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The Mercato - Fantasy 24/7, 365

And welcome back to The Mercato, a long form series for Talking League. This off-season edition comes right after the NRL released the 2024 season draw. In this piece, we have a look at some of the initial talking points post release.

The Key Details

I spoke about the initial impacts of the 2023 draw at about this time last year. Firstly, let’s touch on the key details for 2024:

  • 27 Rounds – commencing Sunday March 3 in USA and concluding Sunday September 8 in Newcastle.

  • Each team will play 24 matches (3 byes).

  • There are three major bye rounds (Rounds 13, 16 and 19) where seven teams have the bye (5 matches per round).

  • There are three “minor” bye rounds (Rounds 14, 17 and 20) where three teams have the bye (7 matches per round).

  • For the other 21 rounds of the season, one team has the bye (“standalone” bye rounds).

Bye Structuring

We can look at the byes and identify how they are structured. The easiest way to do this is to look at the season in two segments:

  • Origin Period (Rounds 12-21)

  • Non-Origin Period (Rounds 1-11, 22-27)

As you can see, the Non-Origin Period covers 17 rounds. However unlike 2023, not every team has at least one bye in this period (as the Tigers have two, the Knights have zero). The teams that have a bye in the first 6 or last 6 rounds are as follows:

  • First Six: Tigers, Titans, Dolphins, Storm, Sharks, Panthers

  • Last Six: Sea Eagles, Roosters, Broncos, Cowboys, Tigers, Warriors

The six teams that avoid the start or the end are the Rabbitohs, Bulldogs, Eels, Raiders, Dragons and Knights. At the time of writing, there should be players from all these teams that hold fantasy relevance when the game opens. The Knights are incredibly interesting from a fantasy perspective, with their players being available until round 12, before featuring in rounds 13 and 19 before topping out their byes in round 21. This could mean Kalyn Ponga is a brilliant option from round 1 if you believe that Mr Eyeliner Reece Walsh has the Maroons #1 locked down. We expect Ponga to be priced at $729k*, however he may have an adjustment due to the HIA impacted games earlier in 2023.

Retaining the Aquatic Aces

The Dolphins are the 2024 equivalent of the Eels, given that they are the only team to play all three bye rounds. Much like the Eels last season, there is a price to pay although this price is at the start of the season with a bye in round 2. Once that is out of the way, the Dolphins will become an integral aspect of your bye planning in the Major and Minor Rounds, with their final bye being in round 18 (a standalone bye round) after their second in round 14 (a minor bye round). Speaking of Minor Byes, coaches can recall from 2023 that you can have too much of a good thing. And that is why it is important to diversify your portfolio across the byes.

Beware the Minor Inconveniences

In my last article for 2023, I wrote the following as a lesson for coaches in 2023:

“Respect the minor byes (14, 17, 20) – you need to field 17 players in these rounds, so avoid trading into red dots when these rounds are on the horizon. Plenty of coaches got caught out in round 17 by acquiring too many Sharks/Tigers/Dogs, playing short and/or burning valuable trades before the round 20 ‘boost’.”

Looking at the Minor Byes 2024 lens, the following teams are on the watchlist for the Minor Byes:

  • Dolphins, Raiders, Roosters (Round 14)

  • Titans, Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles (Round 17)

  • Sharks, Eels, Dragons (Round 20)

Whilst you don’t need to overcompensate for these teams in your initial squad and opening trades, it is something that you want to be aware of when making trades from about round 11 onwards. You want to avoid stacking up too many players from these trios, especially in the same position. For example, I witnessed a lot of coaches load up on the likes of Briton Nikora, Isaiah Papali’i, John Bateman when they already had the likes of Jacob Preston, Nicho Hynes and Karl Oloapu in their squads. This meant that they were adding to an already high complement of round 17 red dots on top of the possible origin restings. This left these coaches oversubscribed for EDG round 16 (due to the starting 13 rule) and short for round 17, forcing them to play short or make short-term trades.

Hynes, Cleary and the Old El Paso rule

We expect that most coaches in 2024 will look to start with one of Nicho Hynes (projected $1.058m*) or Nathan Cleary (projected $1.044m*), or potentially run both. Last season, I ran a narrative of Cameron Murray as a legitimate alternative captain due to the perceived value from round 1 and no byes until origin hit the schedule. With the Rabbitohs having a bye in round 7 and Murray (projected $815k*) being priced fairly in our opinion, I don’t see that as a valid punt from round 1 this season as a captain option. With the Sharks (round 5) and the Panthers (round 6) having byes in the same space of the season, both are safe given you will have a good indicator of who may be a nice replacement captain for the week. Assuming you can’t afford both and say “I just can’t” to the question of “porque no los dos”, who shapes as the best pick from round 6?

Last year, I said that Hynes was looming as the best captain option of the pair before the “Curse of The Mercato” struck him and ruled him out for round 1. Both players have similar bye profiles (Cleary r6, r16, r19 v Hynes r5, r16, r20) to 2023, meaning that the decision-making point doesn’t change too much. Last year I suggested Hynes because of the later first bye, and with that logic I would put Nathan Cleary as the leader for now. In a perfect world, you start with Cleary and then create the cap room to bring in Hynes in round 6 (albeit he plays late in the round) as the captain and then a pair from round 7 onwards. The main thing that will sway me is if Cleary has an adjustment in price (which I would give the chances of that happening at 75% due to the curtailed score in round 14) or if either has further injury concerns. But we will discuss the topic a lot more once the game as opened.

So there is your “way too early” analysis of the 2024 NRL Fixture and the placement of the byes. The Mercato will be back to review the pricing “shocks” and any rule changes from the 2024 game release, but until then you can catch me every Tuesday on Talking Sport with JWarrior, Jake and Seaballs (Chris). Be sure to continue to enjoy your off-season!

*Price projections are based on no rule changes that impact prices (such as squad size) and a magic number of $14.3k. These are estimates only, and it is expected that the final prices will differ (especially for Kalyn Ponga and Nathan Cleary, who had curtailed games in 2023 that dropped their season average).


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