloney $620k ($242k profit) > Brock Lamb $346k; Raymond Faitala-Mariner $695k ($306k profit) > Andrew Fifita $888k ­– Bad trade (Lamb was a dud), and good trade

Round 12: Mitch Rein $597k ($186k profit) > Mahe Fonau $353k; Viliame Kikau $672k ($385k profit) > Martin Taupau ($877k) – Unlucky trade (Fonua got injured) and good trade

Round 13: Brock Lamb $376k ($30k profit) > Enari Tuala $223k; Jeremy Marshall-King $445k ($187k profit) > Sione Katoa $212k – Pretty good trades, basically cashouts which added some handy backline coverage

Round 14: Jamayne Isaako $482k ($254k profit) > Tom Trbojevic $667k; Siliva Havili $649k ($421k profit) > Tohu Harris $647k – Good trades, although Harris would later get injured

Round 15: Cameron Murray $617k ($56k loss) > Nathan Brown $769k – Good trade, finally ending my Cameron Murray experiment

Round 16: Mahe Fonua $435k ($82k profit) > Lachlan Lewis $212k; James Fisher-Harris $559k > Cameron McInnes $814k – Good trades.

Round 17: Tohu Harris $710k ($63k profit) > Roger Tuivasa-Sheck $587k; Andrew Fifita $813k > Ryan James $872k – Good trade (injured Harris for RTS) and mixed trade (gave up on Fifita too early, James overpriced, but did add bye round points and some good scores later)

Round 18: Jaydn Su'A $536k ($213k profit) > Jake Trbojevic $778k – Good trade

Round 21: Jai Arrow $689k > Nathan Cleary $609k – Good trade

Round 22: Lachlan Lewis $447k ($235k profit) > Mason Cerruto $212k; Sione Katoa $360k ($148k profit) > Jai Arrow $673k – Not great trades. Made first one for cash and loophole options with NPR Cerruto, but spent that cash on Arrow who didn't regain his form post-Origin.

Round 24: Nathan Brown $757k > Andrew Fifita $745k ­– ­Good trade, injured Brown to an elite keeper

Round 25: Kalyn Ponga $682k > Mitchell Pearce $653k – ­Good trade, injured Ponga to one of the best scorers of the round