Super rugby: diary of a draft day

I remember one of my first ever games of competitive cricket. I had played at home on the lawn against my brother and cousin, at school against my friends and even older kids and usually handled myself ok. I had even saved up my shekels and bought myself a Gunn & Moore (GM) ‘Skipper’ cricket bat. Truth be told a Skipper was the bottom of the GM line, but Richard Hadlee used a GM, so I thought it was pretty cool. But then in one of my first games, a kid in the opposition had a Duncan Fearnley ‘Magnum’. Martin Crowe not only used a Duncan Fearnley, he used a Duncan Fearnley Magnum. This dude had Martin Crowe’s cricket bat!

It’s fair to ask the question in hindsight that what sort of parent spends that much money on a cricket bat for an 11 year old, but anyway, the upshot was I immediately had an inferiority complex. I mean, he had a Magnum! This guy must be the second coming of Viv Richards! Even if I knew I was somewhat capable, I felt like there could only be one result in the game. I thought of that incident when recalling the draft night for our current Fantasy Rugby Draft (FRD) Aviva Premiership season. I turned up at the draft with my laptop, a couple of print outs, a fairly good idea of my strategy and how I was going to build a competitive team, a reasonable level of knowledge about the league, experience playing FRD and subsequently, no shortage of confidence. A few minutes after getting there, Sophia, new to our league and trying her hand at FRD for the first time opened up her computer to reveal a spreadsheet the likes of which I assume the designers of the new Trident submarine might work from. It had tabs and filters and different colours and formulas and I heard her say something about 1,200 data points. I immediately felt even more inferior that the 11 year old kid almost too embarrassed to take my GM Skipper out of my cricket bag.

But I did something that 11 year old me never did. I shook it off. Comforted by the fact that a couple of guys had turned up at the draft without so much as a sheet of paper. It helped that I also had something the 11 year old me did not: beer.

Having managed to get a Thursday evening in the diary that most of our league could make, it turned out to be one of the very few sunny late summer days in London. Which, if you’ve spent any time in London you’ll know means every man and his dog heads to the pub. So instead of being able to pull together a couple of tables to run our draft at our chosen venue, we were greeted by a swarming mass of humanity and scarcely able to find one table open. We did manage to rustle up a few chairs but ended up with eight chairs spaced around a table not much larger than a dinner plate and us huddled around it like a bunch of homeless dudes hanging around a burning 44 gallon drum in a Philadelphia winter. It’s not an ideal space to try to fit three laptops, a tablet or two and numerous pieces of paper on. And that’s before we start to find room for glasses! It reminded me of the time five mates and I had to squeeze into one of the lads’ two door Honda Civic to get to a party one weekend.

On a personal note, the evening got off to a rougher start when my laptop wouldn’t come to life. After about 10 minutes I looked and saw it was installing some updates, and was about 15% in at that point. Sweet; best laid plans. Fortunately I had some print outs with me so my carefully conceived strategy was not completely lost to the vagaries of technology.

Don’t be a hater. Actually, do

Pints sorted, the draft got under way. None of us in the draft talked about it openly, but particularly those who had played in the draft last year certainly had one guy in the league in our crosshairs. James won our league last year fair and square. But life is often neither fair nor square, and we were out to knock James down a peg or two this year, especially as we felt like he’d lucked his way into the title to some degree and seldom missed an opportunity to tweak our nipples about his all-conquering victory (as the rest of us would have done as well of course). It’s fair to say the anti-James feeling was fuelled as much by sour grapes as much as anything, like a couple of guys cursing their bad luck when a bloke heads home with a young lass after spending the night putting himself out there, chatting to and dancing with the ladies while the other two hang out like a couple of miserable gits at the bar. James likes to say he’d heard that Gopperth was going to play midfield and still kick goals, and thus picking the former Hurricanes and Blues flyhalf was sound drafting. Which it was. But Gopperth was such an outstanding player in 2016/17 that he literally won every award going: Premiership Player of the Year, the Rugby Players’ Association Player of the Year and Wasps Player of the Year, on top of being the Premiership’s top scorer and, not for nothing, the top points scorer in FRD. He proved to be the greatest draft pick since Michael Jordan and frankly, no one saw that coming and we felt James mainly picked him simply because he’s a Wasps fan. So our draft was unofficially billed as the Jimmy Gopperth sweepstakes and no surprises when Jimmy G was the first name off the board. Almost didn’t even need to hear the name called, which is a good thing given we couldn’t hear much amongst the din of the bar.

Picking fifth, I was hoping that one of the following would fall to me: Gopperth, Freddie Burns, Telusa Veainu or Semesa Rokoduguni. My worry (as discussed in the previous drafting blog) was there was so much uncertainty around the flyhalf position at a number of clubs, it was hard to know who was a sure-fire, week to week starter. Sure enough, all four guys disappear off the board and I am left with my laptop slowing installing updates and the decision I am most hoping to avoid. What I wouldn’t give for 1,200 data points right now! In the end I took a leaf out of Winston Churchill’s book and took a decent drink before making an important decision. The old FRD axiom “you can’t win your FRD league in the first round, but you can certainly lose it” flashed through my head, and went with what I considered the safest pick; Exeter flyhalf Gareth Steenson.

Three rounds in, the draft starts to change. The big names are off the board and often times, leagues are won by your middling players, so it’s key to pick up players that can get you points consistently. Two of my first three picks last year were Nick Evans and Manu Tuilagi. Unfortunately in the offseason prior Evans turned into an old man and Tuilagi played about 10mins all season due to injuries. That’s like stalling on the starting grid in a Formula One race. Even if you get going eventually you’re so far behind you’re as good as toast. So my middle round picks didn’t really matter as it turned out. This year, after Steenson I picked up Alex Goode (Saracens, outside back) and the Wasps Front Row, so was feeling pretty good about life when we decided to stop for a beer and wings break.

Cups runneth over

The easy choice when it comes to the drinks to fuel your draft is to say beer, beer and more beer. And really, you can’t go wrong whatever your preference in terms of brand or variety. It’s not the only choice though; Sophia went for a gin ‘n’ tonic which I can sign off on. One thing I think you do need to steer clear of is wine. A draft is a face-paced event. You think two minutes is a lifetime in order to make your selections, but when the pressure is on that two minutes can disappear quicker than your wallet on a night out in Barcelona. With my brain operating at a speed most accurately described as somewhere between ‘resting’ and ‘stuck in molasses’ at the best of times, I feel like sipping a nice sauvignon or lovely pinot noir would slow me down even more.

The key with the drinking though, is to find that happy place you ultimately want to reach when you’re playing pool or darts. That is, tuned up enough to feel relaxed and confident, but not having indulged to the point where you’re feeling cavalier. That’s when you outsmart yourself by being dumb.

I’m not sure that makes sense but if you’ve been in that position before you’ll know what I mean.

Stick to the strategy

My first few picks reflected my overall strategy. For one thing, I wanted to avoid international players, or nailed-on international players at least. My feeling is in the Aviva Premiership they just miss too much time in November during the autumn internationals and then in February and March for the Six Nations. The second part of my strategy was to get players who are difference makers in their positions. Hence the Wasps Front Row pick; last year they scored on average better than 10 points more per week than the lower ranked front rows. That’s the sort of competitive advantage Sonny Bill Williams enjoys over most people in, well, pretty much any athletic endeavour. Or life in general really.

Winging it

When it comes to draft day food, wings are the obvious option, but that’s also because they’re the best option. How does a cliché become a cliché… All things being equal, ribs are better than wings. But you need to bear in mind that the quality of ribs varies greatly. A great plate of ribs really hits the spot. An average one is just that, average. They’re a bit like an Adam Sandler movie. A good one is pretty good, like Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison. But then there is Little Nicky, Jack and Jill and, well, pretty much every movie since The Waterboy. Wings, however are like a Harrison Ford movie. Some are better than others, and when they’re good they’re spectacular (I mean, the dude was Han Solo AND Indiana Jones) but they’re always at least watchable. That’s wings. Even in some pretty ordinary drinking holes, I’ve always had decent wings. That’s why they should be a go to for your draft. Also, ribs are always messy to eat. Do you really want all that mess when you’re working on your laptop (or in my case looking on forlornly as it continues installing updates), or potentially slopping up pieces of paper you’ve spent hours mapping out your draft strategy on? Chips, fries, wedges etc are all fine too. Pizza is a good option (to quote Stephen Baldwin’s character in the circa 1994 movie ‘Threesome’: “to me sex is like pizza. Even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good”). Burgers are fine, but again, burgers vary in quality like Beauden Barrett’s efforts off the kicking tee.

The moment

Our FRD draft has yet to have its “Andy Dalton moment”. Kind of like an inside joke that people remember for years, which I outline here. We came close last year, when throughout the middle rounds when people went to pick, the name Nev Edwards was bandied around. Edwards is a largely unmemorable winger for the Sale Sharks who, with all due respect to Nev, shouldn’t be going off anyone’s draft board until the very last rounds. But as the drinks start flowing and the clock starts ticking people become very open to suggestion and last year we managed to get a guy in our league hook, line and sinker. Good ole Nev found himself on the waiver wire a couple of weeks later but entered into pseudo legend status in the Hampstead Retirement Village Idiots FRD league.

His name is involved pretty frequently to this day when people are scratching around on the waiver wire trying to pick up an outside back for the forthcoming game week. Sadly, on this draft night we couldn’t convince anyone to pick him up, not even the newcomers to the league. I suppose 1,200 data points will help you negotiate your way a few eighth grade level wind-ups.

As the draft progressed, we feasted on more wings and chips and no shortage of beers, GnTs and terrible Dad jokes to boot. For all my talk previously about wings being a safe bet for draft night, the wings at this particular establishment had a little Reiko Ioane-X factor about them. The extra kick wasn’t necessarily a hot sort of spicy, but they certainly had some extra zing. The additional zing in my fantasy team (remarkably I still have a few Dad jokes left unused from that night) was provided by picking up Byron McGuigan and Harry Mallinder as a midfield combo. I saw the pair (and so it has transpired) as key difference makers because although listed as midfielders, McGuigan mostly plays on the wing and Mallinder can play #10, #12 and #15. Plus his Dad is the coach, or was (Saints coach Jim Mallinder was fired mid-season), so you know he’s getting a run out most weeks. Most importantly, he often kicks goals. We’ve seen in the Aviva Premiership FRD that midfielders are not as heavy scorers as midfielders in Super Rugby, but in McGuigan and Mallinder, I managed to select the two top scoring midfielders in FRD as we head into the Six Nations. So good have they been McGuigan has gone and gotten himself selected in the Scotland Six Nations squad; fingers crossed he doesn’t make the match day squad and gets released back to Sale. I have an FRD league to win, I’m not here to champion the careers of any players in my team.

Hang in there

As the draft winds its way into the lower rounds, those not too heavily sauced at that point can still pick up a player or two that can really help them. One guy I targeted in the lower rounds was another guy who mostly plays ‘out of position’. Exeter Chiefs loose forward Don Armand is listed as a second row by Opta but is usually packing down on the side of the scrum. Besides being a hell of a player who (happily for me) is almost inexplicably not in Eddie Jones’ England squad, playing as a loose forward but notching up FRD points as a lock Big Don is a consistent points scorer who sits atop of the FRD points scoring table for locks, ahead of Northampton’s Courtney Lawes who will be away with England for most of the next two months. Trust me when I say I’ve given this anti-internationals strategy some thought.

Super Rugby difference makers

So who are the Super Rugby versions of Don Armand? One thing to consider is that playing internationals is almost no concern whatsoever in Super Rugby FRD, so my strategy is to go after guys who are real difference makers in their positions, whatever the position. In saying that I am hoping all evidence of my column from three years ago when I suggested taking a front row before the last round of the draft was a total waste of time, has been destroyed. As I mention above I drafted the Wasps Front Row in the early rounds and will be targeting the Lions or Hurricanes fatties in the early rounds in Super Rugby this year. The highest scoring ‘player’ in Aviva Premiership FRD so far this year? Saracens Front Row.

The more observant amongst you will note I did not draft them. I did have the pleasure, however, of sitting next to the guy (another James) who did at the Aviva Premiership opening day London Double Header at Twickenham a couple of days after our draft as the Sarries front rowers racked up 60.5 points as Saracens destroyed Northampton. He’d also drafted Saracens wing Sean Maitland who scored a hat trick before halftime and flyhalf Alex Lozowski who scored a try and kicked conversions from all over the park. If that wasn’t enough, we found out at half time that Wasps halfback Dan Robson had scored four tries in their game against Sale. Who had Robson in their team? Yep, James, on his way to a 257.9 point effort opening weekend. The cackling didn’t stop until he headed off home about 10pm that evening. Made all the more painful by Harlequins being turned over by newly promoted London Irish in the late game.

Other Super Rugby players who can provide a competitive advantage in their positions include TJ Perenara at halfback, Jaco Kriel and Ardie Savea at loose forward and Jordie Barrett at outside back. Not that you would complain with an Israel Folau or Reiko Ioane either. Looking at it from a distance though, the end goal is to be the person in your FRD league that everyone else is pissed off at, because that generally means you’ll be the one bragging come your draft day next year.

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