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The Mercato - Majority Rules

Welcome back to The Mercato, a long form series for Talking League. In the last edition, I spoke about the need to set our teams up correctly for round 1. In this edition, we’re going to have a look at the players with the highest ownership at the time of writing and the relevancy of said ownership.

In last year’s Talking League Textbook, I spoke about POD potential and how it can backfire should your PODs not hold pace with the more common options. One of my lessons from 2023 that I spoke about in Chronicles of Mercatoball was “Run with the pack”. My round 1 team had Jamal Fogarty, Kotoni Staggs and Scott Drinkwater in it, all relatively low-ownership picks that took up almost 20% of my salary cap. This was a recipe for disaster, and so it turned out as Fogarty was poor and missed a game through illness, Drinkwater got a sin bin and suspension plus Staggs somehow tread water until I could sell. When combined with some sub-par early trades, this put me right behind the 8-ball as I sat outside the top 5k before Magic Round and outside the top 4k before the bye rounds.

Of course, I was able to string a few good trades together and finish the season with a rank of 649. But the point is that such a rescue wouldn’t have been required if my initial team and trade options weren’t so risky with their low ownership. By sticking with the pack on a substantial portion of the picks priced above $500k or above, you give yourself a chance to tread water at the start before making your moves to launch up the rankings. Of course, there is scope to take a low ownership player, but I would advise against taking too many unless you want my early-season migraine from last year.

In this piece, I’m going to look at the merits of all players that currently have an ownership of 17.5% or higher, and whether you can afford to “anti-POD” them.

Nathan Cleary ($1m, 51.67%, Round 6 Bye)

There’s not really much to say here. Over half the comp own him and for good reason. This will be the first time I’ve started with him since 2020, the last season I finished inside the top 500 (481st) which says all that needs to be said. Anti-POD at your peril.

Payne Haas ($880k, 44.37%, Round 13 bye)

As I mentioned in MIDcato, Haas is the only gun MID that I would consider starting with thanks to that favourable bye schedule and the “discount” with the decrease in the Magic Number. I will likely start with him, however he’s far from a “must have” and deciding to go without him is a valid strategy despite high ownership.

Josh Curran ($501k, 43.59%, Round 8 Bye), Brendan Piakura ($399k, 41.81%, Round 13 Bye), Ryan Papenhuyzen ($495k, 33.02%, Round 4 Bye)

Much like Cleary, there’s not a lot I need to add on these players. Coaches that are dialled-in have this trio, and assuming they get their expected round 1 roles there’s no reason not to. These three are dictionary definition for certain players having high ownership for a reason.

Kaeo Weekes ($252k, 42.75%, Round 10 Bye), Ethan Strange ($250k, 34.54%, Round 10 Bye)

The Raiders pair are both hoping to be the one that partners Jamal Fogarty, and whoever succeeds is a no-brainer within your 21-man Squad. It does appear that Weekes has the lead in the race, which is academic given there is little difference in price. If Strange is paired up with Timoko in the centres, I would be avoiding given Sebastian Kris is due back from suspension in Round 1.

Kayal Iro ($230k, 32.53%, Round 5 Bye), Xavier Willison ($263k, 25.93%, Round 13 Bye)

These two have plenty of talent and are certainly capable of being excellent cash cows in the future. However, it seems unlikely that either player will be featured in round 1. They are fine in your squad as a placeholder, but don’t count on them being viable come TLT.

Jayden Campbell ($459k, 31.13%, Bye Round 2)

The appeal behind the selection is clear; a played with a 44.3 average at fullback that only costs you 33 price points. A round 2 bye is far from helpful but what should be more concerning is we’re yet to hear news of Campbell hitting the track in full training. Given the nature of his injury, no news is certainly not good news and the longer it goes, the more a throw at the stumps on Keano Kini ($279k) becomes a valid option. Even if Campbell suits up round 1, I’d be tempted to swerve and see how he looks before purchasing after that first bye.

Harry Grant ($788k, 25.79%, Bye Round 4)

Grant is the premier HOK option for a reason, boasting four straight seasons of 55+ average in NRL Fantasy. With two byes on major rounds (13 and 19), Grant is a superb option to commence proceedings. The only obstacle for most coaches is the value that should appear in Papenhuyzen and my love interest Shawn Blore ($518k), making having $1.8m of your salary cap as red dots in round 4 as a tough ask. In isolation it’s not a massive issue but the likelihood of all your other 18 players being good to go in round 4 isn’t concrete, especially as we will only have 2 trades at our disposal.

Samuel Hughes ($250k, 23.47%, Bye Round 8), Chevy Stewart ($230k, 18.94%, Bye Round 10)

Much like the mid-range trio, this pair will be very hard to leave out if they get the looks we want. For Hughes, that’s a bench that includes a back row option (like Salmon), for Stewart it’s the 1 jersey (which he appears to be the favourite). We won’t get a mountain of base price cheapies, so swerving these is playing with fire.

Siua Wong ($444k, 24.49%, Bye Round 14)

The enthusiasm for Wong is certainly not misplaced, given he averaged 43.4 in 61.5 minutes in his seven back row starts in the regular season. With two tries in that sample size, I think we could project this level of fantasy performance should he jag the starting spot. Given he’s priced at 32, it does hover around the 10 Points of Value however he’s far from a slam dunk. I will probably give him a miss, and I don’t see coaches that do the same suffering too much.

Reuben Cotter ($587k, 23.35%, Bye Round 16)

As I have mentioned on Around the Traps, Cotter is someone that I am yet to squeeze into my pre-season sketches. The announcement that he would be co-captain with Tom Dearden in 2024 certainly saw his ownership soar. For me, this news is immaterial as his co-captain is an 80-minute half. What appears more material to me is the fact the Cowboys are further ahead in their preparations than 12 months ago, due to no World Cup. When we look at Cotter’s Prop and Lock 19 starts where gets between 50 and 70 minutes, he returns an average of 49.4 in 59 minutes. For me, this looks like a reasonable projection for the mullet man with scope to be even better. With that ownership percentage creeping up even higher, Cotter is one player that I have real concerns about running an anti-POD strategy on. For me, you would be a brave man to swim against the tide on Cotter given he can give you 12 scores before origin.

Ben Trbojevic ($250k, 22.46%, Bye Round 13)

Turbo the third is set to become fantasy relevant, with NewsCorp reporting that he will be handed the left edge start in round 1. This is exciting news for Fantasy coaches, however it’s worth noting that in the report it also says Josh Schuster will be pushing hard for the spot. Whilst Ben may not be guaranteed the spot for perpetuity, he should be a very popular pick if named to start due to that DPP. Selecting him opens up the avenue for coaches to take Sebastian Kris as a round 1 red dot before replacing Trbojevic as your starting CTR. And for that reason, he doesn’t seem like a player to anti-POD unless we get Iro in round 1 – which we probably won’t know until Ben is locked.

Reece Walsh ($664k, 20.86%, Bye Round 13)

Eyeliner is always a favourite at Talking League HQ, given the way he takes on the game and makes magic happen. Priced at a 48-price point, there is some scope for uplift however I feel like the high ownership can be linked to the popularity of the player with fans as well as the strong start he had in 2023 which saw him gain $132k in 6 rounds. Those gains are unlikely this season, as he ran at a 53.3 average during this period with similar output probably seeing him make half that in 2024. I have no issue with coaches taking Walshy given he will be available until origin and is very fun to watch. However given the plethora of cheap WFBs and lack of cheap CTRs, going the anti-POD approach in favour of more CTR investment is fine in my books.

Kyle Flanagan ($349k, 19.98%, Bye Round 11)

The coach’s son has given Fantasy Coaches some great runs of scores, especially in 2020 when he steered a strong Roosters side around on his way to a 54.2 average. We certainly do not expect that at the Dragons in 2024, but Flanagan has some value thanks to averaging just 12.9 in his 7 games off the bench. When you exclude goalkicking, Flanagan averaged 31.7 across his 9 starts in the halves in 2023 which included 1 sin bin and just 110 kick metres per game. I can see improvements on both fronts, and even without goalkicking a 35+ average is feasible. He will not rise in price quickly, but his ability to deputise in the HLFs when Cleary (round 6) and Fogarty (round 10) have byes. In a perfect world, he peaks in price just before his bye in round 11 when you could look to move him on. He’s been a staple in all my sketches to date, but he’s by no means a “must have” and one you could anti-POD should you have 3 other halves not called Kaeo Weekes.

Ezra Mam ($450k, 19.29%, Bye Round 13)

The Robotic Engineer almost delivered a premiership to Red Hill, but Cleary had other ideas. His Grand Final heroics probably do the heavy lifting in explaining why his ownership is so high. It’s interesting to note that despite bagging a hatrick in the Grand Final, he only netted 67 fantasy points. Which I feel tells fantasy coaches that unless he finds grabbing more kick metres and improves his net tackles, he will tread water in the mid-high 30s. There may be some scope for improvement given he did play hurt for a lot of last season; but I’d rather take Flanagan as a third half for $101k less and spend up elsewhere. It appears unlikely that an anti-POD strategy on Mam would backfire.

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow ($564k, 18.48%, Bye Round 3)

My love interest from last season (who I ironically did not take) tore it up early doors for the newest team in the comp. I feel like a combination of this form, his DPP and the fact he dominated origin are the lead causes for such a high ownership. As I said on the Dolphins preview, a round 3 bye and a maximum of 21 appearances (assume origin selection) make it hard to pick him from the start. Especially when Burbo appears to be the only basement price CTR on the horizon. I’m not just saying it because I’m a jilted ex-lover, but you shouldn’t be stung too hard by not smashing the pick button on the Hammer.

Spencer Leniu ($395k, 18.09%, Bye Round 14)

The Samoan International has been incredible since coming into grade at Penrith, and follows in the footsteps of the likes of Brad Fittler and Michael Jennings in moving to the Roosters. The “new team bias” appears to be doing bits in Leniu’s ownership, as I struggle to see a change in role when donning the tricolours. To date, Leniu only has 5 appearances of 40 minutes or more and whilst a small sample size show an inability to go at a PPM. The only performance where went above PPM was a 56 in 44 minutes off the bench which included a try and two turnovers in Magic Round. There is some value on offer should he get the start, but Leniu is definitely someone you can give three dates to.

Jesse Arthars ($344k, 17.54%, Bye Round 13)

We tend to love outside backs from the Broncos at Talking League, and Arthars is no exception. He’s a very solid player, albeit not really a such relevant player from a fantasy perspective. Initially we had some high hopes given the vacant left centre role, but that will be assumed by Selwyn Cobbo. In wing starts where he has played at least 70 minutes, Arthars averages 24 which is more or less what he is priced at. In this sample he has a 0.4 try strike rate, so unless he becomes a leader in the race for top try scorer it’s hard to see him having more than 5-6 points of value. Given we should have enough cheaper outside back options, fantasy coaches should be comfortable looking elsewhere in the market.

Finishing with Jesse Arthars seems an apt way to wrap up this edition of The Mercato. As you may be now aware, in 2024 I will be joining Brenton on The Fantasy Game Plan as we go through the games from the round that was; as well as focusing on the emerging issues facing NRL Fantasy Coaches. Our pilot episode dropped this morning, so I recommend you give it a listen on your preferred podcast platform. Be sure to keep an eye on our socials this week for our notes from the NRL Preseason Challenge and All-Stars Matches, but for now it’s Ciao from The Mercato.



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