Super Rugby 2016: Play out your fantasy

In many respects, it’s the best day of the year for players of fantasy sports: Draft day. Not to be confused with the mediocre movie starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner as his improbable love interest (the absolute train wreck of a situation in the Cleveland Browns front office that is portrayed in the movie seems very true to life however). You see, on your fantasy league’s draft day, anything is possible. You can potentially have a blinder of a draft and run away with your league, or you could order the meatloaf and be screwed right from word go. Or you might absolutely crush the draft, but then all your players end up getting injured and you end up sucking anyway. The point is, anything is possible, and that’s exciting. It’s like the one good shot in an otherwise appalling round of golf; it keeps you coming back for more.

Sure, you can let Fantasy Rugby Draft (FRD) auto draft your team for you. I’m sure it will do a great job. I like to think of the FRD software as ‘Intelligence’, the huge talking computer from the movie ‘Team America, World Police’ and the FRD CEO and host of the FRD podcast Bruce Wilkinson as Spotswood. Thankfully Mr Wilkinson has never insisted that I prove I am worthy of his trust in the manner Spotswood did of Gary Johnston. But moving right along.

Ultimately, if you win your league with an auto-drafted team, what have you done? Won the lottery essentially. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to win the lottery, but I’d rather earn millions of dollars. Not only that, like I say, drafting should be about the highlight of the fantasy season, especially if you have a draft party. What’s better after all than kicking off your season by hanging out with your mates, having a jar or two, throwing back some highly calorific snacks and busting balls for a few hours with like-minded individuals while you all pick you teams?

(The answer is supposed to be implied, but if it’s not obvious to everyone, the answer is: nothing)

I think every fantasy league needs a seminal moment. Or what I like to call, the “Andy Dalton moment”. It happened at our NFL fantasy league draft party a few years ago. He will remain nameless, but one member of the league spent a few minutes thinking about his first pick. We started to put a bit of pressure on him, and he blurted out “Andy Dalton”. Everyone in the room aside from him literally fell about laughing hysterically.
‘Red’ Dalton is a middling talent even now. Back then he was maybe in the top 20 quarterbacks in the NFL if he was having a very good day. It’s a 12 team league, so he is at best a back-up QB in fantasy. When running backs and wide receivers are far more valuable, why on earth would you take a QB, let alone one who isn’t even good with your first pick? Even if you thought he was good, you could have got him eight or even 10 rounds later (Eli Manning, a better QB than Dalton was drafted in the 10th round). Every year at our draft, that story comes up. Hell, even the mention of Dalton’s name takes me back to that moment and I can’t help but smile. I hope you have a moment like that in your draft this year. The possibility of which should be reason enough to ensure you participate in a live draft.

Unfortunately, my FRD leagues’ draft parties are hosted in NZ, so I’ll be Skyping in while everyone else is living it up and having a great time. Which makes it even worse. I’ll be watching the fun early morning in the UK as sober as a judge and not getting most of the in-jokes floating around. It’s like when your flatmate brings a girl home and you can hear them doing the no-pants dance in the room next door. Not only are you missing out on all the fun while your mate fills his boots, you have to listen to him having fun while you lie there like a loser willing yourself to sleep. Don’t be that guy. Go to your draft party.

Draft parties do have a certain etiquette about them though. While you should feel free to ignore my advice on the best players to draft, pay attention here. You know how when you meet your in-laws, you’re going on a first date or you have to do a speech at a wedding you want to reach that happy state where you’ve had enough to drink to loosen yourself up a little, let you relax and be more witty, charming etc, but you’re not overly drunk? That’s the state you want to be in your draft. There is a reason why you get free drinks when you’re gambling at a casino in Vegas. Drunk people do dumb things (perhaps even more worrying, the Red Dalton pick was made sober. I feel like I shouldn’t have to point this out but for the sake of completeness, Dalton didn’t lead him to the fantasy league title that year). It’s fine to take a flier in the middle to later rounds, but a beer bravado-fuelled punt on your first round pick will ultimately in tears.
In terms of food, don’t turn up with a pot roast or lasagne. Food eaten at a draft party must be able to be consumed in your hands and the names one syllable. Ok, strictly speaking pizza is two syllables, but wings, ribs, chips….. See a pattern forming here? Someone turning up with a plate of canapes or hors d’oeuvres is likely to be given their marching orders.

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all

I’m a sucker for a rugby biography. John Kirwan, Colin Meads (x2), Michael Jones, Richie McCaw, Buck Shelford, Justin Marshall, Chris Laidlaw, Bull Allen, Sean Fitzpatrick; I’ve read them all and many more besides. I even read former All Black doctor John Mayhew’s book. Hell, I actually read two books by perennial misery guts Andy Haden. So Christmas is an exciting time for me because pretty much every year, Mum asks me what rugby biography I want this year. This year was especially exciting because Dan Carter’s book was out, and duly arrived in my stocking. But before I got to that, I had my brother’s copy of Robbie Deans’ biography sitting on my bookshelf.
The main relevance of that is the book is written by Robbie’s former media manager with the Wallabies, and during his/John Mitchell’s time with the All Blacks, Matt McIraith. To describe him as a bit of a Robbie fanboy is like saying Chris Gayle considers himself something of a ladies man.

By the end of the book I was laughing out loud at some of the qualifications McIlraith came up with to turn Robbie’s failures and shortcomings into glorious successes. I’ve been a Robbie Deans fan since I was a young fella and he was playing fullback for Canterbury. But to say McIlraith is drinking the Robbie Deans Kool-Aid is like saying Kanye West drinks the Kanye West Kool-Aid. He is drunk on the Robbie Deans Kool-Aid. It is a man-crush of epic proportions. McIlraith on numerous occasions points out that Robbie’s success rate with the Wallabies was 58%, higher, he is at pains to repeatedly highlight, than the team’s historical success rate (51%). True, although for many of the early years of the 20th century the Wallabies were absolutely awful. If you take the team’s record since the start of professionalism through until the Robbie years, its success rate is 66%. His success rate against the All Blacks was 17%. Even in discussing a 50 point flogging Robbie’s Wallabies received at the hands of the Springboks, only the third time in history they have conceded 50 points in a test match, is in the context of Robbie being the assistant coach of the All Blacks the previous time the Wallabies suffered such an embarrassing defeat. Bad refereeing calls, terrible scheduling, a lack of leadership amongst the senior players (something many might expect the coach to be responsible for addressing) and cruel luck; no loss or terrible coaching decision should ever fall on the shoulders of Robbie in the gospel of McIlraith.
I can’t imagine Robbie read the manuscript before it was published because if he is anything like the man I think he is, he would surely have been embarrassed by the 340 page love-in. Honestly, there was less embellishment in some of the Penthouse Forum sections I used to read as a young man (note to young FRD players. In the dark days before the internet we used to get our jollies not just looking at stick magazines, but reading ridiculously hyperbolic or in many cases outright fictional stories of other readers’ sexual conquests and adventures. It was a different time). But really, I would just love to have McIlraith write the story of my Fantasy Rugby Draft season of 2015. Because as bad as my season was, he is such a glass half-full sort of guy, he could make my season, like Robbie’s time as Wallabies coach, out to be a tale of unstoppable, runaway success. Not easy to do when you finish the bottom of the league.

So why listen to my advice? Maybe treat this more as a chance to learn from my mistakes rather than unimpeachable insight.

My problems last season really stemmed from high expectations not being met. The year previous I made no secret of my strategy heading into the season, and promptly rode that strategy to victory in my league of record. The key components of that strategy being selecting as many goalkickers in as many different positions as possible, and having plenty of outside backs available.

Last year, everyone knew what I was going to do and many decided they were going to do the same thing. As a result, when the players I was targeting all disappeared off the board in the first round, when my pick came I panicked and selected Handre Pollard, a player I was only luke-warm on in my preparation. The sad thing is, he was my team’s sole bright spot in a season far more inglorious than Quentin Tarantino’s group of Nazi-killing ‘basterds’ could ever be. As the draft went on, players I had targeted and was sure would be available to me were snapped up before I could get my hands on them.
At the end of the draft I had a look on my face like William Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk when he sees those treacherous pigs Lochlan and Mornay abandon him and his army. I knew I was toast at that point. I promptly lost my first three games in close fashion and it continued downhill from there.

But a new season is upon us and I am still convinced that goalkickers can provide your team with a leg-up week to week. Thus, I would look to snap up Japanese Rugby World Cup (RWC) hero and now Queensland Reds fullback Ayumu Goromaru and Jaguares midfielder Juan Martin Hernandez in the early-ish rounds. He’s a year or two past his best is ‘El Mago’ (Hernandez), is more likely to take the field in a pinafore than look anything less than utterly miserable while playing the game, and will undoubtedly be the back-up goalkicker to Nicolas Sanchez at the Jaguares. However, he might take some longer range shots and there is every chance Sanchez has a week off due to an injury or rest. If he can kick a couple of penalties or drop goals, that’s six extra points for one of your midfielders. Besides the fact that during the RWC he was looking pretty good generally and I expect will go well in Super Rugby also. He is a bit fragile, but might be worth a punt.

It will come as no surprise to many to hear that I am still on the Mike ‘Money’ Harris bandwagon. I think I would almost decry Andrew Mehrtens as an inferior flyhalf to Carlos Spencer before I’ll give up on Harris, even though he wasn’t a roaring fantasy success last year. I’m thinking a bounce-back year could be in order. And clearly I would never blaspheme Mehrts by saying Carlos was better. That would be just utter nonsense of the magnitude that we’ll hear plenty of Justin Marshall uttering in commentary this year.

Argie bargy

To say I’m high on some of the Jaguares players this year is like saying Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg likes his shorts a little on the tight side. I do not need to know that Hogg packs his junk in a standard meat and two vege formation set slightly to the left when he plays rugby, but in shorts that tight, it’s hard to miss. Ergo, I love some of the Jags and suspect despite their impressive form at international level in recent years, they may slip under the radar. While some of the their more well-known players like Jean-Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Marcello Bosch remain in Europe, a staggering number of the Pumas have returned to Argentina to play in Super Rugby. The primary target of which should be Nicolas Sanchez.

Ranked number two in the FRD draft rankings, he might actually be underrated. A far more running player now than he was when he first began starting for the Pumas in 2012, he is a great goal and drop-kicker and I expect he’ll pick up a few clean breaks, assists and even the odd try or two. Unless he suffers an injury before the start of the season or your league is full of idiots (never a bad thing), if you’re picking below the fifth slot you’ll have no chance of landing Sanchez.

Jaguares winger Santiago Cordero was fantastic last season, however, because of that, he will likely go early in the draft. I expect he’ll be gone by the end of the second round. Another Jags player who might be worth a punt who will be available later is wing Manuel Montero. He burst onto the scene a few years back as a big lump of a winger with good pace. There was talk of him signing to play Super Rugby in Australia but he has been out of sight in more recent times. I assume this was due to injury but can’t find any media reports to back that up. If he can get back to anything like the form he has shown in the past, he could be this year’s Nehe Milner-Skudder.

Surprisingly perhaps, given last year I said your front row should be the last ‘player’ drafted, this year I am advocating taking one a little earlier. So long, that is, if it’s either the Hurricanes or the Jaguares.

In terms of the ‘Canes, it’s because of Dane Coles. Frankly he scores tries that no other front rower would dream of and relatively speaking, his running metres are off the charts. He is also great at offloading and turning ball over. With the Jags it is also for the most part because of one bloke, Pumas captain Augustin Creevy.

Remember when every cricket commentator used to delight in telling listeners that former Black Caps all-rounder Jacob Oram was a “former soccer goalkeeper”? It was remarked upon so often that even though the commentators clearly thought they were dropping a prime informational nugget into the broadcast, it came as news to pretty much no one. Well, the fact that Creevy used to be referred to as “Sonny Bill” during his time at Montpellier in France because of his offloading game is rapidly approaching the same level. To the extent I can picture Grant Nisbett saying it about five times this season. I can also picture the smile spreading across Nisbo’s face in the commentary box as he sort of self-congratulates himself for the trivia deep dive he thinks he just treated the viewing public to. But the point remains, Creevy is a great offloader. He is also very good over the ball and twice found himself in the boot of try-scoring Argentinian driving mauls in the test against the All Blacks in Christchurch last year.

The Jags scrum is also unlikely to concede a lot of penalties. If anything, when selecting a front row how many penalties they are likely to concede is as much a consideration as how many tries they might score. Probably almost needless to say the Jaguares should be ok in this regard. Pumas tighthead Romiro Herrera is a huge chunk of humanity and almost as scary looking as the dancing girls in the Justin Bieber ‘Sorry’ video, and earned a living propping up the scrum of French Top 14 side Castres prior to performing well in the RWC and returning home to play for the Jaguares, so he’s handy.

It’s fair to say I’m less high on the Sunwolves and Kings players. Mostly because we don’t know who those players are as yet. While you expect chaos and disorder in South Africa rugby, I mean, Pieter de Villiers used to be the Springbok coach, the situation with the Sunwolves is frankly quite concerning. For all the reputation of the Japanese as being very ordered and organised, it looks like those in charge of the Sunwolves would struggle to organise a piss up at Jake Heke’s place. Maybe it’s extrapolating things out a little too much but presumably some of the same people are involved with Japan’s organisation of the RWC in 2019. If World Rugby wanted that to be an organisational and logistical disaster they’d have handed the hosting rights to Brazil. Maybe the situation with the Sunwolves is not a by-product of the part of Japanese culture that is super ordered, structured and respectful, but that which sees grown men buy little girls’ underwear from vending machines.

No one likes halfbacks

Two years ago, Brumbies halfback Nic White was a key member of my team on its march to FRD glory, mostly because of his goalkicking prowess. This year, I’m not even really bothered about drafting a halfback. A couple of reasons: when Australian commentator Greg Clark once asked co-commentator and former Waratahs and Wallabies hooker Phil Kearns who his favourite halfback had been in his playing career, he replied “no one likes halfbacks Clarky”. Right he was. Halfbacks are loud, angry and annoying; like little Jack Russell’s they’re always yapping away and making a nuisance of themselves. Hey halfbacks, we get it, you’re small. It doesn’t mean you have to make enough noise for a bloke three times your size! That said, I have never had a moment where I considered punting Nick Phipps off the landing of our building, whereas the thought of doing that to our neighbour’s Jack Russell has crossed my mind a few times.

Last year TJ Perenara led all Super Rugby players in the try scoring stakes. Which is a large part of why he ranked as the highest #9 in the player rankings this year. But I’m not going near him. You’ll inevitably have to overpay to get him and if he scores 10 tries again this year I will offer to look after our neighbour’s Jack Russell the next time they go on holiday and take it out to pee and crap on the five coldest nights of the year. As the dog invariably wakes up the whole building in the process.

Some halfbacks have the knack for scoring tries, but ultimately a lot of it comes down to a bit of luck. Which is why I am quite sure Perenara won’t score another 10 tries this year. Plus, for all that, he only scored 10 more FRD points throughout the season than Will Genia and 20 more than Augustine Pulu. They’re 20 points worth having, but it’s very hard to predict. Take away four tries say, and he’s right back to the field.

Last year I drafted Aaron Smith reasonably early on as he had one of the highest points per game averages for halfbacks the previous season. He promptly put up 74.9 points last year. Far from apologising for the pictures of his junk he was texting all over Dunedin, I think he owed his FRD owners an apology. So I’m not going to waste a high or even middle draft pick on a halfback; I’ll wait very late in the draft and take the best that falls to me. Likewise with my lock.

So far as loose forwards go, the best value this year might come with guys who are the designated caboose in the back of a rolling maul. David Pocock scored three tries in one game doing that last year. While it might not equate to much in terms of running metres, assuming he has a similar role this year, it marks Pocock out as a loose forward of real value. Likewise Marcel Coetzee of the Sharks. My advice, however, would be to watch the preseason games and see who takes that role for the different teams.

Generally speaking, it should be a fruitful job in terms of meat pies for the players concerned.

Early doors

Clearly you don’t want to go into the draft with too rigid a plan. You have to be flexible and roll with the punches, but some preparation and a strategy is most definitely in order. Otherwise, you might end up with the Super Rugby equivalent of Andy Dalton as your flyhalf.

For what it’s worth, I think you need to grab a flyhalf in the first or second round, and then just load up on outside backs and, to a lesser extent, midfielders. The simple fact is you have to play three outside backs every week and aside from flyhalf, it is generally the highest scoring position. Four of the top ten scorers in FRD last year were outside backs, including three of the top four. Five were flyhalves.

If you don’t get a flyhalf in the early rounds, your best bet in the middle rounds might be guys like Ihaia West or Peter Grant, the former Stormers veteran (and seventh highest scorer in the history of Super Rugby) who has followed the well-trodden path of many South Africans and moved to Western Australia, signing on with the Western Force. Really those guys are just decent back-ups so you’re better to get in early on a number 10.

One outside back who has scored heavily in recent years who may suffer a little by comparison this year is Nemani Nadolo. He finished as the fourth highest point scorer in Super Rugby last year, even though he missed three rounds. This year, however, he’ll be playing in a Crusaders team with a backline about as potent as the New Zealand Air Force. In basketball terms, Nadolo is a guy who can get his own shot to some degree ie he can be effective even in a poor team. It could go two ways this year for Nadolo: either the Crusaders look to get him the ball at every opportunity simply because they have few other effective attacking options and he scores heavily. Or they simply can’t get him the ball and the oppositions defence keys totally on him and his production goes well down. It will depend on where he goes in the draft of course, but I won’t be seeking him out. Israel Dagg is an interesting proposition for the Crusaders. Will be respond to his dropping from the All Blacks squad with a great comeback season, or continue to fade from view? Again, I won’t be seeking him out.

But whomever you go for, you have to have a plan in place. Whether you bring along a laptop or a tablet or you’re more of a paper guy, either way, you should have some reference material marked up with the guys you want to take, those you want to avoid, and the players who are likely to be around when you have draft picks. You might get called a nerd or something, and there is probably some merit to the comment. But remember when Sonny Bill Williams went back to the NRL with the Sydney Roosters and used to bring a notebook to meetings to, you know, take notes, he was mocked by his teammates as well. I can only imagine they were even more surprised when he started writing down key points from the meeting given the last time most of those guys saw a Warwick 2B4 exercise book was when they were tearing pages out of one to make paper airplanes in geography class during their stellar academic careers. As the saying goes: “You should always be yourself. Unless you can be Sonny Bill. Then you should be Sonny Bill.”

Value is key. But what is value?

Last year Daniel Carter was drafted in the sixth round of one of my leagues. Given the last sight many saw of him was him winning the man of the match award in the RWC final, that may seem crazy. But you must remember Carter wasn’t guaranteed of his place in the Crusaders, let alone the All Blacks at that stage. Or even if he played, was he going to be the first choice goalkicker?

He eventually was and finished the season the twelfth highest scorer in FRD. That equates to great value. Nehe Milner-Skudder was even better; he was drafted in the fifth round and finished eleventh. That’s even better.

But what is value? It’s a bit of an abstract concept. A Chinese businessman will probably pay more for a blowjob in a London strip club than a Scottish guy would pay for a car. There is a difference between cost and value. So how do you define value?
It is in the eye of the beholder to some degree. If I told you a smoking hot lass was going out with a chunky looking guy with a face that looks like it’s been beaten off the pavement a few times and his ears were all messed up, you’d think, what the hell is she with him for? But if I told you that guy was an All Black prop, you would likely think, ok, that make sense. In FRD it is some sort of sliding scale involving what you paid for a player (ie where you draft him) and the points you get back in return.

It’s also worth remembering that although FRD puts you more in the role of a coach/manager than any other fantasy games out there, some great rugby players aren’t always the best FRD players. Perhaps the greatest player of them all, recently retired All Blacks captain Richie McCaw wasn’t a great play in fantasy. Useful enough guy to have in your actual team though. I would look at it like this. In 2015, the second biggest selling song in the UK was ‘Cheerleader’ by Omi. This should be considered an insult to the sensibilities of every person in the UK. To call the song absurd is a vast understatement. It sounds like it is written by an eight-year old. For a start, the guy is glad he has found a “cheerleader”, by which he effectively means a girlfriend. So why not say “I’ve found myself a girlfriend”? Maybe he is trying to be sort of poetic or something, but I think the truth is he just can’t rhyme another word with “girlfriend”. This song was the second highest selling single in the UK in 2015 (behind the equally annoying ‘Uptown Funk’. But while I am no Mark Ronson or Bruno Mars fan, I can accept they are somewhat talented). Don’t bother to learn Omi’s name because he will never be heard from again, but he managed to outsell vastly more talented artists who put out infinitely better songs in 2015.

It’s a depressing thought, but going by 2015 UK sales, an Omi on your roster is more valuable than a Dave Grohl, Kanye West or Sir Paul McCartney. So to banish that depressing thought, I suggest you get planning your draft party. As an extra pick-you-up, even though they break the ‘one syllable food’ rule, you can also stock up on sausage rolls. If you don’t like sausage rolls, you probably like Omi.

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