They’re a bit like West Virginia, front rowers in rugby. Like the “Mountain State” is the state the inhabitants of all other states make fun of, front rowers always seem to be the butt of the joke in rugby. They don’t always look like a classic athlete, they generally don’t run very fast and aren’t known for their ball skills or smarts. And the thing they are usually good at, scrummaging, most people, including those who’ve spent a lifetime playing the sport, don’t really understand. But in the 2017-18 Aviva Premiership season front rowers had their greatest moment in the sun since Sean Maloney’s “Top Five Fatmen Tries” from Fox Sports Rugby HQ TV show and former Wallaby hooker Phil Kearns numerous humorous quips at his and his front row brethren’s expense in the commentary box [my all-time favourite: Greg Martin: “Jeez Kearnsy, these lineouts are turning into a dockyard brawl”. Kearnsy: “Yeah, isn’t it great”.] Despite an array of attacking talent in the premiership last season, it was the Saracens front row that was the highest points scorer in all of Fantasy Rugby Draft (FRD). That’s like the captain of the debate team taking the head cheerleader to prom! (Quick aside, I fear I’ve just given someone an idea for a crappy Drew Barrymore movie).
Not only did they score almost twice as many points as the next highest scoring front row (Wasps, in case you were wondering. Who were the top scoring fatties the previous season and the first front row off the board in our league last year. Picked by muggins here in favour of the aforementioned Saracens), they also had the highest average points per game (PPG) of any player in the league. Ok, strictly speaking they averaged the same PPG as Sale flyhalf AJ MacGinty. But still, it was an incredible statistical feat and one that undoubtedly swayed many leagues, including our own.
The PPG point is a keen one because a front row doesn’t miss any games. Obviously personnel within the front row will switch, but in terms of value for an FRD owner front rows are great because (in the Premiership at least) they’re out there in one form or other every week, a bit like Kim Kardashian’s boobs. With the nature of the Premiership season overlapping with the Autumn Internationals and Six Nations, a key part of drafting strategy is taking into account players who will be available throughout those periods and weighing up whether it’s worth drafting an international star knowing they will miss a lot of time. Not a problem for the front row, and because of that it would be understandable if they had the outright highest aggregate points total, but to be the highest average PPG as well is remarkable. Especially when you consider one supposed expert suggested in a Super Rugby Fantasy Rugby Draft column a few years back that a front row should be your absolute last pick. Perhaps even more shocking than that piece of advice being offered up as “expert insight” is the fact that the oracle who provided it has still been invited back to write the corresponding column every Super Rugby and Premiership season since. Having admitted to that, you’ll likely want to take what I say below with a Vincent Koch-sized fistful of salt.
The error of my judgement was made immediately apparent to me last season while sitting in the stands at Twickenham watching Saracens take Northampton apart in the first game of the Opening Weekend Double Header, our FRD league day out. Schalk Brits was stepping like Damian McKenzie and Mako Vunipola was offloading like Sonny Bill Williams. If that wasn’t bad enough, the aforementioned 125kg Koch got in on the act too on the way to a 60 plus point performance. Made all the more grating by having the player in our league who was clever enough to pick the Sarries front rakers sitting beside me cackling away at every try, offload, defender beaten and even run metre gained. It was a salad day for him as he also had Sean Maitland in his team (hat trick by half time) and wouldn’t you know it, when news came through that Dan Robson had scored four tries in Wasps opening game, he realised he had him in his team too. Funnily enough, a guy who was initially sceptical about Fantasy Rugby Draft became a big fan that day. Ironically the closest that bloke’s come to eating a salad in the past decade is when he used a salad fork to eat three helpings of wedding cake, but it turned out to be a salad season for him also, going on to ultimately win the title. Well played James.
As an aside, why is when something is going really well is it described as “salad days”? Surely if things are going so great they should be described as “steak days”. If you’re eating salad every day it doesn’t sound that great to me. Or perhaps I am just completely butchering the saying. Justin Marshall’s got nothing on me.
So presumably Saracens front row is the consensus first pick this Fantasy Rugby Draft season, right? Maybe not.
While the Premiership champions’ front rowers are all capable of scoring FRD points, the now retired Britz was really the straw that stirred their FRD drink. With him gone, I expect a significant drop off. Still the best front row in Fantasy Rugby Draft? Yes, I think so. But I do expect them to come back to the pack this year.
That said, if you’re drafting in the middle to back end of the first round in your league and Saracens front row is still available when it’s your turn to make a selection, it’s a pretty safe one to go with. A no brainer even. The type of decisions that front rowers like.
Taking a flyer
The second highest ranking player in the Fantasy Rugby Draft rankings this year is an equally unfancied name. Alan MacGinty, or AJ if you prefer, struggled initially when arriving at Sale from then-Pro12 team Connaught, but has now established himself as a pretty consistent performer for one of the Premierships more surprisingly impressive outfits in recent seasons. You can be sure Sale Sharks Director of Rugby Steve Diamond will have been putting the blame squarely on MacGinty when he wasn’t playing well but expect he is lavishing praise on himself now that MacGinty has turned it around. But can you really draft AJ MacGinty number one overall in your FRD draft? Like I say, he just isn’t a fancied name. Literally. When I hear the name AJ MacGinty I picture an awkward teenager not the saviour of my FRD team. There is a chance he will lose some time to James O’Connor throughout the season, but there is also every chance that O’Connor loses some time to Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.
When it comes to flyhalves this season, there are very few sure things. Kind of like the opposite of the queue to audition for the next season of Love Island, which features exclusively very sure things. Owen Farrell and George Ford are both obviously class players, but each will lose significant time to international duty and probably not unrelated, Farrell was injured for large parts of last season also. Danny Cipriani is now the man at Gloucester and in early season action has been physical and looked to get his fend working early and often. Unfortunately it was on a female constable in the Jersey Police force. Will it affect his role at the cherry and whites? Unlikely. In fact if he gets booted from the England squad it will actually make him a more valuable FRD resource, but it doesn’t speak to a lot of smarts or sound decision making. Also, will he or Jason Woodward be kicking for goal? On the flipside, if Woodward is the man to kick for sticks (and his Fantasy Rugby Draft ranking of #8 suggests they think he is), then he becomes a very valuable commodity.
Joe Simmonds came on like wildfire last year, unseating Gareth Steenson, claiming the starting #10 Exeter Chiefs jumper all to himself and potentially costing me the chance to win my league. So bully for you Joe! But Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter likes to rotate his squad and Steenson likely isn’t completely done yet, so I can see Simmonds losing some starts to Exeter’s favourite son. Speaking of the Chiefs, the one thing they love more than players with terrible haircuts at Exeter is squad depth. Take a look through the team – it is unreal some of the resources they have acquired. Not necessarily a good thing for a FRD team manager though. Olly Woodburn is ranked #3 in the Fantasy Rugby Draft rankings after pulling down an impressive 21 PPG last year. He is undoubtedly a very handy player, seldom misses games and a consistent performer. But have a look at the other options at Chiefs – Santiago Cordero, Alex Cuthbert, Phil Dollman, Jack Nowell, James Short and some bloke called Tom O’Flaherty who I’ve never heard of. Sounds like Tom Cruise’s character from that terrible Irish immigrant movie “Far & Away”. But going on Rob Baxter’s recruitment record, it wouldn’t surprise me if O’Flaherty turned out to be the second coming of Jason Robinson. I just worry that Woodburn is going to lose some playing time this year.
However, the flyhalf I want to target in the draft is Marcus Smith of Harlequins. Some may say I am a fool who has not learned my lesson of two seasons ago when I took then Quins flyhalf Nick Evans with my number one pick. Turned out it was one season too many for Evans and my Fantasy Rugby Draft season was down the crapper from the get go. But, I legitimately think Smith could finish the season as the highest ranked #10 this year.
For one thing, he was pretty good last year and will presumably get better. Not so good that he’s picked for the England team, which ticks another box for me in him not being away for the internationals – more on that below. He kicks goals and his competition is Demetri Catrakilis and Tim Swiel. Both handy players, but not about to make the world forget about Beauden Barrett anytime soon. So he should get plenty of game time. I was surprised to see he averaged 16.5 PPG last year – I thought he might have been higher. But he plays more or less every week, so you can count on that, rather than Farrell scoring 22 PPG when he plays, but playing significantly less. You still have to win game weeks when Farrell is playing for England.
I’m not silly enough to not realise some of my faith in Smith is due to being a Quins supporter, but frankly in Fantasy Rugby Draft or fantasy sports of any description I expect, it’s more fun to like and pull for the guys you have on your team. Along the same lines, Lima Sopoaga might be a steal for someone. He has been a consistent performer in Super Rugby FRD; not a superstar, but solid enough. He also clearly will not miss time for internationals and will play most weeks at Wasps, so could be a nice get in the lower end of the first round or into the second round.
International men of mystery
Representing your country, travelling the world, staying in swanky hotels and making some nice bank. Yep, the life of the international rugby player is a pretty sweet deal. But to be honest, I don’t really want any of them on my team. Kind of like how some teams have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to ne’er do wells and want guys only of high character, on my team I’ll take most any dope, deviant or menace to society, but international players I steer clear of. As discussed, they can be a liability in Premiership FRD. Last year the only international players I drafted onto my team were Mike Brown and Danny Care. As it turned out, Byron McGuigan and Don Armand ended up playing some international rugby as well, but sporadically. I ended up losing Care despite good returns because I had to free up a roster spot one week and he was snapped up off the waiver wire. With all the will in the world, it is hard to carry international guys when you actually need live bodies in your team each week. But you can also build a pretty decent win/loss record by winning consistently and in some respects a guy who gives you 15 points week in, week out throughout the season is more value than a guy who gives you 20 every time he plays, but only plays 12 game weeks during the season.
One note of caution with this strategy is at the business end of the season when all the internationals are playing, it can leave you short of some superior firepower. I managed to comfortably finish atop of our regular season standings but had my pants pulled down pretty handily in the semifinals. Which I guess makes me like the guy who spends all night talking to the girl in the bar but can’t get her in a taxi. Ultimately, it’s all a bit for nothing.
However, I did run into some misfortune in that three quarters of the way through the season Alex Goode had played every minute of every game for Saracens, and then got injured. Ditto Mike Brown. Steenson, Harry Mallinder and McGuigan lost their starting spots and I was toast. The point being, if you pick a team of good performers who don’t play international rugby, it’s a good strategy to find yourself there or thereabouts when the music stops. If you can have an absolute world beater waiting in the wings also, well and good.
While you may not always be able to pick a world beater, you should be able to pick a lot of good players because looking through the rankings this year, the depth on a lot of the rosters is unbelievable. As usual the quality level is bolstered by another large migration of South Africans, headlined by Jaco Kriel, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Francois Venter this year (I predict by 2023 there will be approximately seven rugby players left in South Africa). But while there might be more good players, there is still only 15 spots on the field at any one time so good players will invariably spend a lot of time on the sidelines. That’s where difference makers at their position like Kriel and the Saracens front row become so valuable.
But unfortunately the glory the Saracens front row have brought to all front rowers has a dark side. Just like Phil Kearns’ funny front row related quips have spawned an evil step-sister – halfback ‘humour’. Like many things commentary-related Justin Marshall is the worst for this. Once a game he’ll make a comment about halfbacks being shy and retiring or if a push and shove breaks out he’ll say something like “I’m sure halfback A will be keeping his opinions to himself on this”. Look, we get it, you were a halfback and halfbacks generally are small man disease-suffering, annoying little gobshites, but it’s about as predictable as it is not funny. It’s like when it starts raining and the commentators in the booth ask the sideline guy how he’s enjoying the rain. Seeing a joke coming a mile away doesn’t make it funnier, even when the joke concerned is right near the bottom of the humour scale to start with. Yet I digress. I suspect in many leagues the success of Saracens will see a run on front rows early on, meaning if anything they’ve become overvalued and drafting in Fantasy Rugby Draft is all about recognising value.
On that confusing note, I’ll wish you happy drafting.