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The Mercato - I can see Cleary now!

Welcome back to The Mercato, a long-form series for Talking League. After a campaign to #BinTheChin for the second time took place in round 14, the Penrith co-captain returned to the field in round 21 as his Panthers took care of Brenton’s Bulldogs on Sunday Afternoon. In this edition, we’ll go through what his performance means for coaches, both owners and non-owners.

But first, another update on #MercatoBall from the past fortnight. After almost standing still in round 20 with a 950 to fall 30 ranks to 1,292, I somehow managed to jag a 1,074 (11th for the round) in round 21, moving inside the top 1k for the first time this year at 874th. Which goes to show how this game can be down to luck, having made no trades (despite many plans to do so) I managed to gain 418 ranks and $250k in squad value. With seven trades left coming into round 22, I’ll be looking to pull the trigger on a few at least (including bringing in the main topic in this article).

Part of my luck in round 21 came down to not owning Cleary, deciding to wait at least a week to see what happened. With no desire to be a hindsight hero, waiting a week was probably the right decision given he was going to cruise back into his work. That does make the decision to bring him in the wrong one? No, it doesn’t. Assuming Nathan clicks back into gear, I expect him to score the most points from now until the final whistle in round 27 and therefore be the best captaincy option. There was a fair reason to have concern over captaining Nicho Hynes this week with the re-introduction of Brayden Trindall. And speaking of Hynes, we saw him hit a 98 in his return from injury (in only 72 minutes) and Cleary could’ve easily done the same against the Bulldogs.

In the end, he didn’t. Cleary was on 62 before an error in the dying embers of the match, finishing on 60 before a reduction down to 51 in updates. As a result, Cleary drops $53k to $940k (his fifth lowest price point this season) and will face another monster BE that is north of 100. Which is where owning Cleary already could be an advantage, as non-owners must weigh up whether to take the plunge now before he troughs or miss out and potentially go backwards as he hits his BE. For Cleary owners, there is no decision to make as it’s already been done. He’s in your team, and most likely your captain for the rest of the season for those who like to pick and stick. In other words, you paid a $53k premium for peace of mind (which is easy to swallow should your team value be over $14.5m).

For non-owners, a $53k discount on last week’s price is a result. But the uncertainty after a player you would need to pay $940k for scored a 51 can’t be discarded. Especially as the first stat that jumps off the page is nearly a quarter of his score came from kicking 6 goals. But when you move past that into the key base stat areas, you see that term that is flavour-of-the-month in the NRL Fantasy content space – regression. He yielded just 1 point from net tackles (average 15.55 per completed 2023 match), 13 points from kick metres (average 15.96) and just 7 points from run metres (average 13.22).

These are all areas that will improve as Cleary is required to become more involved in both attack and defence. Especially defence, as opposition coaches seek to target Cleary to try drain his impact in attack. I’m sure Craig Fitzgibbon will have it drilled into his players as a tactic for this weekend. But speaking of Fitzgibbon, his left edge must be making him pull his hair out as it got torched by Manly’s right flank. Such dominance saw DCE collect a try-less 73 and there’s nothing to suggest Cleary couldn’t do the same on Saturday Night. Granted DCE wasn’t coming back from a hamstring injury, but Cleary does have the kicking tee.

Even with the narrative of improved involvement and ‘right side, strong side’ there’s probably one phrase that will swing most non-owners into making the purchase this week: POD. Generally, when we talk about PODs, we’re talking about acquiring one to boost our chances of gaining ranks. When it comes to Cleary, we’re seeking to box off the POD and avoid the dangerous situation of ‘Anti-PODing’ Cleary. From experience, it’s never been a fun ride when I’ve been in the minority that did not own him. Take it from someone who saw themselves fall 15 points short of what would’ve been their only top 100 finish in 2019 (111th) as Nathan Cleary scored four tries on his way to 120 points. A 6 from Kalyn Ponga didn’t help either (and yes, he played the whole 80!)

Bringing it back to the present day, Cleary’s ownership is only going to continue to increase. As evidenced in the previous round where his ownership bounced from 1.9% to over 35% within the top 1k. With the discount and 80 minutes under his belt, one would imagine his ownership within the top 1k eclipses 50% in round 22 as he becomes the most popular captaincy option. By climbing into the majority, you insure yourself against any nuclear performances by him and fail with the pack if he has a slow game. Similar deal with owning Harry Grant in the fact it’s almost irrelevant what he scores given his high ownership and low list of viable PODs available.

Outside the top 1k, I expect Cleary to remain a bit more of a POD as coaches will on average have lower team values than those inside the top 1k (~$14.5m). Which really opens it up for those with a decent amount (6+) of trades left to facilitate moves to get him in. As we discussed a month or so ago, hopefully you kept some of the 'bonus' eight in reserve. For those with 3 or less trades left, the value proposition of using the final trades and having none for the final 5 rounds doesn’t quite stack up. With a team value of $14m or lower, you probably need to wait one more week in the hope that he drops in price even further.

On the captaincy front, I’ve set a general rule of preferring not to Captain a player that is being brought in and doesn’t play early. With Cleary, I’m comfortable making an exception to that rule given you’re purchasing him to be your captain. What I would encourage coaches to do is to try set up your trades so that Cleary is directly traded in for the most expensive player that you’re trading out. That way, it maximises the potential of reversing other trades should chaos impact those players. We saw it in the week just gone with Izack Tago and Jacob Preston being late scratchings, that could easily happen to other fantasy relevant players this week.

So, will Cleary drop further in round 22? On the balance of probabilities, he will. But the security of running with the pack and owning the most common captain for the rest of the season is incentive enough to #BringBackTheChin this week. I’m committing to the #BringBackTheChin cause this week, will you be joining me? If so, good luck for round 22. If not, good luck (but not as much luck as Cleary owners!) But that’s all for this edition of The Mercato, be sure to catch me on this week’s live Q&A on Thursday as we answer your last-minute trade questions!


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