Welcome back to The Mercato, a long form series for Talking League. In the last edition, we had a look at how the byes will impact your loop options and the suitability of Nicho “the deer keeper” Hynes from round 1. The natural flow-on this would be to wax lyrical about his captaincy counterpart from the Cardinal and Myrtle, Cameron Murray. However, I’ve already sung his praises in his Player in Focus Video and on our introductory pod (from 26:00). Have no fear folks, there will be more Murray content when I put my portfolio on display after Round 1 TLT.
In this edition, we will have a look at Murray’s middle mates. Earlier today, news broke from WWOS that utility Siliva Havili had suffered a torn tendon in his ankle earlier this week, potentially ruling him out for the best part of the first half of the season. It’s a huge injury blow for the Rabbitohs on the eve of the NRL Preseason Challenge, with Havili being a useful cog in the middle rotation that saw them reach the Preliminary Finals for the fifth season in a row.
In the world of NRL Fantasy, we try to be as optimistic as possible. From a footballer perspective, Havili was rewarded with a contract extension until 2025 a fortnight ago and has some security. From a Fantasy perspective, injury creates opportunities for value to be sought and captured elsewhere. But even before the news regarding Havili broke, there was potential value in the Rabbitohs pack.
As mentioned above, South Sydney have made it to at least the Preliminary Final in the past five years. This sustained run of competitiveness forced the club to work overtime to retain key players. In the off-season Damien Cook, Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker were all awarded deserved extensions, taking focus off any external recruitment. In fact, Souths have not made a single external addition to their 2023 senior squad, despite losing Jaxson Paulo to the Roosters, as well as Kodi Nikorima and Mark Nicholls to the Dolphins.
Mark Nicholls started alongside Tatola in the front row during the finals and his exit sees 38 minutes up for grabs. In the Talking League Textbook (which is available to purchase here), we projected that the Rabbitohs would roll with a 4-forward bench. However, more recent reports have indicated they will in fact select Blake Taaffe in #14 with three forwards, and all the tea leaves at Talking League HQ expect this to be the case. Expect the round one Forward Pack and bench to look like:
8. Tevita Tatola
9. Damien Cook
10. Hame Sele
11. Jai Arrow
12. Keaon Koloamatangi
13. Cameron Murray
14. Blake Taaffe
15. Tom Burgess
16. Jacob Host
17. Davvy Moale
With Nicholls out the door and just three forwards on the bench, it does open up minutes in the middle. The 240 middle minutes are muddled by the fact that Jai Arrow spends time between the left edge and the middle, although we can count on Damien Cook rolling out the 80 at Hooker. Based off the rotations in the back of end of the regular season, the average minute split should look something like:
It’s important to note that:
Minutes won’t be rounded to the nearest five each week, this is a projection of average minutes.
The minutes will vary each week, especially when matches involve HIAs and/or sinbins.
Cameron Murray is the captain and will likely play 70 minutes or more against the elite teams in the league. In matches where the result is beyond doubt, expect his minutes to be below 65.
Daily Telegraph’s predicted team lists have Hame Sele in the starting line-up, which concurs with our expectations. He and Burgess could flip throughout the season, depending on the opponent.
With the projected minutes out of the way, it’s time to look where the potential value lies!
Let’s start with Tevita Tatola. Tatola first piqued my interest as a fantasy asset last year when researching for our last pod of the 2022 regular season, when a listener wanted a POD for the run home. I noted that Tatola had below 0.5% ownership and averaged 48.9 when playing 40 minutes or more in a match (at a PPM of 0.96 across 50.6 minutes). In 2022, Tatola played 23 matches with 18 of these seeing him feature for 40 minutes or more. Given only two of his matches where he played less than 40 minutes occurred after round 10 (Failed HIA in round 11, 39 minutes in round 15), it gives us a nice sample size to project his output in 2023.
The best place to start with a Middle Forward is their base. Depending on the style of middle, the base may just be the "meat & veg" of net tackles, run metres and discipline, or it could include the dynamic areas of offloads and tackle busts.
The strength in Tatola’s game is his driving power from his legs, averaging 58.88 post contact metres a game (18th in the NRL, 11th amongst middle forwards across 2022). Such drive makes him a try threat close to the line, with the Tongan international crashing over for 4 tries last season. With the amendment to the defensive 10m line rule, expect Tatola to at least match his try-scoring feats in 2023.
Where Tatola does lack compared to other elite middle forwards in dynamism. Tatola is not an offloader of the football, averaging 0.1 per match across his career and 0.2 (3 in the 18 match sample). It’s also interesting to note that all three offloads in our selected sample were attribute as offloads-to-hand, showcasing Tatola’s preference to maintain possession than risk the offload. Tatola isn’t a large tackle buster either, averaging 2.3 in the selected sample which included three tries. What this means is the main way Tatola piles on Fantasy points is by accruing base stats during his time on the park.
As we can see in our selected sample, Tatola averages 0.8PPM in base which is a solid foundation to be a fantasy keeper. If he does land the 55 minutes that we anticipate, that’ll net him 44 points in base points. That’s not bad going for Tatola when his $628k pricetag has him valued at 43 points. This means that the volume of dynamic stat accrual (Tries/TA/LB/LBA/TS/TO/TB) will determine his points of value. In 2022, Tatola accrued Dynamic stats in our sample as follows:
Whilst 0.18 Dynamic PPM is impressive, some context is needed:
Tatola scored 4 tries in this sample with three of these including a line break and tackle breaks. If he were to score 4 tries across the 24 games, you’d probably need to shave 0.05 off his Dynamic PPM.
Try Saves and Turnovers are as much about luck as they are about execution – he could match this output in 2023 or exceed it.
With a low offload count, this is the main area where Tatola can improve his dynamic scoring.
If we contextualise his Dynamic PPM and adjust it to 0.13, it gives us a PPM of 0.93 or a projected average of 51.15 across 55 minutes. The represents 8.15 points of value, which at the mid-range level is incredibly tantalising. Couple this with Souths’ favourable bye schedule where they play the first 15 rounds and you’ve got yourself a player with serious POD Potential.
So, would I personally take him in round 1? Most of the middle range MIDs that have no DPP (think anyone not called Brandon Smith or J’Maine Hopgood) concern me due to the uncertainty around their roles. My current round 1 team has me taking 3 major MIDs (Murray, Haas, Tapine) and relying on the above-mentioned DPPs and 1-2 cash cows for MID coverage. So whilst it is unlikely at the time of writing that I will take Tatola in round 1, I won’t be talking anyone out of selecting him. Assuming he remains fit, his worst case scenario is a high 40s average which still classes him as an undervalued fantasy asset that plays the first 15 rounds.
With Tatola’s time under the microscope done, let’s have a look at his expected front row partner in Hame Sele. The former Dragon and Panther comes into his seventh NRL season off arguably his best yet, solidifying his role in a Rabbitohs pack down the stretch in 2022. Should Sele start as expected, I would anticipate that him averaging 40 minutes is not beyond him. This would be a nice increase compared to 2022 where he averaged 28.1 minutes during the premiership season.
His low minutes in 2022 were due to an interrupted pre-season where he battled Calf and Hamstring strains. Brien Seeney (NRLPhysio) has also pointed out that Sele is starting to run up a history of soft tissue injuries, something to keep an eye on. Brien has done an amazing job of profiling the injury history of 250 players in his 2023 NRLPhysio Injury Profiles Publication, which you can purchase through his Patreon or at Rugby League Merch. It only costs $10 to buy outright and we encourage all Fantasy coaches to consider supporting a great contributor to the community by purchasing a copy.
What Sele does in these 40 minutes are what will be key to his value in NRL Fantasy this year. With some small sample sizes across his three seasons with the Rabbitohs, it is difficult to get a solid read on his PPM. He’s rolled at 0.81 (2020), 0.86 (2021) and 0.84 (2022) which arrives at an average of 0.83. Much like Tatola, Sele is a very minimal offloader and tackle breaker, which means his scoring isn’t reliant on dynamic stats. With a career average of 1 missed tackle per game, Sele is a reliable defender who is capable of maintaining his PPM with extra minutes.
If we project a PPM of 0.83 onto his expected 40 minutes, that will see Sele average 33.2. Hame comes in priced at 23.5 ($336k), which would see him be close to that magic 10 points of value that we crave at Talking League. Now whilst those 10 points of value is tempting, it’s worth recalling a pertinent point made by the team at NRL Fantasy Amateurs on their recent episode. Mark and Ryan pointed out that whilst points of value is useful, at the start of the season you want the bulk of your cash cows to stack on their price rises as quickly as possible. This allows you to “recycle” cash cows, extracting the value obtained to enable you to build up the gun contingent in your squad.
This is where the equation with Sele becomes tricky. At $336k, he’s $106k above the cheapest players in the game that you could have on your bench. Unless he lucks out with a line break and/or try in early round, he’s likely to be a slow burn that you’re praying doesn’t hit bad luck with injury or suspension. And for that reason, I would probably err of the side of caution when it comes to taking him from round 1. But if you have 20 players selected and have a $350k-shaped hole in your squad, there’s much worse choices than taking a player that will give you score in the first 15 rounds.
And finally, it’s time to have a look at the last player that sees their fantasy prospects heightened by the domino effect: Davvy Moale. We expect Moale to take the bench middle role vacated by Havili, which is the most likely outcome. The Cook Island International is held in high regard at Redfern, making his debut in 2020 aged just 18. He’s since gone on to play another 13 times, making 12 of those appearances in 2022.
It's really difficult to get a read on Moale, mainly because in 2022 he had six games where he played less than 20 minutes. When we look at the six games where he played 20 minutes more in 2022, he averaged 19.67 in 26.33 minutes (0.75PPM) which was inflated by two try saves. Like Tatola and Moale, Davvy isn’t a renowned offloader or tackle buster, with 4 busts and 0 offloads in the selected sample. So whilst this sample of six matches isn’t massive, it shapes as a pretty decent indicator for what we can expect from Moale in 2023. An average of 20 will see him struggle to hold his value, let alone build on his $250k pricetag. As we love to say at Talking League, give Davvy Moale at least three dates.
So there you have it, the Havili headache and the potential beneficiaries of it all examined under an NRL Fantasy lens. Like with all pieces that contain projections on player performance, it’s important to note that this article was penned with all the available facts and figures available at publication. All we need is another injury or suspension and the value equation for these players could shift drastically, that’s the beauty of the pre-season.
Unless any major fantasy relevant news drops between now and TLT, this will be the penultimate edition of the The Mercato before Round 1 lock-out. Join me next time as I reveal my Portfolio; my starting squad for round 21 and the reasons for each of their selections. In the meantime, be on the lookout for the Player in Focus videos that I will do on each of the three players covered in this article. Stay safe out there, and be sure to continue to climb into all our pre-season content that the team at Talking League are providing for you!