Updated: Mar 2
Welcome back to The Mercato, a long-form series for Talking League. In this edition, I reveal my “Portfolio” in the form of my starting 21-man squad for the 2023 NRL Fantasy season and the reasons for my selections.
Disclaimer: this team may change during the round if there are any late withdrawals or changes made to the starting teams an hour before kick-off. Where I make changes, I will endeavour to update where possible.
There’s certainly no single method that you “must” use to create your starting squad, but there are certainly pitfalls that you want to avoid, namely:
Not having a strong Captain.
Not having a strong Vice Captain (if your captain has an early bye).
Not having sufficient positional coverage on your bench.
Having too many players from a team with an early bye (3+ players is too much).
Not taking players with obvious value solely because “they’re too highly owned”.
Taking players solely because “they’ll be a POD”.
Taking too many origin certainties.
Of these potential pitfalls, the last one is probably the least relevant. Generally, players that are origin certainties are great fantasy assets and will score well for your side up until origin. And with 44 trades, you can afford to trade them out for more bye-relevant players who already have chewed up at least one bye.
Before you start to finalise your initial 21-man squad for round 1, you want to get all your research in. And the best research tool for the 2023 NRL Fantasy season is the Talking League Textbook, your ultimate strategy guide for with 17 team profiles, 391 individual player profiles with plenty of strategic content including Q&As with the past two champions, Shane Ewart (2021) and Will McAteer (2022).
In terms of building my initial squad, the most important decision I need to make was who would be my captain out of Nicho Hynes (who is now unfortunately injured), Nathan Cleary and Cameron Murray. As I explained in his Player in Focus Video and on our introductory pod (from 26:00), I’m taking the South Sydney captain because:
Souths don’t have any byes in the first 12 rounds (Panthers have one in round 3, Sharks in round 6).
I have more confidence in the HLF options in the $575-775k range than I do the MID position.
Murray retained the “discount” from his score of 1 in round 25 (unlike Cleary, who got bumped $50k north). This is more of a bonus, giving me a little bit of extra wiggle when it comes to my starting salary cap.
Of course, taking Murray is not without risk. After all, the reason he’s great value is the reason he is so risky. And when you consider that most of the field will take Cleary, if Murray is outperformed I will behind the peloton early. I do have a hedging strategy against the contingency, which I will outline in the HLFs section below.
All things going well, I will hold Murray for the first 12 rounds as he scores the most points of any player. At this point, I will likely move him on to more bye relevant players with keeping sufficient cap room to acquire Hynes in 14. Round 14 will be the optimal time to pick him up as he’ll have two byes (6 and 13) in the rear-view mirror. Same deal for Isaiah Papali’i (7 and 13), although I’d be much more hesitant to start with him given all the value EDG players and the fact he’s moved clubs.
With my captain locked in, let’s roll through the positions.
My first two picks in this position don’t require much effort to arrive at. Brandon Smith (HOK/MID, $585k) and Tanah Boyd (HOK/HLF, $479k) have such extremely high ownership with active coaches, so having these players just boxes off these two from being PODs that can hurt me. Aside from these two, I have a lot of question marks about the top-tier hookers:
Damien Cook is top dollar, more expensive than my Captain.
Harry Grant has failed to make it to the Origin Rounds without suffering injury/illness/suspension in the past two years. He also has a bye before origin.
Reece Robson had a career year last year and does Payten look to manage him given the earlier start to the season?
On the cash cow side, we may have one at Penrith however it’s unknown what the minute split would be. Soni Luke would be fantastic if he was getting 50 minutes or more, but I can see how he goes in the first two rounds before a potential round 4 buy.
Middle Forward (MID)
As mentioned above, I’m taking Cameron Murray ($904k). I’m also taking two big swings in the middle with both Payne Haas ($809k) and Joseph Tapine ($790k). Some would argue that Haas is the riskiest of this three given the disruption to his pre-season, with the Broncos granting the star forward some personal leave. For me, I’m not too concerned with these given Haas has expressed confidence in his preparation. Priced at 56, I expect Haas to average in the 60s like he did in the first 12 rounds last year. Like Murray, I will probably move Haas on after round 12 before origin however given two of his byes (16, 19) are when he’d be away for origin he may stick around.
Tapine is another who also presents a little bit of value. Priced at 55, I expect him to kick on towards a 60 average. This value can often be hard to find at this price point. Not only that, Tapine’s availability is very valuable when you consider as a Kiwi international, he can play 24 matches. His bye schedule is quite favourable as:
by first bye (round 8) I’ll have built up enough team value to cover his absence.
he plays the first major bye (round 13) and third major bye (round 19), making him a great captaincy option in these rounds.
his third bye is somewhat early (round 20), meaning he’ll be available down the stretch when coaches begin to hit the panic button as they run low on trades.
It’s a big swing taking these three as they’ll cost just over a quarter of my salary cap ($2.503m) and none of them are DPP. But unlike spending this amount in the HLFs with a Cleary and two others, there are 3 MID slots in the starting 13 instead of 2. I’m comfortable doing this as I have concerns about most mid-range MIDs:
Adam Elliott – interrupted pre-season with a calf issue, new club and coming off the bench.
Tevita Tatola – first season of relevancy, would rather give three dates.
Mitchell Barnett – new club, uncertain role.
Corey Horsburgh – carrying a shoulder complaint in from pre-season, won’t get the minutes.
Tom Gilbert – Good player, not great NRL Fantasy player.
Daniel Saifiti – Has potential, rather give three dates
My coverage comes from three DPPs in Brandon Smith (starting Hooker), J’Maine Hopgood (EDG/MID, $453k) and Jackson Ford (MID/EDG, $340k). Hopgood is very similar to Smith in the sense that he is that highly owned, that taking him is just asking for trouble given the value on offer. Ford has secured the starting left edge spot at the Warriors, with that bench giving him a great chance of playing at least 55-60 minutes. With the Warriors not having a bye until round 12, I can use Ford in my scoring 17 until he peaks in price before the bye. On the Warriors, I’ve slotted their former player Ben Murdorch-Masila ($250k) onto my bench and am optimistic that Coach Griffin will give him a decent role in round 2. Update (02/03/2022): I have replaced BMM with Trindall.
Edge Forward (EDG)
Perhaps the position that requires the least discretion. The only decision I had to make here was to not start with any guns. I really wanted David Fifita ($771k) however with three “must haves” in the EDG position, it seemed silly to overspend. Those “must haves” are the above-mentioned Hopgood, Eliesa Katoa ($448k) and Trent Loiero ($389k). The latter pair are starting in one of the best teams in the competition and will be highly owned as a result. Jackson Ford also counts as EDG coverage on the bench with two cheapies joining him in Shawn Blore ($250k) and Jacob Preston ($230k). Blore is a calculated punt that he will make some quick cash before Bateman returns, and Preston is a $230k enabler that look to have buckets of talent.
I have decided to fade Luke Garner ($478k) as I’m not convinced that he will hold his spot long term. If I get this wrong, I can look to bring him in after his round 3 bye. Almost similar tune when it comes to Egan Butcher ($561k) in the sense I want to see more data. With a round 4 bye, I can officially give him three dates and get a real look at him. In an ideal world, I would’ve found room for him in the squad but hopefully I’m not punished too much for not doing so.
Along with the MID, perhaps the riskiest selections in my team. Having steered away from both Hynes and Cleary, I’m looking in the $625k-$775k price range for my starting HLFs. Matt Burton ($718k) is someone that had been in my team almost all pre-season but exited my build after watching that Sharks trial. My concerns about him coming in underdone off the back of a Kangaroos tour and off-season surgery appeared in that match, and I fear that may leak into the opening rounds. Jackson Hastings ($645k) was also a constant in my ongoing builds, however I didn’t like his involvement in both sides of the ball in the Eels trial so I’ve stepped off him as well. It may seem drastic to move away from these two players after just a trial each, but with me fading both Hynes and Cleary I need absolute confidence in my starting HLFs.
My first pick is someone that I’ve been very keen on all pre-season in Adam Doueihi ($771k). As discussed previously in the series, Doueihi’s price was corrected up by $49k compared to his 2022 average. I have no issue with this given Doueihi had two games off the bench and one at centre, before averaging 62 in 8 matches in the halves. Whilst he may not exactly match this output in 2023, he should go close as he rivals Munster ($886k) and Cherry-Evans ($851k) for the bronze medal in the HLFs department. With him unlikely to play origin, Doueihi shapes as a nice season-long keeper with untapped value.
I’ve decided to pair Doueihi with Jamal Fogarty ($723k). Whilst I am confident that Doueihi will ascend to the heights to be a season keeper, Fogarty is the “Apple Store Manager” in my halves. Priced at 50.5, I expect him to average between 54-56 in ideal circumstances. But even if he doesn’t he will hold his value at minimum. Which is incredibly important in my teams sans Cleary; if my Murray strategy does not work I need to be able to reverse out quickly. By having a HLF occupying a $700k starting slot, I can always turn a mid-ranger/appreciated cash cow into another cash cow and flip Fogarty to one of Hynes (when he returns) or Cleary. With Fogarty’s bye schedule, it does buy me time, as he plays the first 7 rounds (Hynes and Cleary both have a bye in this time) before a manageable bye in round 8 before playing in round 13. He fits perfectly for my strategy, albeit he’s not for everyone.
In reserve, I have the before-mentioned Tanah Boyd who will set nicely in the #14 jersey in TL Ruck Like Fabbits. I am also taking Isaiya Katoa ($230k) with little expectations, just a base price player with seemingly decent job security and a potential loop candidate in round 5 when Boyd has his bye. Update (02/03/2022): With the news around Nicho Hynes that was broke by James Hooper, I'm taking a punt that we may get a few weeks of Braydon Trindall ($250k) instead of Ben Murdoch-Masila.
Centre is an absolute minefield like always at round 1 of an NRL Fantasy season. Unlike the forwards and halves, I’ve worked backwards in the CTRs. By that, I’ve locked in the two cash cows in Tommy Talau (CTR/WFB, $250k) and Paul Alamoti ($230k). I don’t have high expectations for either of these players, but either could explode so I’ve included Talau on my bench and will start Alamoti. These two have edged out Harley Smith-Shields ($250k) by being DPP (Talau) and cheaper (Alamoti).
With the problem looming in the outside backs, I’ve had to invest a fair sum into a “decent” CTR. I’ve decided against the premium options (Manu, Graham, Holmes, Lomax, Crichton, Bird, Tago, Talakai, Ramien) and dipped a little bit lower to Kotoni Staggs ($529k). Staggs has a career average of 39 at centre which is just above his price point of 37, notwithstanding he played through a lot of 2022 in severe pain with various injuries. With a healthy off-season, I back Staggs to average 40+ in 2023 and if he stays fit will feature for the first 15 rounds before the Broncos first bye in round 16. By this point, he’ll have either turned into a keeper or I’ll have pivoted to one.
As mentioned already, I have Tommy Talau (bench) as cover for my WFB.
I’ve decided that I wanted to squeeze Central Coast product Scott Drinkwater ($669k) into my team. Drinkwater averaged 46.9 and with the path clear for him (unlike last season where he didn’t start until round 5) I expect him to kick on a bit closer to 50. Yes, he averaged 50 when playing 70 minutes or more in 2022 but that’s a little misleading as it chops out three scores in the 20s when he played 60 minutes or more. I’m confident that he’ll be in the top 5 WFB (by average) at the end of the season, and when you consider that he’ll play all the way until his first bye in round 15 (unlike Tedesco and Mitchell) he is someone I can rely on. Plus as Riley and Jake have pointed out, the Cowboys have got a nice draw that should Drinkwater get amongst the attacking stats early. It could backfire taking a gun WFB early, but we’ll roll the dice.
My second pick is a homer pick in Lachlan Miller ($426k). Whilst he’s not posted a lot of NRL data to date, Miller has a very fantasy relevant game and most importantly, the great pedigree of being a JPC alumni. Will Warbrick ($230k) rounds out my starting WFB, who has showed that he has a very fantasy-relevant game. Being on one of the most prolific right edges in the NRL, he will have plenty of opportunities to accrue attacking stats.
And there you have it, my 21-man squad locked in. Overall, I’m happy with the balance of my squad which has $15k left in the bank to for any early-season corrections. Here’s a breakdown of how I’ve spent my cash.
Using the principles we outlined on page 13 of the Talking League Textbook (still available to purchase here), I’ve set my team up for round 1 as follows:
Katoa and Loiero “start” as they play first game (Hopgood in starting MID as a result).
I’m taking Hopgood as VC so I can keep everyone else (Bar Murray) free to move in case of late absences. I’m confident that he will score well, so it is low risk.
As Katoa and Loiero will box off my two starting EDG slots in game one, I can play Ford in my starting MIDs to have flexibility with Haas and Tapine (in the remote chance they’re last minute outs).
I am looping Preston and Blore using BMM. As Preston plays before Blore, I have him in slot #5 and will move Blore to #4 if I choose not to loop in Preston.
Ideally, I’d love to save 3-4 trades across rounds 2-3 but in reality, there will be some corrections required for missed cows, injuries or suspensions. And that’s why we love sport and fantasy sport, it’s unpredictable and there’s many ways to do well.
On behalf of Talking League, I wish anyone who has got this far into this article all the best for 2023. Don’t forget you can include TK as a celebrity team in your league! Head to Leagues > Add Celebrity Team as you’ll find “Eyeliner FC – Talking League” as an option.
The Mercato will be back next week to provide an update on TL Ruck Like Fabbits as well as recap the key talking points from Round 1. After that, expect the next edition to be after the conclusion of round 4 as we flow into what should be a fortnightly long-form series until round 23. Be sure to check out the rest of the content from across the Writer’s Room.
During most rounds, we’ll be running five shows per week (Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday/Friday) as well as plenty of written content from across the Writer’s Room. Join me next week as The Mercato looks back at round 1 and discusses what we may have learned from just eight NRL matches. Until then, enjoy round 1!