I remember as a young lad thinking that the fairer sex were about the most complex creatures on earth. And I was right. However, as I got a bit older, at various points I thought I had finally figured them out. But it didn’t take long to realise once more that I had no idea; in fact knew precious little more as I approached 30 than I did as a 15 year old. Along the way as you talk to older blokes you realise they don’t have a freaking clue either, despite the fact that a few will tell you things like: “the secret to women is…”, or, “see, so long as you do X, you’ll be right as rain.” Bollocks. At least now when I’m copping it from the missus I never tell myself that one of these days I will have her sussed out and never be on the end of such a tongue-lashing again. It’s like life in Fiji. Many days it’s idyllic with sun shining and waves gently lapping white sand beaches. But every now and then a tropical cyclone hits and all you can do is baton down the hatches and try to ride it out.
The first season of Aviva Premiership Fantasy Rugby Draft (FRD) reminds me a bit of that. Everything we thought we knew heading into the season, admittedly based on knowledge informed from playing FRD in Super Rugby, really turned out to be incorrect. Well, not everything, but a lot.
International no-go zone
One assumption from this time last year that did prove correct was that international players couldn’t be counted on like they are in Super Rugby. However, to say we got this ‘correct’ would have been like saying “I don’t think Trump is a good choice to be President” prior to him taking office. Sure, he has proven that to be the case, but it’s such a vast understatement that it almost ceases to be a true statement.
While we thought the unavailability of international players during the November test window and the Six Nations in February-March would affect those players’ value, we, or I certainly never realised just how drastic the impact would be. Almost unbelievably, there was only one regular international player in the top 10 scorers in FRD last year, that being Harlequins and Scotland winger Tim Visser in seventh. This seems totally incongruous given that by very definition the international players are the best players generally speaking. Extrapolating further, there were only three in the top 20 scorers (Bath, now Leicester and England flyhalf George Ford and Quins and England fullback Mike Brown were the other two). Lions hero and Saracens and England flyhalf/midfielder Owen Farrell only finished in 92nd position in terms of total points. It should be noted his average points per game (PPG) of 19 was 20th best in FRD, but he only played 474 minutes in the Premiership due to a combination of England duties, injuries and being rested for games ahead of big European Cup matches. By contrast, Farrell’s understudy at Saracens Alex Lozowski was the sixth highest scorer in FRD, also at an impressive average of 19.9 PPG in playing 1,294 minutes; almost four times what Farrell managed. Not since Nomi Malone took over for Cristal Connors at the Stardust Hotel in the infamous movie ‘Showgirls’ has an understudy so vastly outshone the person they were supposedly second fiddle to. Fortunately Lozowski didn’t have to resort to shoving Farrell down some stairs to get his break like Nomi did. Well, that we know of. Farrell did miss some time last year with injury.
So is Lozowski a safe bet for a high pick this year? Probably, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. But this issue speaks to a wider one in the Premiership this year; uncertainty around the flyhalf position.
No perfect 10
Generally speaking in FRD Super Rugby edition we have seen over the years around five or six of the top 10 point scorers being flyhalves. Mostly for the simple reason that they are goalkickers. Except in the case of Beauden Barrett, which becomes a problem when you make him your first draft choice in two leagues. I knew he was a, shall we politely say, inconsistent kicker (something that was apparently a shock to a lot of people in the Lions series), but rationalised it by thinking he would still be kicking a lot of conversions for the high scoring Hurricanes team. Turns out he wasn’t kicking at all and as such, my seasons went down in flames. My bitterness aside, it highlights the need to have a goalkicker in your flyhalf position in FRD; even with Barrett racking up running metres and tries etc, carrying a non-goalkicking #10 ultimately cost me a spot in the playoffs. The problem I see this season is the uncertainty that surrounds the position at a number of Aviva Premiership clubs.
I’ve touched on Farrell and Lozowski at Saracens already (just to be clear, I’m not suggesting Lozowski is the better player or number one flyhalf at Sarries, just that it’s not evident who the best pick in FRD is, mostly from an availability standpoint), but the question can reasonably be asked who will start at Harlequins, Exeter, Northampton, Sale and Gloucester.
At Quins, you assume they’ve brought in Demetri Catrakilis to start, but frankly Tim Swiel showed me enough last year that I’d like to see him given a chance. Truth be told it seems like they’re both just keeping the jersey warm for Marcus Smith in the long run. It feels like Chiefs want Henry Slade to prove himself as the team’s starting #10, but for all Slade’s potential, they keep going back to the steadier Gareth Steenson, who captained the team in the Premiership final last year. There’s a similar situation at Saints, where you get the feeling Stephen Myler’s days are numbered but he also finished the season as the starter and when push comes to shove, it doesn’t seem like Saints are quite ready to throw their eggs in the Harry Mallinder basket (it should be noted that Mallinder is listed as a midfielder in FRD so could provide great value if he ends up starting at #10 and/or goalkicking. If not, he’s just a run of the mill midfielder in terms of FRD points (average PPG last season 9.4)). And what of former Blues star Piers Francis. He is at least an intriguing prospect. Intriguing enough for the mostly self-appointed ‘king of intrigue’, England coach Eddie Jones, to take a look at him on the recent England tour of Argentina. He certainly played pretty well for the Blues in recent years, so I have to think has every chance of nailing down a starting position at Franklin’s Gardens, in either the #10 or #12 shirt. Either way, Northampton have options, which makes it an uncertain situation for FRD managers, which is bad. The reason FRD managers don’t watch ‘Prime Minister’s questions’ is because they like certainty and the ability to make a decisive decision. And let’s be honest, watching Teresa May and Jeremy Corbyn change their minds and contradict themselves every five minutes is hardly gripping television [editor’s note: Piers Francis will miss the start of the season with a jaw injury]. Meanwhile, Sale presumably signed AJ MacGinty to be its starting flyhalf but he never quite nailed the position and Sam James ended up spending a lot of time there. Now they have James O’Connor coming in from a Paris street corner French Top 14 club Toulon, who is listed at flyhalf but could play all over the park. But do you really want to entrust your club’s or FRD team’s fortunes to O’Connor? Ali Williams will probably tell you O’Connor isn’t a man to be relied on; he might still be employed at Racing 92 if O’Connor had proved more adept as a look-out. And at Gloucester, Billy Burns had a pretty sound season last year, but will he start over the incoming former Leicester Tiger Owen Williams? I for one was surprised to see that Williams not only scored more points in total than Burns (202.8 v 179.1), but also at a slightly higher average (13.2 v 13.1). Perhaps that can be explained away as simply as Williams enjoyed playing in a more successful team at Tigers last season. A further curveball is the incoming Jason Woodward. He will almost invariably play wing or fullback rather than #10 but is a legitimate goalkicking option.
Given the lack of byes in the Aviva Premiership, handcuffing some of the players mentioned above is an option. A concept that O’Connor is certainly familiar with. You may get caught out a couple of times a year when the third stringer gets a run, but it should serve you adequately.
However, if you’re fortunate enough to be picking in one of the top draft slots, when it comes to flyhalves either Jimmy Gopperth or Freddie Burns should be taken. Gopperth is 34 and it seems inconceivable that he can have a better season than last year when he was the Premiership’s top point scorer, the top point scorer in FRD, the Premiership Player of the Year, the Rugby Players’ Association Player of the Year and Wasps Player of the Year. Hell, he even scored the try that was voted Try of the Year and won £34 in his work Grand National sweepstakes. But he should still be better than most, and Danny Cipriani is not going to wrest the goalkicking duties from him anytime soon.
Burns had a really solid season last year, and there is no reason to think it will be any different this year. For one thing, he did split some time with Owen Williams in 2016-17, but should have a pretty firm hold on the #10 jersey at The Rec. Clearly his time with England has come and gone so that’s not a problem. Injuries are always a concern with him and his form, particularly in relation to goalkicking can fluctuate, but he should be a sound choice for a starting flyhalf for an FRD team. If nothing else, there is a level of certainty around him that you don’t have with #10s elsewhere.
Front row front runners
Even as recently as a couple of years ago I advocated not picking a front row until the very last round in your FRD draft. But like any truly modern man, I continue to evolve my thinking. Not in the sense that I now think it’s acceptable for a bloke to get a manicure, but in that I have now come around on drafting a front row early in your draft. In Super Rugby this pertains particularly to the Hurricanes, where Dane Coles’ presence means a huge amount of running metres and try scoring that most front rowers simply don’t offer. Consider this: four front rows were ranked in the top 20 points scorers in FRD last year – Wasps, Saracens, Leicester and Harlequins. Consider this also: the difference in total points between Wasps, the top scoring front row and Gloucester at the bottom of the table was, almost inconceivably, 300 points. Even discounting the cherry and whites, who were 90 points worse than even the second-to-bottom front row the Saints, were 210 points behind the Wasps fatties come the end of the season, a difference in PPG of 10 points. You don’t have to be Will Hunting to figure out the maths on that one. It’s simply a points differential you cannot ignore so if the opportunity to get your hands on the Wasps front row presents itself, even early in the draft, make like Oscar Pistorius and pull the trigger. Saracens are also a good shout, with players like Jamie George, Schalk Brits and Mako Vunipola picking up points for running metres, offloads, turnovers, defenders beaten and oversized ear lobes (in Vunipola’s case at least) where other front rowers do not.
In terms of Saracens, new arrival Liam Williams will almost invariably make a huge splash in the Premiership. As much as it hurts me to say, Sarries are a very canny and well run operation and always seem to sign guys who fit into their system. Williams can fit in anywhere so I expect he will flourish playing with the Fez boys. In fact you might say; “confidence is high, repeat, confidence is high”.
My expectation is he will play the majority of his games on the wing with Alex Goode remaining at fullback but who knows, maybe Williams’ form will be so irresistible he will force his way into the #15 jersey. My view is shaped largely by pragmatism; Williams can play wing and fullback, Goode can only really play fullback (or flyhalf) due to his lack of pace. So to get both on the park that seems to be the sensible option. Bear in mind though that Williams will be a late starter to the season, having been on the Lions tour, and have time away with Wales. Goode has been all but excommunicated from England by Eddie Jones so he should be available from week to week and has been a mighty and consistent performer for Saracens for a number of years.
Another outside back I am intrigued to watch this year is Jonny May, now of Leicester Tigers. It seems an odd one on the surface. He just doesn’t seem like a Tigers kind of player. In fact, he often seems sort of …. lost when he’s playing. He can run like the wind though, which is never a bad thing on a rugby field. Or in life more generally probably. Sadly, I wouldn’t know. Last year however, he actually had the highest PPG of any outside back in FRD who played enough to give us a decent sample size; at least three points better per game than the likes of Semesa Rokoduguni, Christian Wade, Olly Woodburn, Visser, Vereniki Goneva, James Short, Telusa Veainu and Jack Nowell (interestingly, three Exeter outside backs in that list). Playing at Tigers I have to assume they will find a way to use May, but I have niggling doubts that they will realise that his ultimate destiny lies on the blindside flank, which will likely diminish his FRD value.
Ultimately, I’m just not sure I can trust a guy who tried to put his head up Mako Vunipola’s arse in my FRD team. I’m weird like that.
Big Billy, Big Ben, Thomas the Tank Engine…
Speaking of Vunipolas, brother Billy’s PPG was a clear three points higher than any other loose forward not named Alex Rieder. While Billy will obviously be missing for large parts of the season due to international duty, I do think he’ll play a fair amount early on given he didn’t go away on the Lions tour [editor’s note: latest is Billy will be a late start to the season as he overcomes shoulder surgery]. With the bench available to your FRD team, you can afford to carry a few players who will be missing for parts of the season and Billy might be one of them. If you’re not quite prepared to splash out on a high priced player like Vunipola, Ben Morgan of Gloucester might be a good option also. Again, a guy whose England days seem behind him, he performed well for Gloucester last year and averaged a handy enough 10.3 PPG. If a loose forward is giving you that more or less week in and week out, you can live with it. Speaking of players for whom eight is not only the number on their back but also their cholesterol level, Thomas Waldrom was the highest scoring loose forward last year and did so at a pretty good clip of 12 PPG. My worry is he is getting a little older so may start to slow down, but then I have been half expecting that for some years now.
Two lesser known guys you might be able to get for a song are Brendan O’Connor at Tigers and Thomas Young at Wasps. O’Connor was the second highest point scoring loose forward last year at a handy 10.8 PPG average. The advantage with a player like O’Connor is he plays most weeks and will likely fly under many people’s radar. He’s like a girl who is the marrying type. Not some tarted up Kardashians wannabe; a more homely but still attractive lass who is good fun and unlikely to embarrass you by getting her boobs out at a work party. Young is slightly more glamorous and probably more well known, but he’s less of a big name than his Wasps teammates James Haskell and Nathan Hughes. However in an FRD sense, he is far more valuable. If anything he might even get better this year as he’s still a young guy and Wasps seem likely to continue playing an open game.
Another guy with pedigree coming into the Premiership this year is Nic White. The former Wallaby halfback has had a couple of years in Montpellier but has signed with Exeter for the coming season. I don’t think he has done any kicking at Montpellier but it’s worth remembering he has a very big boot on him. Coming back to a point I made earlier, if Chiefs decide to give Slade an extended run in the #10 jersey, then White may take some of the kicking duties. Counter to that, it’s also worth remembering that Exeter coach Rob Baxter usually eases new players into his team, so there is no guarantee White will be the starting halfback from the off. But in a position like halfback, having a guy who kicks goals is a bit like having a friend who is a minor celebrity with you on a night out. His presence alone isn’t going to guarantee you anything, but it might attract the attention of a few young ladies and gift you a few scoring chances you might not otherwise have had.
Don’t be a homer
One trap to avoid falling into is to blindly pick players from your favourite team in your FRD squad. If they go well, it can be doubly rewarding because going well in FRD invariably means they’re helping the team out as well. But it can cause some blind spots and when it doesn’t work out it’s a bitter pill indeed. Take it from the guy who drafted Nick Evans in the first round last year. Brutal.
It can work in your favour also though. The guy that won our league last year basically rode Jimmy Gopperth like a Lippizaner stallion all season. He likes to tell us it was a considered selection based on his formidable rugby knowledge, and he’d heard Gopperth was going to play in the centres but still kick goals etc etc. Let’s be honest, he’s a Wasps fan and he picked him because Gopperth plays for Wasps. No sore loser here then. Until someone (hopefully) knocks him off this season, we all have to endure the constant reminders of who won our league. Call it a “fantasy tax”, if you will.
It’s all about draft day
Speaking of our league; our draft day is in the diary. We’ll be doing it on the Thursday night before the season kicks off. I’d like to say we planned it that way to have all the information possible before kick off in the new season, but frankly we’re all just pretty useless. Most of us will be parked up at a local establishment doing the draft in person, quaffing down wings and other suitable foodstuffs as our picks get progressively worse as the rounds and empty pint glasses mount up. Two days later, a group of us from the league are off to Twickenham for the opening day Double Header (Saracens v Northampton and Harlequins v London Irish) where picks will be parsed over, praised and mocked as the Premiership and FRD season gets underway. That’s the way to play Fantasy Rugby Draft.