The Mercato - Tenterhooks
Welcome back to The Mercato, a long-form series for Talking League.
Magic Round is in the books for another year, the first Magic Round where Talking League hosted a live podcast at Lefty’s Music Hall. Shout out to all the listeners who came and said hello and attended the show. A big thank you to Lefty’s for hosting us and to GameDay Squad for helping make the event possible.
In this edition, we’re going to be taking stock of the Hooker position. But before that, a quick update on #MercatoBall where yours truly took the W on home turf at Magic Round. A score of 1032 saw my rank almost half to just outside the top 3k and my team value increase by over $300k. Most of that was down to pulling the trigger on Cameron Murray to Dylan Brown, causing a $104k swing in just one week. With 3 Dolphins in my squad before trades, it could be a round where I’ll just take my medicine. A lot of coaches will be in a similar boat given the number of quality fantasy assets wearing a Dolphins jersey.
The HOK position has been an absolute minefield for coaches in 2023, with just one HOK averaging over 60 and just five averaging 50 or higher. Aggregate-wise, only HOK sits in the top 10 scorers after 10 rounds. It’s been rough from a team value perspective, with just three of the top 10 aggregate scorers sitting above their starting price. So, why has the position been so difficult this year?
Well, we pretty much only have six teams (Storm, Cowboys, Rabbitohs, Bulldogs, Dolphins, Sharks) that roll with anything close to an 80-minute hooker, which cuts down our options a fair bit. Not only that, but we also weren’t really blessed with a lot of good cheap HOKs at the start of the season that had any form of job security. It leaves us with six main options in the HOK position that we will cover in this article.
Harry Grant has clearly been the best hooker in the first 10 rounds, top-scoring to this point despite having a bye in round 9. In the pre-season we expressed confidence in Grant being the best option to start with given he began $88k cheaper than Cook, not that it took great insight to see the potential. Naturally for a great runner you would assume that an uplift from 61 in 2022 (60+ minute games) to 62.9 in 2023 would be from an increase in attacking stats, but the opposite is the case.
As you can see in the tables above, Grant has lost 5.5 points per game in Direct Attacking Stats (Run Metres, Tries, Try Assists, Line Breaks) compared to 2022. Whereas in Pure Base (Net Tackles, Kick Metres) he’s picked up 6.2 points compared to 2022. His average is elevated above his 60+ minute efforts in 2022 by better returns on Turnovers, 40/20s and Forced Drop-Outs. Overall, Grant has shown that he can thrive regardless of how the Storm are faring, who are 5-4 in 2023 compared to 8-2 at this stage in 2023. A fit Grant will be a must-have down the stretch as the Storm complete their byes in round 19 and you unlock eight trades from round 20.
Damien Cook entered the season as the most expensive HOK and third most expensive player in NRL Fantasy. Whilst he hasn’t been poor with an average of 54.9, he’s had the third largest decrease in value over the first 10 rounds. It’s bleak reading when you consider the only two worse are a minutes-deprived Joe Ofahengaue and Josh Hodgson off the back of an ACL in 2022. With Souths boasting a 7-3 record compared to 5-5 in 2022, you’d assume the regression would be down to the former beach sprinter dropping his pure base.
As the tables show, it’s a bit from a column A and a bit from column B. Naturally the pure base is down as a more successful side usually requires less defensive workrate due to better completion rates and possession dominance. What has also fallen off for Cook is his attacking stats, which for the most part can be attributed to a change in style by the Bunnies.
As frustrated Cameron Murray owners can attest to, coach Demetriou has got his skipper distributing more often from first receiver than engaging contact at the line. This has two impacts for Cook; the first being less quick play-the-balls to scoot from dummy-half on and net attacking points. Not only that, but the gaps in the opposing defensive line are appearing wider as they compress in anticipation of Murray running the ball. This is leaving Ilias, Walker and Mitchell to receive the ball in more space to wreak havoc. Walker is the main beneficiary of this with huge spikes in Tries (+0.2), TAs (+0.5) and LBAs (+0.5) on a weekly basis. With the change in attack from the Cardinal and Myrtle, Cook is a must sell in round 13 (or earlier) and an avoid down the stretch considering the round 26 bye.
Reece Robson was the second-best pick from the gun range of hookers in pre-season, an opinion not just held by biased Cowboys fans or biased Robsons. The Cowboys came into 2023 off the back of an unexpected 3rd place finish in 2022 but haven’t been able to back it up. Despite this Robson has delivered the goods from a fantasy perspective with a 54.4 average, which is a little under his 60-minute plus performance from games in 2022 (57.1).
As the tables show, his pure base has remained consistent whilst he has seen a slight drop-off in attacking stats. This is to be expected in an underperforming team that has struggled to deal with off-season departures and absences through injury and suspension. With the base stats remaining consistent along with the auxiliary stats (Turnovers, Offloads, Errors and Penalties Conceded), Reece boasts a very reliable fantasy output that can be banked on for the rest of the season. For those yet to acquire a hooker for round 13, Robson is a bargain at $702k that provides excellent bye coverage, especially when paired with Grant. That’s the reason why he was my buy of the week on the last Wacky Wednesday.
Jeremy Marshall-King has absolutely thrived at the Dolphins in 2023. Since returning from suspension in round 5, the better Marshall brother has played every minute and averaged 54.6 will probably be the second most expensive HOK come round 12. Whilst analysis for the players above was more quantitative, for JMK it is more qualitative. He’s switched to a club that is winning more games and more pertinently, giving him more game time (averaged 70.4 minutes in 2022) and more opportunities to run the ball. For those who already boast a HOK that plays 16 (like the man up next), JMK would be a shrew pickup in round 12 that you could probably keep for the rest of the season and will likely remain a POD.
Reed Mahoney is another hooker that has changed clubs in 2023. For most coaches, it’s “once bitten, twice shy” for Cardboard Shoulders after his regression in 2022. The regression from was the result of his missed tackle count increasing from 1.8 per game in 2021 to 3.3 in 2022, on top of a drop in try assists, turnovers and offloads. He’s improved upon his 2022 average in 2023, so has the cardboard turned to concrete?
As the tables show, Mahoney is making more tackles but is missing more than ever to offset that gain. On the direct attacking side, it’s basically the status quo. The kick metres do hint to where Cardy S is making progress compared to 2022 – auxiliary stats. He leads the league in 40/20s and has returned his Turnover and Offloads numbers back towards his 2021 output. Despite that, he’s working overtime to average 50 on the dot and isn’t someone I could recommend with confidence. I still have him in my squad, and he’ll remain as the spirit animal of #MercatoBall until at least round 17 when he’ll probably get his p45.
Tanah Boyd is the final HOK in focus, coming in hot with a 5-round average of 56.6. Boyd looked a must-sell after Toby Sexton came in for round 6 and hijacked the kick metres, only to break his hand and see Keiran Foran return to the fold. Unlike the above players, there’s probably not a lot of analysis required when it comes to a goal-kicking, kick metre machine halfback. He averaged 48.2 at halfback in 2022, and averages 48.9 in 2023 which indicates a sustainable production provided Foran stays fit. Which as we know, has been a challenge whenever the former Sea Eagle has left the Northern Beaches.
And that wraps up the analysis of the main protagonists in the HOK position in 2023 so far. As previously advertised, I will be looking to publish the first edition of the #MercatoMailbag in the coming weeks where I tackle the technical aspects (rules) of NRL Fantasy. If you have any questions that you would like answered, hit us up in the DMs. But until then, you can catch me on Wednesdays as I host Wacky Wednesday for the next two editions. All the best for round 11 and remember, don’t sell all those Dolphins!