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The Mercato - Cleary Chaos (Chapter Two)

Welcome back to The Mercato, a long form series for Talking League. Another fantasy season, another Cleary Chaos! It seems like yesterday that I fired up the laptop to produce an emergency edition of The Mercato after Nathan Cleary was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Dylan Brown in Round 20 last year. As the GTA scene goes: “Ah Shit, here we go again”.

It was a tough blow for Nathan Cleary captainers (including yours truly), as the Panthers skipper limped off in the 17th minute with a hamstring injury. Cleary had started well at least, with his 17 points stemming the bleeding a little bit as he dropped $38k to $993k, still $36k above his starting price of $957k. It was a different story last year, as the send-off saw him score 1 point and lose $86k to $833k and be priced below inferior scoring options. And whilst not everyone captained him this week, he’s owned by over 95% of the top 1,000 teams meaning there are few coaches *coughs* like TK who don’t have the problem of working out what to do.

Before we get into what Cleary owners could do, let’s digest what the Panthers said in their latest injury update:

“Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary suffered a hamstring injury during the Round 14 match against St George Illawarra at BlueBet Stadium on Sunday night. Scans have revealed the representative halfback will be sidelined for up to six weeks.”

Whilst there is a chance that “up to six” could end up being four or five weeks, it seems unlikely that Nathan Cleary will be fantasy relevant until round 21 as:

  • If he was available in four weeks (round 18), he would come in with a break-even north of 90 from a hamstring injury.

  • If he was available in five weeks (round 19), the Panthers have a bye.

  • If he was available in six weeks (round 20), he would probably play origin and not back up for the Panthers. If he was not selected for origin, you’re still looking at it being his first game back from a hamstring injury with a BE above 90.

No matter how you dress it up, Nathan Cleary is a sell for overall coaches. Having the most expensive player in the game racking up excess DNPs during the bye period is just not going to cut it when your rivals have moved him on to productive assets. And as the most expensive player in the game, you can literally afford anyone as a replacement, as well as store some cash for a rainy day when JWarrior will sing “I can buy Cleary now, the rain has gone” and shatter every wine glass in sight. So, what directions can fantasy coaches head when it comes to replacing Cleary?

No Half Measures

Plenty of coaches will look to sell the most expensive HLF for another expensive HLF.

Nicho Hynes ($988k) is a straight swap for anyone who currently doesn’t own him. You know what you get in the best available player in the game, however now probably isn’t the time that you want to acquire him. You’d have to assume he gets the keys to the Blues team in Origin II, which would see him miss round 16 and have a bye in round 17. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Sharks play the Warriors in Auckland in round 20 and it seems likely that the Sharks will err on the side of caution and leave him at home. I mean, they just saw what happened to Cleary and would like to protect their star man who already missed time due to a soft tissue injury earlier in the season.

Shaun Johnson ($817k) is probably the best play for anyone who doesn’t yet own him, as SJ has gone under 50 three times this season including a season-low 39. Yes, he may not play the next major bye round in 16 but he will be available from 17 all the way through to the Warriors’ final bye in round 22. By that point, you’ve amassed enough depth to absorb his absence or you’ve still got some trades post the round 20 supplement to move him on. Despite a 95 on the week, SJ is still a fair price for a Kiwi, ball-dominant, goal-kicking 7 that averages 63 this season.

For those who already own SJ, Mitchell Moses ($826k) will probably be the most popular pick. Coming fresh off a bye, Moses plays all the remaining major (16, 19) and minor (17, 20) bye rounds, with a standalone bye in round 18 manageable for coaches who currently have two or less Eels. Whilst Moses may have gone under 50 four times this season, he has shown that he is capable of posting up big scores in games where on paper you wouldn’t expect him to. He has also cashed in when the Eels have put teams to the sword, evidenced by a 103 against the Knights in round 9. The main risk with Moses is he is eligible to play for NSW, having made his debut for the Blues in 2021. I personally would not expect him to get the call-up to replace Cleary, but it’s a possibility when we are talking about a team coached by Brad Fittler. Like SJ, he’s still a fair price and comes into round 15 with a beatable BE.

Daly Cherry-Evans ($811k) is the only other regular HLF that has averaged over 60 this season. With a second bye endured in round 14, the Sea Eagles remaining bye is in round 19 which means DCE will only automatically miss one more game in round 16. He will do what it says on the tin, but as TK said on this week’s Playbook, we probably don’t want to be willingly buying more origin players. The same rationale can be applied to Cameron Munster ($726k) and Ben Hunt ($732k) who average in the mid-50s. Hunt will miss an extra game on top of 16 and 19, as the Dragons have a bye in round 20.

Dylan Brown is the only other regular HLF who averages in the mid-50s or higher, however his availability is not yet known. On Sunday, the Parramatta Eels released the following statement:

“The Parramatta Eels have been made aware of an incident involving Dylan Brown last night. The Club has advised the NRL integrity unit as per our normal process. As it is a police matter, the Club will not be making further comment at this time.”

There are cheaper HLF options available, however I would not be pushing coaches towards acquiring any given most squads would have multiple options in their squad already. The alternative is looking to splash the cash elsewhere.

Outside the (Origin) Arena

As mentioned above, I generally would be avoiding picking up more origin players. Which leaves us with a limited but interesting pool of players to pick from.

J’Maine Hopgood ($783k) would be a quality purchase for current non-owners. With the EDG/MID DPP, Hopgood can slot into the troublesome MID spot in round 16 and either position in round 19. That versatility comes at a cost, with the Eels having a standalone bye in round 18 and their final bye in round 27 which isn’t ideal for a player who is a borderline keeper.

Addin Fonua-Blake ($836k) has been on an absolute tear of late, boasting a five-round average of 65. Whilst he should remain a solid scorer, it’s important to note that the Warriors have two byes remaining in rounds 16 and 22. Not only that, but Dylan Walker is also expected back this week which should see AFB’s minutes drop if Tohu Harris is to continue as an 80-minute deal. Unless your team value is comfortably above $13.5m, I would probably avoid a MID that’s at his peak price having scored five tries this season.

If you’re looking for a solid MID without a pricetag starting with an 8, Moeaki Fotuaika ($718k) could well be your best bet. Since round 3 when Fotuaika got his first portion of big minutes, he has averaged 53.6 in 63.9 minutes without a single try, try assist or line break. Given his agility, there is a possibility of attacking upside should he find himself in space. With the Titans having the final bye in round 16, Mo is a solid plug-and-play option that is final 17 worthy given the only two elite MIDs in Yeo and Haas are origin-affected. Speaking of Origin, that is the risk that Fotuaika carries given he has already made his Maroons debut and recent injuries to Jai Arrow and Tom Gilbert have seen them wiped out for the rest of the series. If these two injuries didn’t happen, Fotuaika would be straight in my team. Given it’s just one week until their bye, it may be worth waiting until round 17 to scoop him up.

If you’re still short of EDG coverage for round 16, the likes of Briton Nikora ($745k), John Bateman ($730k) and Isaiah Papali’i ($689k) are all valid options. My preference of these would go in order of their prices, with Bateman sapping most of his value by jumping $45k this week. As mentioned previously, you need to be careful about balancing out your round 17 numbers with the Sharks, Bulldogs and Tigers all unavailable in this minor bye round. Keaon Koloamatangi ($674k) also warrants some interest, however unlike the above-mentioned trio he carries a risk of playing origin.

Investing in WFB with the Cleary coin is a wildcard option for coaches. His teammate Dylan Edwards $724k has been solid all season, tacking on direct attacking stats to his trademark bulk run metres. With just one bye left in round 19, Edwards will otherwise be available for the rest of the season. The one concern I would have with buying him is whether the absence of Cleary will impact his scores. After an equal-season low of 35, he has dropped 0.1 in average behind the best WFB in Greg Marzhew ($651k). Like Jamayne Isaako ($677k), I will never encourage listeners to buy a winger at top dollar but I certainly won’t talk you out of them. Marzhew probably edges Isaako now given he only has one bye left (round 19) to Isaako’s two (16 and 21).

Whilst I won’t go into HOK or CTR in this piece, there’s probably no need to be acquiring any assets in these positions unless their name is *checks notes* Jake Turpin. Yup, JT is your main man if you need another HOK and/or cash generator during the middle phase of the season. Just don’t expect 54 from him every week.

Now that we’re covered almost all bases, it’s probably worth touching on when to make these trades. Naturally, you probably want to dispose of a $993k red dot ASAP however it may be prudent to hold fire if you can field a strong team in round 15. This may be a little difficult for coaches who hold multiple Cowboys (bye) and Jack de Belin (11-day concussion protocol) on top of Cleary. If you’re fortunate to have at least 17 solid green dots this week, holding Cleary into round 16 would enable you to get a look at the origin teams and another week of injuries and suspensions that will no doubt happen. As we’ve learned already this year, going too early on the round 16 bye planning can prove painful when last-minute bad luck strikes.

But that’s all for another edition for another edition of The Mercato. Be sure to join us next week for another edition where we cram for a major bye round. Until, be sure to check out the suite of podcasts that the team at Talking League will drop before round 15 kicks off.


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