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The Mercato - The Portfolio II

Updated: Mar 7


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 2024 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.

EDIT: I have replaced Joe Chan ($261k) with Danny Levi ($285k) due to the uncertainty around the Melbourne Storm bench.


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:

  • Overloading on expensive Vegas players and being reliant on TLT 1B cheapies.

  • 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.


In terms of building my initial squad, the most important decision is working out who would be my captain. This year, the decision was simple with Nathan Cleary the sensible decision. I’ve not started with Cleary since 2020, the last year that I finished in the top 500 (481st). Last year, I faded him due to the early bye in round three but with a year of weekly bye experience under our belts, I don’t see his round six bye being an issue this year. With the other two byes being in major rounds (16 and 19), he’s a season-long hold if he can avoid injury.


The next step is working out my vice captain. For this selection, I followed a similar process that lead to Cameron Murray being my initial captain last season. And funnily enough, I ended up with third most expensive player in fantasy (which Murray was last year) in Payne Haas. This is for a few reasons:

  • As I pointed out in MIDcato, the reduction in Magic Number from $14.3k to $13.75k means that Haas is $35k cheaper that he would’ve been had the Magic Number remained stable. With Cleary $35k cheaper using the same logic, it’s essentially $70k “saved” and puts less emphasis on the “value” VC option.

  • Haas plays in Vegas, meaning I can put the C on him, the VC on another Vegas player and have full control over my non-Vegas players. He also plays the Dolphins in round 6 when the Panthers on the bye, who he scored 70 and 75 against them last season.

  • Broncos don’t play later than Friday until round 8, making him a solid VC in the rounds Cleary is available.

  • The Broncos have two byes in major bye rounds (13 and 16), making him a solid hold throughout origin if things don’t get too chaotic.


At this point, I’m planning to hold Cleary and Haas throughout the entire season and have the rest of my 19 players orbit around them. Knowing my luck, one will cop a suspension or an injury and need to be traded out.


With my VC and C locked in, I have spent $1.88m of my salary cap. That leaves me with $8.12m to play with, or about $427k per player. This is how I’ve arrived at my round 1 squad, position by position.


Hooker (HOK)

I’ve decided to go back for punishment for the fourth year in a row and take Brandon Smith (HOK/MID, $540k). As much as it’s for the vibes, Smith played in Vegas which swayed me as it meant I had maximum flexibility before TLT B. The fact he also kept DPP was a bonus. A 47 from him was very promising, especially when you consider that Brad Arthar has named two Hookers in his Eels side.


As Lussick ($459k) and Hands ($406k) are not viable, I’ve decided to not muck around and grabbed Harry Grant ($788k). Yes he has a round 4 bye, but over 30% of coaches have him so I’m content to stay with the pack on this selection. Danny Levi ($286k) was highly in consideration, but I didn’t have room to take him so he remains a pivot option in the early week. Reece Robson ($660k) was also under consideration, but I feel safer with Grant.

EDIT: I have taken Danny Levi ($285k).


Middle Forward (MID)

As mentioned earlier, I took Payne Haas ($880k) and am stoked that he churned out a 76 as a captain. I also selected two other MIDs from Vegas in the form of Tevita Tatola ($485k) and Sitili Tupouniua (MID/EDG, $421k) as I liked both of their profiles. Tupouniua appears to have sustained a knock in the game and thus had reduced minutes, whilst Tatola had a concerning amount of minutes. I’ll be monitoring both over the next week or so to see whether they need replacing.


With three MIDs already in the books, I decided to take on Reuben Cotter ($587k) as my final expensive MID. I’m not super high on him, but as I explained in Majority Rules there is a chance he aces the start of the season and I don’t wish to Anti-POD him. The rest of my MID contingent are cheapies in the form of Jaemon Salmon (EDG/MID, $289k) and Samuel Hughes ($250k).


I’m heavily monitoring Cameron McInnes ($704k), who I think could explode given the #13 jersey for good. Having performed well like his end of season, Terrell May ($492k) is another I will monitor with a few moving pieces in a stacked Roosters pack.


Edge Forward (EDG)

Much like last year, there wasn’t too much discretion to be had here. With a plethora of cheap EDG options available, there was no need to look at the top shelf. With Sitili Tupouniua (starting MID), Siua Wong ($444k) and Brendan Piakura ($399k) already locked away from Vegas, I decided to sit back on a few of the options like Shaun Lane ($558k) and Tom Eisenhuth ($424k). If they go well, I can always pick them up during the season.


With the aforementioned Jaemon Salmon (EDG/MID, $289k) in the squad, I only spent up on one more EDG and got in Heilum Luki ($498k). Luki passed the eye test in trials and should be in for a big year, also helped by the Cowboys playing the first 15 rounds. Named to start for the Storm, I’m also going to roll the dice on Joe Chan ($261k) and hope that my love interest Shawn Blore ($518k) stays out of the 17 for another week or so.

EDIT: I have decided to not take Joe Chan ($261k) as I feel like the Storm bench will change.


Halves (HLF)

As mentioned below, Nathan Cleary ($1m) is in my team. I was planning to pair him with Jamal Fogarty ($637k), but with Kaeo Weekes (HLF/WFB, $252k) not named like I was expecting him to be, I’ve decided to change direction. As I spoke about in the Draft Special, I’m very high on Mitchell Moses ($792k) and with the amount of cashies that appeared on TLT B means I can go up to him. He averaged 60.6 when he played a near-full game with Dylan Brown last season, and I am optimistic that he can continue in a similar vein. There is a risk that the downtown rule affects his kick metres but given the last time I started with him alongside Cleary resulted in a top 500 finish, I will lean on superstition. If he can avoid origin, he will be a nice captaincy option in rounds 13, 14 and 17.


Given Kyle Flanagan ($349k) didn’t get uplifted despite 7 interchange appearances last season, I’m happy to slot him in due to being that little bit cheaper than Drew Hutchison ($400k). Hutchison is very much on my radar, but I can’t squeeze him in so he’ll be monitored as a pivot option for any failing mid-rangers. Ethan Strange (CTR/HLF, $250k) was a nice bonus that I will primarily use in CTR, as I say below.


Centre (CTR)

This is the position that has opened up a lot of doors. In Building Blocks, I spoke about the need to expect minimal cheap viable options in the CTR, and treat any that pop up on TLT as a bonus. Well, we got given the bonus when Ben Trbojevic (EDG/CTR, $250k) was named on TLT A and put in a superb 51, opening up the loop (more on that later). The extra bonus came when Ethan Strange (CTR/HLF, $250k) got named in the 6 for the Raiders. A big body that was very active in the trials, I have no issue throwing him out in the starting CTR whilst he has the jersey.


To take advantage of the loop potential of Burbo, I have taken Sebastian Kris (CTR/WFB, $395k) with the intention to use him in the WFB position from round 2 onwards. My 4th eligible CTR option is Nick Cotric (CTR/WFB, $261k), who I’m probably going to have to play in the first two weeks and pray he benefits from the downtown rule.


In terms of monitoring, the likes of Will Pensini ($582k) and Mosese Suli ($458k) have been in various iterations of  my pre-season sketches and will be continued to be watched. The one that interests me most is Jacob Kiraz (WFB/CTR, $556k), however I am concerned that he was “racing the clock to be fit for round 1” and thus will stick him on the watchlist.


Winger/Fullback (WFB)

As mentioned above, I have taken Sebastian Kris (CTR/WFB, $395k) and Nick Cotric (CTR/WFB, $261k) as cheaper options. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as had I known Strange and Chan were viable, I would have leant in and taken one of James Tedesco ($670k) or Tom Trbojevic ($653k). But I didn’t know, so cheap and cheerful at the back it is.

Ryan Papenhuyzen ($495k) is a simple “go with the crowd” play at 43.3% ownership that has been locked in since the game opened. As I’ve spoken about on Around the Traps and The Fantasy Game Plan, I’m very optimistic than Keano Kini ($279k) can make some dosh before Jayden Campbell ($459k) returns. The Titans do have a bye, so I will be relying on Cotric for the first two weeks.


In terms of watchlist players alongside Kiraz, Tedesco and Trbojevic is Kalyn Ponga ($757k). Had the Newcastle skipper not copped a $50k uplift, I probably would’ve taken the plunge. But for now, it’s cheap and cheerful at the back.


The Risk Profile

I told myself this year that I would try play within the lines and get as many high ownership players as possible to start with, then work it out from there. At the time of writing, I’ve selected 10 (B. Trbojevic, Haas, Cleary, Piakura, Papenhuyzen, Strange, Hughes, Grant, Wong, Cotter) of the highest 14, I think I’ve hit the metric well. The only players in that top 14 that I do not own are Weekes (39.9%, not playing), Willison (38.35%, didn’t play), Gagai (34.32%, questionable job security) and Walsh (30.23%, not for me).


I also told myself that I wouldn’t pick too many PODs. Looking at my team at the time of writing, only Tatola (14.7%), Luki (12.9%), Moses (5.8%), Kris (1.4%) and Chan (1.4%) boast an ownership level below 15%. Given his price, Moses is by far the greatest exposure for me albeit he has the runs on the board. The other options do present some upside, but I am prepared to move off them should they not deliver.


Where my exposure is severe is in the WFB, as I’ve not taken an expensive one. Instead, I’ve decided to not take a high ownership WFB not named Papenhuyzen and go to the markdown section. This could be a genius move, but it could also backfire massively. This is pertinent given I have spent $3.46m on my four most expensive quartet and none of them are WFBs.


When you combine the low WFB investment with the fact I have three (yes, three) Canberra Raiders holding the fort in the WFB and CTR slots, I am playing with fire. And injury or absence in round two will force a trade, much as the same as round four. Going with three (EDIT: now two) Melbourne Storm players who have the bye in round four. On Around The Traps, I’ve spoken about this number being fraught with danger, albeit the expectation that Chan (who is much cheaper than Blore) being a cash grab that could be on the trade block by the bye anyway.


Overall, I am pretty satisfied with the 21-man squad that I have arrived at. It’s not perfect (see four origin certainties), but that was always the risk with a split TLT for the first time. I have $87k (EDIT:$62k) in the bank and a mindset that I will chase the money makers and adjust where things are not working. A dream result would be to get to round 3 having not yet made a trade, but I doubt that will eventuate.


But that’s all for this edition of The Mercato. The series will pop up usually once every fortnight throughout the regular season to cover off all the key strategic trends and topics facing fantasy NRL Fantasy coaches. On the airwaves, I will join Brenton each Monday Morning for The Fantasy Game Plan, where we will cover the round in review and cover off any emerging issues in the world of NRL Fantasy. Best of luck for the season, and thank you for continuing to support Talking League!

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