2023 AFL Fantasy Classic champion Darren Carr

IT TOOK until later in the year for Darren Carr to hit the lead in AFL Fantasy Classic, but he closed it out to become the 2023 champion.

In a difficult year in Fantasy, Darren's team, 'Wise Ocean PODS', came out on top.

He tells his story, from picking his starting squad to some of his best choices as he won the Toyota HiLux.

Picking my starting squad

Picking your starting squad is a very important stage to being successful in AFL Fantasy, as it's vital to nail the right players that will kickstart your season.

It's important to review all the news of the off-season trades and draftees, as there is a lot of unknowns going into a new AFL season with players arriving at fresh clubs and draftees settling in. Staying across the pre-season matches will allow you to pick up on any important position changes of key Fantasy players and the likelihood of rookies getting a crack at AFL level.  

For this year, the Fantasy Gods were on our side as we had a plethora of rookies to select from for our starting squads. Round one selections of top-10 draftees in Will Ashcroft, Harry Sheezel, Cam Mackenzie, Reuben Ginbey and Mattaes Phillipou were crucial due to having strong job security and exciting Fantasy roles.

Harry Sheezel celebrates a goal during North Melbourne's clash against Sydney in round 10, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

We also had some exciting mid-priced players to choose from, with the standouts being Will Day, Jayden Hunt, and James Worpel. But you don't always have to nail your mid-price picks, with Dom Sheed, Charlie Constable, and Jason Horne-Francis failing as starting picks for me.

When picking my starting premiums my target was to look for value and good fixtures using the previous year's data. As a result, I avoided the top-priced players in Rory Laird and Josh Dunkley. Instead, I started with Andrew Brayshaw and Josh Kelly. With the extra remaining cash, which was roughly $350k, I was able to start with an additional mid-priced pick in Will Setterfield.

Majority of my starting salary went towards the big four forwards, being Stephen Coniglio, Tim Taranto, Connor Rozee, and Errol Gulden, along with some defence stability in Sam Docherty and Jordan Dawson.

I went with the set-and-forget ruck strategy this year by selecting Tim English and Rowan Marshall, who I thought would outscore what they were priced at.

Fix-up time

At the start of every season, it's key to move on underperforming picks from your starting squad and pick up the breakout players you missed. This was the key for me rising up the rankings early and setting up my season. Rounds 1-3 is what I like to call 'Fix-up time'.

A round one concussion to Josh Kelly allowed me to bring in Tom Green, who went on to have a breakout year. On the other side of the trade, I brought in a missed rookie in Kade Chandler, who was primed to rapidly increase in price after scoring 104.

Round two trades saw the exit of Horne-Francis and Campbell Chesser from my side after a lacklustre start and jumping on Jack Ziebell after switching back into the general defender role as a value pick.

Round three saw the end of my fix-ups with the exits of Sheed and Constable, after injuries and omissions. With over a million in the bank, I set my sights on my first upgrade of the season, trading in Nick Daicos who was a popular under-priced premium.

Nick Daicos gets a handball away during round 12, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Getting in the right players during this time of the season is critical as they serve as vital players to consistently score for you while also increasing in price, allowing you to easily upgrade them later in the season. These trades were a major factor to my success as Daicos, Ziebell and Green were arguably top 6-8 players of their line and stayed in my team until late in the season.

It was these trades that set up my season, moving me from 1,988th after round one, to sixth after round six.

Upgrade season

'Upgrade season' is where you focus on upgrading all your rookies as fast as possible.

Ideally you want to upgrade your rookies to top of the line premiums, but you don't always have the cash, so you've got to find the diamond in the rough in your price range. My focus this year was to never double downgrade rookies, as holding bulk cash meant less points on field.

For me, the diamond was Zak Butters, probably my best pick of the season. I traded in Butters after round five, as one of my first upgrades. I cashed out Mackenzie and Chandler once both had halted their cash generation after poor scores, which left me with roughly $700k to spend on an upgrade. At the time, it was a very risky trade due to his poor start to the season, recent injury history, kamikaze play style, and fluctuating role, but I had identified that Port had a dream run of easy match-ups for midfielders coming up. Butters went on an amazing run, averaging 108 until the bye with high scores of 121, 129, and 148.

Trading in the right players at the right time before they go on good runs was a major factor to my success. I brought in Rory Laird after round seven where I identified a six-week stretch of easy matches. Laird went on to average 113 over that six-week period, with ceiling scores of 124, 131, and 131. I also brought in Josh Dunkley after round eight, where he averaged 111 over a seven-week run before his injury. Zach Merrett came in in round 11, with tasty match-ups against the Eagles and North in his next two weeks, scoring 111 and 155. I owe a lot of my success to looking at fixtures.

Bye planning

The byes are a critical stage as it can make or break your season quickly if not planned correctly. This season we saw a different set up to the byes, which were spread over four rounds, with rounds 14 and 15 being heavily loaded. This was problematic as we were relying on rookies that we needed to play in round 15 to hold their position in the team, otherwise we risked a zero on field.

My aim through the byes was to ensure I had 20 players on field each round. This allowed for any underperforming scores to drop off and maximise my best 18. To achieve 20 playing players each round, I had to find a way to ensure that my rookie picks would stay on the park.

I spent up during the byes to get the high-profile rookies. I brought in Bailey Humphrey in round 12 at a costly $478k, Matthew Johnson in round 13 for $348k because I was confident these two would remain in their teams and provide decent scoring for a short period of time. It also provided some decent cash generation.

On the flip side, it's important to continue to make upgrades during the byes, utilising the three trades each week. It's ideal to have some targeted players you want to pick up during this time so you can allocate how much money you need that week. By the end of the byes, I had brought in Caleb Serong, Brad Crouch, Jack Sinclair and Lachie Neale. My team was fast approaching a full team of premiums with only one remaining rookie on field heading into round 16.

Caleb Serong in action during Fremantle's clash with Port Adelaide in round 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Getting to No.1 and the run home

I first reached the No.1 spot in AFL Fantasy after round 16, and this is when I knew my team was in a strong position in the run home. I had a leg up on majority of the teams around me by having Angus Sheldrick and Johnson to loop between as my last rookie. Following this week, I went on a bit of a rough run with six forced trades over the next three weeks, which prevented me from getting a full team of premiums until round 19. I somehow managed to minimise the damage and regained the No.1 spot following round 19, leading by a whopping seven points with five weeks remaining.

Following round 20, I knew my chances for the Toyota HiLux were real. I had a big weekend, managing to pull out a 150-point lead on the competition, by trading Dunkley back in following his injury, scoring a 137 as a unique pick. At this time of the year, a lot of the top teams are very similar with only a handful of point of differences, which I know would make closing that 150-point gap difficult. This is when my game play was starting to shift to protect my lead.

Round 21 is when I started making cover trades, trading in players the chasing teams had that I didn't, coming up against easy match-ups. I brought in Caleb Serong (again), Darcy Parish, Luke Jackson, Rory Laird (again), and Tom Green (again) in the three weeks leading up to the final week of the season.

The most challenging part over the final month of AFL Fantasy as a competitive coach was keeping tabs on all the top 10 teams chasing me. I kept notes of all the unique players each team had and even predicted what trades they would make. This allowed me to make my trades based on what I expected others around me to do.

The finale weekend

Coming into the final weekend of AFL Fantasy, my lead was cut down to 57 points. Even with what felt like a significant lead, my nerves were high as it was mine to lose.

It came down to me and Fleabaggers, as the next closest coach was too far back to catch us without doing something extreme. Coming into the weekend we only had two unique players and my plan was to match him as much as I could, hoping my unique players could get me over the line.

I planned to trade in and cover Nic Newman, who was the in-form player of the competition over the month. The problem was this only left me with roughly 700k to trade in another defender. This is where Shannon Hurn popped up in my trade plans, thinking he would be reliable in his retirement game at home.

Friday night came around, and I was still tossing up who to captain for the final round. I was pretty confident I'd put the C on Marcus Bontempelli, but was stuck for a VC option. I did plan on putting it on Rowan Marshall, but I switched to Zach Merrett last minute playing Friday night against Collingwood, which was a unique captain choice in the top 10. I thought he could go big as Essendon had been thumped the week prior and his team would lean on him as a captain. This is exactly what happened and he went huge with a 146, putting me in a strong position for the remainder of the weekend.

Zach Merrett in action during the match between Essendon and Collingwood at the MCG in round 24, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Saturday afternoon was a stressful one. I had predicted all week that Fleabaggers would trade in Harry Sheezel and Sam Flanders who were likely to go big against easy match-ups. The worst part was they were playing in the same game together, and were the only unique players between our teams, whereas I had Dunkley and Hurn. Flanders went on to a career-best game, scoring 146, while Sheezel had some attention, only scoring 94.

The following game Dunkley had let me down, only managing to score a 78. I felt sick as I only had a 41-point lead remaining.

It all came down to Saturday night, Crows v Eagles. I had some friends over as it was my birthday. It came down to Hurn v Jordan Dawson as captain. All Hurn had to do was stay within 41 points of Dawson. We cheered on every kick in, and there were a lot, with 11 kick ins, playing on from every single one. The tensions were high as the points flowed back and forth, even getting to as close as only 10 points at some stage in the third quarter. Hurn went on to finish the game on 89 points, while Dawson had a quiet last quarter, finishing on 105. I had won by only 25 points. We celebrated all night.

Sunday was an unusual feeling. I consistently kept checking the rankings to ensure no one was sneaking up on me from the shadows.

After leading for the final six weeks, the pressure was finally taken off my shoulders once I knew I got over the line. It's still sinking in now what I've been able to achieve. I'm super proud, and extremely honoured to become the overall winner and 2023 AFL Fantasy Classic champion.

Advice for next year

My advice for next year would be to consume as much content as possible from all sources of social media, from podcasts, YouTube, Facebook groups, and Twitter (X) spaces. We have an amazing community of brilliant coaches out there, creating awesome content with different perspectives to your own. I've lost count how many times I've switched up my trades because someone has pointed something out I wasn't aware of.

My second piece of advice would be to make a routine on Thursday and Friday nights to review your trades, as trade plans commonly get changed on Thursday night following team announcements. I see far too many coaches forgetting to make changes to their trades before lockout. These nights were where I discovered some of my best trades. 

In terms of picks for next year, I believe Callum Mills is a lock in the midfield as a mid-priced pick. I also think it's almost certain that Sam Flanders will be our F1 under a new coach. Jy Simpkin provides plenty of value if he can get his body right in the off-season. Brodie Grundy could be a sneaky forward pick if he lands at a new club solo rucking. 

Trust your gut and pick the players you like, or if you are worried about picking a poor starting team, follow the pack and pick a vanilla team. At the end of the day, it's a trading game, a starting squad only gets you so far. 

No Fantasy year is the same. What worked for me this year most likely won't work next year. 

One thing is certain, I'll be back next year to defend my title. 

Enjoy the off-season, and best of luck for next year!