Remember that scene at the end of Dirty Dancing, when Jonny has defied the orders of the Kellerman’s Resort hierarchy and he and Baby have danced the last dance of the summer to Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “The time of my life”, and Baby’s father, Dr Houseman (the late Jerry Orbach) realises that it wasn’t Jonny (the late, great Patrick Swayze) who had slipped one past the goalie and got Penny pregnant? In fact, Jonny was taking responsibility when he really didn’t need to. So in an admirable show of humility, Dr Houseman approaches the 20-something year old guy that has been banging his 16 year old daughter most of the summer and explains that he realises that it “wasn’t you (ie Jonny/Swayze) that got Penny in trouble”. Given that Jonny wasn’t overly moved by the admission, he follows up with: “when I’m wrong I say I’m wrong”. Baby gushes that her Dad now approves of her summer romance with the guy who has been not-so-quietly shagging his way around the resort’s moneyed MILFs for years on end. You know, because as a father, you generally tend to look past the fact that a much older guy with no real prospects in life has taken advantage of your young, naïve daughter when you see that said guy can cut some mean shapes. It’s just the way life works.
Anyway, I don’t remember it, because needless to say I haven’t seen the movie. Dirty Dancing?! I’ll take Rambo blowing up half of Vietnam or The Terminator blowing up half of LA any day. But, let’s suppose for a moment I had seen Dirty Dancing, or someone had explained the premise to me. I would then be in a position, like Dr Houseman, to realise, and admit, that I was wrong.
When I’m wrong, I also say I’m wrong.
For a few years now I have been banging on about the merits, nay, necessity of drafting a roster of try scoring outside backs and an elite flyhalf in order to win your Fantasy Rugby Draft (FRD) league. But unlike Red in “The Shawshank Redemption”, I have been rehabilitated, and am prepared to admit that this line of thinking is not the way to the title. It certainly hasn’t been for me in recent years. So instead, my approach this time around, is a plan I’ll call “difference makers”.
A plan so cunning…
The basic premise is to pick players who are superior at their position, or outliers, rather than those in positions like outside back or flyhalf, that traditionally score the highest in FRD. Which is not to say you should turn your back on outside backs and flyhalves completely. If you can get your hands on Damien McKenzie, by far the highest points scorer and highest average points scorer in FRD last year, you’d be a fool not to take him. Even if I think that McKenzie’s points per game (ppg) average of an incredible 29.8 will revert at least somewhat back towards the mean this year. But consider this: the top 19 outside backs in FRD last year averaged over 15 points. So are you better off drafting an outside back that might average 17ppg, which scores you around four points extra per week than the 35th ranked OB, or better taking a player like Jaco Kriel as one of your loose forwards, who averages five points better each week than the 10th ranked loose forward, and 10 points more than the average loose forward?
While Jonny capitalised on the desperation of many of the dissatisfied trophy wives at Kellerman’s each summer to get his averages up, he also realises an outlier like a bored 16 year old like Baby when he sees one. And in life, anytime you can do as Swayze would do, good things will generally happen.
So who are these outliers to target? Well, one of them is definitely not a guy I recommended targeting last year: Japanese Rugby World Cup hero Ayumu Goromaru. There are two simple reasons for this: a) he is no longer with the Reds, and b) he is rubbish.
Goromaru fitted the bill of a big points scorer in FRD. An outside back who was also a goal kicker. But when you’re pretty terrible at one of those things and scarcely average at the other, it’s all for nothing. Even in an ordinary Reds team who started a guy who was waiting tables in Fiji a couple of years ago in more or less every game, Goromaru rarely featured. When he did, he didn’t score. He only scored over 10 points in a FRD week twice, and five times scored zero points or negative points. But fear not, he is still one of the highest earning rugby players in the world. Which he gets a lot of time to ponder while sitting in his nice Toulon suit and tie while sitting in the stands of the Stade Mayol watching his teammates play. I suppose you can say he’s consistent.
So if outside back and flyhalf are generally considered the two key positions in FRD, in what other positions can you look pick up stand-out players that can really give you a leg-up? It’s about as helpful as Baby carrying a watermelon (again, never seen the movie. Just read the synopsis on IMDB) to say most others, but three positions you might think would score heavily but generally don’t, are midfield, scrumhalf and loose forward.
Keep it loose
Kieran Read: All Black captain, double RWC winner, former World Rugby “Player of the Year”. By any measure, a pretty handy player. Yet even though FRD reflects what happens on the pitch better than any other fantasy rugby game, Read isn’t a prolific scorer. He isn’t the worst either, averaging just under 10ppg but only scored over 15 points twice all last season. Winding up with him is fine, but to find a difference maker, taking the aforementioned Kriel early on in your draft will not only shake things up, he can win you a couple of game weeks on his own. One note of caution, he did have a concussion or two last season, so something to be aware of.
It is almost impossible to not be aware of Ardie Savea on the field. On top of trying to bring back David Tua’s hairstyle from when he fought Lennox Lewis in 2000. In my book, that counts for something., the guy is just 80 minutes of balls to the wall action every week. There are not too many loose forwards who are a chance to go 80 metres and score on any given week, but he is one. He scored four tries last year and is every chance to do better than that this year and even ‘only’ scoring four tries, he still averaged 15.2ppg. Which, funnily enough, was exactly half of his brother’s body fat percentage at the start of last season (although if a picture I saw on Twitter before Christmas is anything to go by, it will be much lower this year. A Julian Savea bounce-back year might be very much on the cards). He also picks up points for turnovers and offloads and on top of all that, as former All Black and former All Black coach Earle Kirton might say, is “hellishly exciting” to watch. In any form of fantasy there is something to be said for having guys in your team you like watching. Plus, the guy strikes a passing resemblance to The Rock, to the point that the man himself even acknowledged it on Twitter. In my book, that counts for something.
Another loose forward that really made strides last year and stands to have another good season is Jaguares and Argentina number eight Facundo Isa. A tireless ball carrier, he also scored four tries last season, while averaging a healthy 13.6ppg and scoring over 20 points four times. He really seemed to warm into his work too, averaging 22.7ppg over his last four game weeks. His form was carried over into the international season, so hopefully after a bit of rest in the off-season, he is ready to pick up in 2017 where he left off in 2016.
Other guys to look to draft early are the Waratahs’ indestructible action man Michael Hooper, Rebels’ Sean McMahon and Lions’ Warren Whiteley. Like I have my doubts that Jonny’s triumphant last dance led onto any sort of meaningful success in life after the end of Dirty Dancing, or indeed a long and fulfilling relationship with Baby (Seriously, haven’t seen the movie. A female work colleague just told me about it), I’m not sure Whiteley’s game translates to international rugby, but he is a force to be reckoned with in Super Rugby for sure.
Stuck in the middle with…?
Midfield, more than any other, is probably the position you would expect to score far more heavily in FRD than it actually does, last year averaging just 9.1ppg. Oddly, in FRD Aviva Premiership (which you can still sign up for and play out the season), midfielders score even lower generally speaking than in Super Rugby. But that aside, midfielders generally score less tries and run for significantly less metres than outside backs. There are a few that stand out from the crowd as giving you a leg up in your match up each week though.
To be honest, I generally try to avoid backs with tape around their head like I try to avoid girls named after a city or an alcoholic beverage. But in Reece Hodge’s case, I’m prepared to make an exception. He is listed as a midfielder in the game, but will likely also play as an outside back at some stage. Hodge in FRD is a bit like David Spade in a sense. Spade is C list celebrity who is probably all of 5’2” and 45kg and seems to be the death knell for pretty much every TV series he ever appears in. And yet, if there is a week where Taylor Swift hasn’t broken up with anyone, Justin Bieber has not been arrested and Kanye West hasn’t had some form of meltdown and Spade makes it into the pages of some trashy celebrity gossip magazine, he’ll inevitably have a six foot model on his arm. By the same token, Hodge looks a little ungainly and you’re often not quite sure how, but you look at his points haul at the end of the week and you have to tip your hat to him. He did seem to have the knack of scoring tries in his debut Super Rugby season (nine) and if not an accurate goalkicker, he can certainly bang them over from distance. If that translates into an extra six FRD points on a given week it can easily make an ordinary haul a very handy one indeed.
It’s been a number of years since I’ve been excited about the potential for a Crusaders midfielder, let alone one that has been recruited, but Seta Tamanivalu is a chance to really light up the competition this year. While he struggled in his first year and a half in Super Rugby and by extension FRD (burning me egregiously in the process, but I’m ready to get back on that horse), towards the end of last season he came charging home like a bull that’s spent months out to pasture. His ppg average of 15.8 was padded by a couple of big performances, but you know what, everyone forgets very quickly that Baby didn’t do the lift in the performance at the Mandrake. What they remember is the climatic final scene. Outside Ryan Crotty and Richie Mo’unga I expect Tamanivalu to enjoy a stellar season.
The prince of midfielders so far as FRD goes though, will surely be the Reds Samu Kerevi. As sure as Jennifer Grey’s career was totally in the tank a few years after Dirty Dancing, you can bet that Kerevi will put up well north of the 9.1ppg average for midfield backs. At times last season he looked unstoppable (21.1ppg) and even in a Reds team that will likely be ordinary again this season, Kerevi will have at least a couple of games that will leave you scratching your head. Or high fiving everyone in sight if he is in your FRD team.
One guy I will be a little weary of drafting, certainly early on, is the Chiefs Anton Leinart-Brown (ALB). On the surface, he looks primed for a big season, as the twin departures of Sonny Bill Williams and the aforementioned Tamanivalu will seemingly provide him with considerably more opportunities than last season. But Sonny Bill was playing sevens last year and didn’t feature for the Chiefs at all, and Charlie Ngati spent much of the season injured. So ALB’s chances weren’t as curtailed last season as you might have thought. And he didn’t score that heavily in a Chiefs team that was an offensive juggernaut at times. On top of that, after his brilliant debut season for the All Blacks, you can expect a lot of players will be all in on ALB and look to snap him up early in the draft. Too early in my view. He might end up having a good FRD season but you will almost invariably end up overpaying for him.
No half measures
A high scoring halfback can really be a huge advantage in FRD. I in part rode Brumbies halfback Nic White to an FRD title in 2014 (I don’t like to talk about it much). While White is now playing for Jake White at French club Montpellier, the reason he was valuable back then was his prodigious goal kicking. With no such options at #9 this season, two guys stand out as real potential difference makers at the position: Martin Landajo of the Jaguares and TJ Perenara of the defending champion Hurricanes.
I was pretty big on the Jaguares players last year, so effectively wound up with a considerable amount of egg on my face. Perhaps even more galling than the Jaguares disappointing en masse was being reminded about my erroneous prediction every second week by FRD podcast co-host Nathan Mossman. But one Argentinian who didn’t disappoint last season was Jaguares scrum half Landajo. The highest average ppg for a #9 in FRD last year (11.5), there is no reason why he shouldn’t score well again this year. I expect the Jaguares will fare better this year, with the experience of last year under their collective belts, which should also help Landajo. He scored six tries last year, but also scores pretty consistently in terms of running metres. [Editor’s note: the news regarding Landajo’s injury and three month lay-off broke after the article was written. As good as he was in FRD last year, he is not worth waiting three months for (trust me, this is coming from a guy who is still waiting for Francois Hougaard to make an impact for Worcester in the Aviva Premiership), so do not draft him. If you do, you’ll be like the Kellerman’s waiting for Jonny to dance the Pachanga as the last dance of the summer: waiting and expecting doesn’t mean that there is going to be any pay off. Let other people in your league make that mistake.]
Another scum half to look to nab early on is All Black Perenara. One prediction I did get correct last year was that Perenara would not repeat his efforts of the previous year and grab 10 tries again. He bagged six which is not bad going (coincidently Jonny’s weekly average at Kellerman’s). He also grabbed two more on the All Blacks end of year tour, which shows his try scoring is pretty consistent and predictable. Mostly because he knows the fat man’s track better than even the most seasoned of prop. His weekly average of 10 points was second among halfbacks, almost double the position average. I expect he will be pulling down a similar number this year and will have a couple of weeks where he really makes some hay.
Somewhat surprisingly, Waratahs halfback Nick Phipps came in as the third highest scoring scrumhalf in terms of total points last year, which leads me to assume players score big numbers of FRD points for whining and tackles on the opposition’s support staff. Closer inspection reveals Phipps numbers are more due to the sheer magnitude of minutes he played. His ppg average of 8.8 isn’t the worst, but it makes him just another player on your team, rather than a playa.
You win up front
I have said in the past you should draft a front row last. That premise was based upon the idea that front rows are essentially one and the same; as likely to give you negative points as they are score significantly. But the 2016 season has proven this not to be the case, at least in a couple of instances. The Lions and the Hurricanes front rows averaged 23.6 and 17.8ppg respectively last year. That is 13.9 and 8.1ppg better than the average for front rows, effectively giving you an extra player on your team each week. A mediocre player, but still.
The strength of the Lions front row scoring was consistency; while Malcolm Marx was the star, all the Lions’ fatties had their moments, and crucially they didn’t concede a lot of penalties.
The ‘Canes’ success is no secret; they live and die with Dane Coles. Not many hookers can score tries from 50 metres, but Coles is one. That is unlikely to change this year. Some regression is possible with the Lions, but having either of these front rows gives you a head start every week. I can’t advocate taking one in the first or even second round of your draft, but third round – absolutely. To be honest, maybe the second round isn’t too early.
While I have preached a Malcolm Gladwell-esqe strategy of drafting position outliers in your draft this year, as I mentioned earlier in the case of Damian McKenzie, if during your draft and a truly top-line outside back or flyhalf is available, take him. No need to overthink things. However, if you can nail a real difference maker early on, here are some guys who might be available a little later. Sefenaia Naivalu of the Rebels has blistering pace, which he used to good effect in scoring two tries on the Wallabies end of year tour.
Another Rebel, Tom English, could be a decent pick-up too. He averaged an impressive enough 13.9ppg last year and I expect similar production this year. One concern is a bit of competition at the Rebels but English is a handy enough player, and don’t get me started on those dreamy blue eyes of his. If he is your third or maybe even second outside back, that’s the FRD equivalent of a first world problem.
Dane Haylett-Petty also had a great debut season for the Wallabies, which may see him drafted very early on. If he slips into the third of fourth round though, he might offer good value. He doesn’t score a huge amount of tries (only three last year), most likely a product of playing for the Force, but he does pick up running metres like Dylan Hartley picks up yellow and red cards, which allowed him to average a very solid 16.1ppg last year. Not top tier amongst OBs, but if you get him a little later on he can be pretty serviceable. I definitely expect his try scoring to pick up this year as well.
Speaking of which, one of the strange narratives of last season was the hand-wringing when Crusaders winger Johnny McNicholl announced he would be leaving NZ rugby to play for the Llanelli Scarlets in Wales. Frankly the only thing I found more remarkable than the fact that McNicholl is apparently willing to move to Llanelli, is that he felt he needed to announce the news. It’s kind of like people who post photos of what they had for breakfast on Facebook. It’s entirely inconsequential to everyone else’s life, so why bother. Apparently I missed the moment that McNicholl turned into the second coming of John Kirwan, but from the reaction maybe that is understating it. McNicholl is a handy enough player, but not much more. His departure, and more concerning for the Crusaders that of Nemani Nadolo, leaves the wing positions pretty wide open for the Christchurch-based franchise. Filling one you assume will be new recruit Digby Ioane. No, not Reiko or even Akira Ioane, former Wallaby winger Digby. Not exactly an investment in youth and Ioane didn’t do an awful lot during his time at Stade Francais, but hopefully he can find some form for the Crusaders. I won’t be touching him with a 10-foot barge pole, but I do think his teammate Jone Macilai could be worth a shout. In largely part time duty he averaged 19.1ppg last year and should get many more opportunities this year. I suspect the average may come down slightly, but if the Crusaders backline of Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty, Tamanivalu and Israel Dagg click, Macilai could really make out like a bandit.
But whether you follow my advice on who you draft or not, make sure you do draft. I was unable to make the draft in one of my Aviva Premiership leagues and I have been behind the eight-ball all season. There is no substitute for being there and seeing how the draft is evolving, when you can make informed decisions based on who other people are drafting and decide whether it’s worth taking a punt on one of the “difference makers” I mention above, or want to stick with a more traditional draft strategy. Plus, drafting your league with your mates is a good time; why wouldn’t you want to be involved? So get together with the others in your league, grab a few beers and start drafting. You never quite know how the season is going to play out, but there is no reason why a draft party can’t be, in the words of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, the “time of your life”.
Ok, so I’ve seen the movie. And you know what, I liked it. It’s an ‘80s classic. The ‘Dirty Dancers’ might even be the name of my FRD team this year. They’ll be there on draft day. Will you?