A man of my vintage should probably never admit this, but I think about what I would do if I was a professional rugby player every now and then. Kind of sadly, I’m beyond imagining what it must be like to have young ladies gagging to make your acquaintance on a night out. But I sometimes imagine different scenarios and think of how I might react. One such situation is where a player from New Zealand (NZ) has decided to throw his lot in with NZ rugby and try his luck overseas, thereby ruling himself out of ever playing for the All Blacks, or ever playing for them again. Invariably players in this situation go on about it being all about a new challenge and trying new things and living in a different culture and experiencing a different style of play and so on and so forth. Bollocks to that. It’s bullshit. I would come right and say: “I’m going there for the money.”
No need to deliver false platitudes about your new teammates and the culture you can’t wait to throw yourself into. I would be like: “I’m going to play for London Irish, a struggling club based in Reading. They’re not even in London. Do you know where Reading is? It’s an hour by train from London, and yet somehow seems 500 miles away from anything decent. Slough is just down the road for heaven’s sake. In fact, that’s where my flat is going to be. A town that poet Sir John Betjeman suggested should be bombed to smithereens. In our most well attended home games, I’ll be playing in front of a half empty football stadium. Most weeks, there’ll be way more empty seats than filled ones. I’m sure my new teammates are good blokes, but I’m going to play for London Irish because they are paying me a shedload of cash.”
Simple, honest, and something you will never hear out of the mouth of a professional rugby player. Because, if it’s a challenge they really want, they’d be playing Fantasy Rugby Draft, Aviva Premiership edition.
New challenge. Tougher challenge
I have been playing Fantasy Rugby Draft since its inception. In fact, to take you behind the curtain a little bit, I was actually part of the testing season. That’s right. In the words of Ron Burgundy: I’m kind of a big deal. I don’t like to talk about it much, but I won my Fantasy Rugby Draft league in 2014. Sadly, I kind of feel like I’ll still be talking about that victory 10 years from now like English people bang on about the glorious victory in the 1966 Football World Cup, because I won’t have won anything in between times. But still, win it I did. So that victory (that glorious, glorious victory) and the experience I have garnered over the years playing Fantasy Rugby Draft, leaves me well placed to say, playing FRD Aviva Premiership is the biggest challenge in fantasy rugby. Nay, fantasy sports in their entirety!
I may have gotten a little carried away there. But certainly, it’s going to be more of a challenge than its Super Rugby version. Why do I say that? In the words of DMX: “let’s add up all the factors”. For one thing, there are only 12 teams, which means only 12 starting flyhalves every week and 10 teams in your league. You don’t have to be Adam Smith to understand how that supply and demand equation could be problematic. On top of that, there are no byes. An additional wrinkle is the autumn international window (end of year tours for those in the southern hemisphere) and Six Nations. Unlike in the southern hemisphere, clubs play on international weekends, albeit shorn of their England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy players. So the best players, ie the international stars, might not deliver the best value for your Fantasy Rugby Draft team. Somewhat more nuanced, but also to be considered, is the imaginatively named European Rugby Champions Cup and European Rugby Challenge Cup (effectively the former Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup). The top players will most definitely play in those encounters, but therein lies another problem, as many clubs will rest their top players for a week in their domestic competition ahead of or following a big European clash. And finally, there’s the changing seasons. The Aviva Premiership kicks off in September (3rd this year) and goes on for 22 rounds. Compare that with 17 rounds in Super Rugby, during which each team has two bye weeks. Aside from attrition, it means the Aviva Premiership season kicks off in reasonable weather, goes through a wet, muddy and cold period in the middle, and emerges out into decent weather again at the end. Because of that, teams will change up their style as the season wears on; passing the ball around like mediocre rap singers pass around Kylie Jenner isn’t likely to be very easy playing Leicester in a bog at Welford Road in mid-January, with the resultant effect on the level of scoring you can expect from your Fantasy Rugby Draft team.
A top #10 key to being #1
So what’s it all about this Fantasy Rugby Draft then? Simply put, in terms of fantasy rugby, it’s the closest fantasy sports can get to managing a team. Unlike salary cap type games, where you just accumulate points throughout the season, in Fantasy Rugby Draft you play against another manager every week and it’s your win/loss record that dictates whether you make the playoffs come the business end of the season. Plus, in salary cap leagues, generally everyone has the same three or four top players in their team. In Fantasy Rugby Draft only one manager can have any one player. Obviously this would cause a massive scrap over the top players, which is why players are allocated, or selected, via a draft. Which is where the real fun can come in.
In good leagues, draft day should be the best day of the fantasy season. At that point you’re not worried about how you’re going to going to fill the second midfield slot with a bench ravaged by injury, you’re hanging out with some mates, blowing the froth off of a few shandys, eating highly calorific foods and enjoying the banter, which is the only thing flowing more readily than beer and half-baked theories about which players are going to go well this year (although it’s worth noting, half of what is said at a draft party is probably someone blowing smoke up your arse). But, you had best be prepared, because once a player is selected, he’s gone and you have to find someone else to fill the place. On the bright side, the strength of your team is defined by the quality of the players you draft, relative to the other players in your league. There is no salary cap to worry about, so in that sense it is a bit like being Director of Rugby at Saracens, you just select the best players who are available when your time comes to make a selection.
So who are the best players? You probably should not ask me, I didn’t make the playoffs in any of the three leagues I was in for Super Rugby Fantasy Rugby Draft this year. But as I mentioned, I did win my league back in 1973, and I did so by basically picking players in as many different positions as possible who kick goals. Really, it was that simple. Fact is, goalkickers score more points than non-goalkickers, so the more you have in your team, the more it helps. Apologies for the Grant Nisbett-esqe statement of the blindingly obvious. But looking at the statistics from the Aviva Premiership last year in a Fantasy Rugby Draft context, some general patterns emerge.
One; a top level, competent goalkicking flyhalf is as vital to success as superior acting talent has been to Keanu Reeves’ success as an actor. Wait, that doesn’t work, as iconic a character as Johnny Utah is, Keanu couldn’t act his way out of a wet paper bag. That has a huge rip in the side of it. With a neon arrow pointing right at the rip saying “act your way out here”. Just believe me when I say you want a good goalkicking #10 in your team.
Aside from goalkickers, outside backs as a group are the highest scorers in the game. They score the most tries and from a Fantasy Rugby Draft perspective, pick up the most running metres. Thinking about it logically, most times a ball gets kicked downfield, even if the fullback or wing decides to kick it back, they often carry the ball forward for 10 metres or so before doing so; that’s good enough for one point in Fantasy Rugby Draft scoring. If they run in a try from 30 metres and beat a player while doing so, that’s nine points.
To emphasise the point, 11 of the top 15 would-be Fantasy Rugby Draft point scorers in the Aviva Premiership last year were outside backs. Just to show I’m not Fox News-like cherry-picking stats, 13 of the top 20 scorers were outside backs.
Interestingly, unlike Super Rugby, the stats show that in the Premiership, midfielders aren’t as prolific scorers. The top scoring midfielder in Fantasy Rugby Draft points last season was Phil Dollman of Exeter Chiefs and Sam Jones of Sale Sharks respectively. I doubt the adjective “immortal” is going to be used to describe either of those guys any time soon. To give them credit, they were ranked so highly because of their consistency, and also, it must be said, the amount of minutes they played. In itself that isn’t a bad thing, as Fantasy Rugby Draft podcaster Nathan Mossman is apt to say “sometimes a player’s best ability is his availability”. However, you should maybe question whether they’re likely to go through the season uninjured again. On average, they only scored 11.3 and 10.3 points per 80 minutes. In Super Rugby, the top midfielders routinely average 15. Compare those averages with Manu Tuilagi, who played far less games due to injury and suspension, but when he did play averaged 18.6 points per 80 minutes. That is the sort of production it’s worth taking an early flier on in your draft, even though Manu is likely to miss time with international commitments. History suggests injury will lead to him missing some games as well, and also given his past, a stint in the clink shouldn’t be totally dismissed out of hand.
Other anomalies at their positions were loose forwards Nathan Hughes of Wasps and Thomas Waldrom of Exeter. Both scored 253 FRD points last season at pretty decent averages per 80 mins (16.3 and 14.3 respectively), so could prove difference makers in their positions because the next highest scoring loose forward is Northampton’s Teimana Harrison on 190, albeit in considerably less minutes (ave 12.9/80mins). Waldrom ended up coming off the bench for the Chiefs at the end of the season, so buyer beware there, and Hughes has now qualified for England so might be involved in the international season, which would affect his value. Certainly England like a big, ball carrying number eight, like incumbent Billy Vunipola, Ben Morgan, and Waldrom (actually being English is less of a priority for the selectors), so he could well be in consideration.
But Hughes and Waldrom do illustrate what you should be looking for in players in your FRD team. In the financial sector they call it “arbitrage”, but more simply they score relatively more points than others in their position. Billy Vunipola would be another option if he played more. He averaged 16 points per 80 minutes, but only scored 142 in total because he played just over half the minutes of Hughes and Waldrom.
Harlequins Jack Clifford could be a difference maker this year, particularly if Hughes comes into the England set-up. Clifford is unlikely to be an England starter, so there is a chance Hughes may be considered a better impact prospect on the bench for England than Clifford and thus see Clifford released for Quins duty. Working against this is James Haskell’s injury. If he is in the squad he provides some versatility in the loose forwards, with him out, Clifford may be preferred on the bench. But Clifford no longer has Nick Easter to compete against for game time at The Stoop so could score well this season.
Scowls to tries ratio – 25:1
One guy who I am convinced will be a difference maker at his position, even though he is an international player, indeed, his country’s captain, is Scotland and Gloucester halfback Grieg Laidlaw. Going back to my earlier point, Laidlaw is a goalkicker. He’s not a great runner, and likely won’t blow up the stat sheet with running metres or defenders beaten, but even if he kicks a couple of penalties and a conversion in a game, that’s eight points right there. Throw in a few points elsewhere, and it’s a solid week to week performance for a halfback. If points were also given for the number of scowls per 80 minutes then Laidlaw would be a world beater. Interestingly though, at 12.2, Laidlaw wasn’t the highest average points per 80 scoring halfback, that was Wasps’ Dan Robson. Robson will likely be stuck in a job share with Joe Simpson still, which will affect his value too. The third halfback worth considering is a guy I’ve tried to pick on my teams for a number of years in Super Rugby. That being South African Francois Hougaard, who now plays at Worcester.
Hougaard is a running halfback, which means additional points, but also might have a game or two on the wing (his Fantasy Rugby Draft position is halfback, so no matter the number on the back of his jersey from game to game, he scores points as a halfback) which will help with scoring. Unlike most #9s he doesn’t get subbed every game; instead at the end of the game he is often shifted to the wing. Again, good for Fantasy Rugby Draft owners.
So far as second rows go, it’s about just picking up what you can. One potential difference maker would be Maro Itoje, because he carries, turns over ball, steals line outs, drives the team bus, polishes everyone’s boots and even cleans up the black rubber pellets from Saracens artificial pitch off the floor of the changing room after games. On a more personal note, all media are required to mention Itoje in every article they write or television piece they do these days, so to try and be taken more seriously as a commentator I too have mentioned him here. He’s got to do something about that hair though. Seriously Maro, either go Michael Jordan total shaved to the skin or cornrows, assuming an afro would be a bit difficult to manage in a scrum.
Another source of “arbitrage” that often pays big dividends in Fantasy Rugby Draft is when a player is listed as a lock but ends up playing loose forward. Them doing so obviously implies they are a more athletic player than most second rows (admittedly like being the toughest guy in a Masters in Computer Programming class) so coupled with the requirements of the position, such players are far more likely to pick up run metres. Michael Fitzgerald of Leicester Tigers might be one such option; he played a lot of blindside flanker last year although didn’t score especially heavily. Perhaps Courtney Lawes might be another, although one assumes he will be away on England duty a fair amount and you don’t get points for tackles on people who don’t actually have the ball.
As I’ve said, Fantasy Rugby Draft is the closest that any fantasy game can come to replicating managing an actual team, so not unlike in real life, in Fantasy Rugby Draft the workings of the front row is a bit of a mystery to most people. In Super Rugby, the Hurricanes are far and away the most effective front row in the game, essentially because of one man, hooker Dane Coles. He may infuriate a friend of mine because he wears his socks down around his ankles and generally speaks to referees like most people speak to stray cats that get into their rubbish bins, but his running game is second to none for a hooker. Applying that same logic to the Aviva Premiership, Tigers and Saracens are standout front rows, in the former case largely due to Harry Thacker’s running game. Even if Tom Youngs comes back this year, he has a running game that should earn his owners points as well.
Sarries also have a two-headed monster at hooker, with Schalk Brits and Jamie George both pretty effective with the ball tucked under their arms. Saracens also have Mako Vunipola’s running game and ability to turn ball over to help accumulate points. It is best to keep in mind that players lose a point for conceding penalties, so you don’t want to pick a front row that come scrum time gets rogered more routinely than Lindsey Lohan. Furthermore, players lose seven points for yellow cards (and 15 for red), so if they habitually wind up bent in two in the scrums, they can really start to cost your team. Because of that, and the lack of options (with only 12 teams to choose from), I advocate drafting a front row earlier than I would in Super Rugby, where I generally draft a front row last.
Super Rugby v Aviva Premiership: not the same
But back to the most important position in your Fantasy Rugby Draft team, flyhalf. One of the biggest differences between Fantasy Rugby Draft for Super Rugby and the Aviva Premiership is the best way to manage the flyhalf positions. Because of the absence of byes in the Premiership and the absence of international players during the autumn international season and Six Nations, I think the best approach is to handcuff your #10s. Not in a way that Paris Hilton might be familiar with, by that I mean carrying both of a team’s flyhalf options in your team.
In Super Rugby generally you pick a number one flyhalf and then a back-up to deploy when your starter is either rested, injured or on a bye. In the Premiership byes are not a concern so one of team’s flyhalves is going to start every week. By covering both options, barring an injury crisis or the very rare occasion where the number three flyhalf gets some game time, you’ll have someone starting every week. It is crucial said player is a goalkicker as well. To that end, the best looking flyhalf combinations this year are Danny Cipriani and Jimmy Gopperth at Wasps and the Quins pairing of Nick Evans and Ruaridh Jackson. Cipriani may be included in the England squad, but I doubt it, and Jackson may get picked for Scotland, but Evans will likely be the number one anyway. Evans’ injury history is a minor concern but anyone who incorporates an air wank into their pre-kick routine is worth taking a chance on in my view.
Freddie Burns and Owen Williams of Tigers are also good options, with Burns actually the highest ranked player in Fantasy Rugby Draft’s draft rankings this year. He wasn’t the highest points scorer last year, however. That was Gareth Steenson of Exeter Chiefs. Personally, I would steer clear of Steenson. Last year was a bit of a perfect storm for him in that Henry Slade got injured and Chiefs finished second in the table and went on to make the final. If you look at his average points per game total, it (16) was respectable, but less than Burns (20.4), Evans (17.4), Mike Delaney (16.9), Gopperth (19.5), Farrell (20) and Ben Botica (23.6).
Steenson will also have Slade back competing for playing time in the #10 shirt which is great for Exeter, but less for Fantasy Rugby Draft owners and frankly, one wonders whether Steenson’s peak might be behind him, not unlike Bruce Springsteen. While the Boss can still churn out the odd good tune about a down on his luck kid who has lost his job and girlfriend’s daddy doesn’t like him, it’s nothing to rival “The River” or “Born to Run”.
It is a big year for Slade, coming back from injury and no doubt keen to remain in the England fold. A good season will also see him move up the rankings of famous bearers of the name ‘Slade’. Currently he sits behind the band that produced that painful “Merry Christmas Everybody” song that gets played ad nausem every festive season. As an aside, about the worst thing about Christmas is the various Christmas pop songs that get played every year; Cliff Richard, Paul McCartney, Wham, it seems like everyone’s in on it and they’re mostly awful. Give me a traditional Christmas song any day, unless it’s “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues and Kristy McCall: “You’re a bum, you’re a punk. You’re an old slut on junk….”, that feels like Christmas to me.
That aside, Slade’s enduring fame probably sees it still in the number one slot. Two Rugby World Cup winners medals has Colin Slade at number two, with Jimmy Slade, World Champion surfer Kelly Slater’s van dwelling character in Baywatch at three (speaking of not being able to act one’s way out of a wet paper bag: “it’s like when a big wave’s coming, and you try to get it before it gets you”). A sound season will see him leap frog Jimmy Slade into third position.
I suppose you could say goalkicking flyhalves are like the guys who get ridiculously hot girls because they are rich, the Bernie Ecclestone types. Whereas outside backs are the guys who do well with the ladies because they are good looking and/or charming. It’s easier to look at the latter and say, fair play, it is what it is. With the former, it feels a bit like someone’s cheating the system. A goalkicking flyhalf will be a top point scorer as a function of their role, not necessarily because they’re the best player. It’s a lesson worth bearing in mind, because the best goalkicking flyhalf in the Premiership is Owen Farrell (he’s also one of the most prolific divers, but thankfully such behaviour is not rewarded in Fantasy Rugby Draft), but he is, or should be a long way from the first player chosen. As with Steenson.
But as a position, none powers your Fantasy Rugby Draft team more than outside backs. As I mentioned, not only do they generally score the most points, but you also have to start three each week. So you not only need good ones, you need a lot. I would advocate at least five on your 17 man Fantasy Rugby Draft squad; but whichever, you need to prioritise them in your draft. Amongst those I think you should target is Alex Goode, Saracens’ fullback.
The Premiership’s player of the year last year is amongst leaders in run metres and is a very consistent player, average 21.8 points per 80 minutes. Many in the English rugby media are clamouring for him to be included in the England starting XV ahead of Mike Brown. However, if team selection continues as it is currently, with Brown starting and Goode in the wider squad but usually left out of the matchday squad, he could be an Fantasy Rugby Draft stud this year. I also suspect he might fill in at flyhalf at times when Farrell is unavailable, which may eat into his running metres, but will likely be supplemented by goalkicking points.
Another Saracens outside back is also expected to go well this year; winger Sean Maitland. He had a forgettable season with London Irish this year, but playing in a dominant team, as Saracens undoubtedly will be, he could be mustard. One downside is that if he does indeed perform well, he will likely be back in the Scotland team and thus miss some games, but frankly with Sarries squad depth, that might happen anyway, as they have at least three capable performers on wing – Maitland, Chris Ashton and US Eagle international Chris Wyles.
Other outside backs to keep an eye on I think are Telusa Veainu at Tigers, Semesa Rokoduguni at Bath and Bryce Heem with Worcester.
Jack Nowell at Exeter also scored at a good clip last year (19.8 per 80 minutes) but I expect he will miss significant time with England this year, and to be honest, I have my concerns about a lot of the Chiefs squad from an Fantasy Rugby Draft perspective. Many of them had good end of season points totals last year, but as with Dollman and Steenson it was more about consistency than a high point output per game. That doesn’t always translate from year to year. Also, and I hope I’m wrong here, I wonder whether the Chiefs might be set to slip back to the pack this year. They have a young squad and are well coached so there isn’t really a good reason for it, it’s just a feeling. I mean, when Shannon Elizabeth was parading around Jim’s bedroom and masturbating on his bed in “American Pie” everything looked good for her to have a successful run, but it turns out it was the highpoint of her career. I don’t think many blokes would be unhappy seeing more of that, but sometimes with all the will in the world, you just can’t keep a good thing going. Looking at it another way, it’s a bit like the age-old question: do only a-holes drive white vans, or is there something about white vans that makes their drivers a-holes? Are Exeter’s players good point scorers because of the team’s consistency, or is the team good because of the player’s consistency? As I say, I wouldn’t be loading up heavily on Chiefs.
What I would suggest loading up on is your favourite beer, chicken wings, pizza and given it’s the English premiership we are talking about here, maybe some pigs in blankets, to make your draft day memorable.