As NRL games are taking a break with the standalone State of Origin weekend upon us, it's time to look back at the best and worst of the NRL Fantasy season so far, plus the trends that have helped define the game this year.
Player of the year
It's only halfway through the year but Cleary is well on his way to the greatest individual NRL Fantasy season of all time, with a staggering average of 97 points a game. He's miles ahead of the next-best average (David Fifita's 73) and his price tag has ballooned to $1.21 million – a $237k increase on what was already the highest starting price of any player in Fantasy.
A quick glance and NRL.com's stats page shows why: he leads the league in points and goals scored, total kicks and kick metres, as well as for the number of times he's engaged the defensive line.
It's rare for any player to have such a dominant running and kicking game while also having their team dominate a league like the Panthers have this year.
Cleary has four Fantasy centuries in 12 games this year, including the greatest individual score of all time – a mammoth 144-point effort including a hat-trick and eight goals against the Titans.
Cleary scores after the Roosters fail to diffuse his high ball
Cash cow of the year
When new Bulldogs five-eighth Averillo started the season with scores of 20, 19 and 29, then missed a week through injury, few would have thought he'd go on to earn a whopping a whopping $412k in price rises by round 15. Certainly the thousands who sold him at the time – yours truly included – didn't expect such a massive turnaround.
But an injury to Lachlan Lewis brought him back into the side and he promptly scored a try and had two line breaks in his return game, and then when halves partner Kyle Flanagan was dumped to reserve grade Averillo's kick metres went through the roof.
Now with a season average just under 50 points a game, Averillo is the year's biggest earner and the highest-scoring player available at centre in Fantasy.
Instant success story
Every year there is the hope of a new rookie who becomes the perfect Fantasy buy – a bargain-basement player who grows into one of the elite scorers in his position.
Not many expected that player to be Reece Walsh, a teenage fullback who couldn't even get a spot in Brisbane's top 30 squad at the start of the season.
Even a mid-season switch to the Warriors didn't make Walsh an obvious buy – surely he wouldn't start at fullback with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck still at the club? But start he did, with two try assists and five tackle breaks against the Storm on debut kicking off an excellent rookie season.
Not only does he appear to be a season keeper at the back, he'll also become an Queensland Origin player on Sunday.
The run from Walsh and the chase from Luki!
Best surprise packet
One of the best kinds of Fantasy buys is the player you purchase as a cash cow who ends up being an elite keeper. Knights hooker Jayden Brailey appeared to have this category locked up with four bumper scores to start the year while Raiders forward Corey Harawira-Naera has done similar things lately, but there's no better example of a cut-price Fantasy superstar than Trbojevic.
A $477k price tag meant Trbojevic was definitely good value when he returned from a hamstring injury in round six, but for a player who had never averaged 50 points a game across a season and who had played just 19 matches in the previous two years, there were also significant risks.
But Trbojevic defied those risks and then some, becoming arguably the league's best player in his seventh NRL season with a stunning haul off 11 tries and 15 try assists in his first eight games.
Turbo leaps high and beats Campbell for his double
Star Broncos prop Payne Haas (-$304k) and Roosters skipper James Tedesco (-$232k) have lost more money on their starting price but while both of those players remain good Fantasy scorers the same can't be said for Cowboys man mountain Jason Taumalolo.
Warning bells were ringing in the pre-season when new coach Todd Payten announced Taumalolo's minutes would drop, and a six-week injury from round two took the Tonga superstar off the radar for most Fantasy coaches.
But the real concern has come since he returned in round nine, with his old big-minute role but without his old scoring.
An 84-point game (with a try) against Brisbane in round nine suggested he was back but poor scores since then (29 against Newcastle; 39 against Manly) means his Fantasy average remains a mediocre 46, below fellow middles Paul Vaughan, Josh McGuire and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui.
Anaconda Fish of Origin - Episode II
Best short-term solution
Goal-kicking Melbourne Storm fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen made a brilliant start to the season, with eight tries in six games including a spectacular four-try, 124-point effort against Brisbane.
But an injury in round six was followed by a nasty concussion in round 10, leaving his owners scrambling for a decent replacement in his absence.
Enter the new Storm No.1 Hynes. Having already dazzled with 70 points in 69 minutes off the bench in round 10, Hynes reeled off scores of 101 and 90 in back-to-back weeks to earn a whopping $218k in price rises in a fortnight.
Ominous signs from the Storm as Hynes finishes off a beauty
Trend of the year
Hookers out; halves, edge forwards in
In previous years, hookers and locks were the standout players in Fantasy. Players in the middle of the field made the most tackles, and the ones who added extra facets to their game in attack were Fantasy gold. Last year five hookers and six middle forwards averaged 60 points per game or better, compared to three edge forwards, two halves and two winger/fullbacks.
This year, more six-agains and less stoppages have favoured attacking players and turned the tables on the busy men in the middle. Where once you'd stack your bench with hookers and your pack with locks, this year those players have declined while playmakers and edge forwards have thrived.
The number of high-scoring halves and WFBs has doubled to four each while the 60-point middles have halved – and those three high-scoring "middles" are also edge players (Isaiah Papali'i, Angus Crichton and Tohu Harris).
With Cameron Smith retired and Cameron McInnes ruled out of the season, the only two 60-point hookers so far in 2021 are the injured Reed Mahoney and the out-of-form Jayden Brailey, who has scored just 43 points a game recently.
That change, along with the increase in injuries and suspensions this season, should reshape how Fantasy coaches plan their trades for the rest of the year and in 2022.