Cross out the X-man (updated)

Oh no, not again. The jungle drums are beating about a prominent fantasy back with a season-wrecking injury that has led to major surgery. Xavier Ellis, who is vying for the spot of most popular back in the Fanplanner, is rumoured (EDIT: now confirmed in the papers!) to have had hip surgery that could put him out well past round 1 of 2009. Will the defender curse of 2008 ever stop?

The rumour thread on BigFooty quotes no definite sources, but after years of reading between the lines on these types of threads, it looks legit to me. There have been dark rumblings about this in other threads, and it fits the facts of Ellis’ 2008, which was indeed hampered by hip problems. (EDIT: here’s the Age story.)

Ellis is currently lying second on the list of most-picked backs in the Fanplanner, only a few behind Chad Cornes. In the last 20 complete plan teams for DT, Ellis is in 75% of them, which is the biggest share of any defender. We face the very real prospect of having both of those players being taken away as options in fantasy backlines, Ellis with injury and Chad with possible reassignment by VirtualSports as a specialist midfielder.

At a price of $349,200 in Dream Team and $392,400 in Super Coach, Ellis’ popularity was based on a much improved second half of the year, culminating in a dominant grand final performance of 136/110. Who is the obvious replacement at around that price if the news does turn out to be for the worst?

Looking at the list, there’s a good reason Ellis was so widely picked, because there’s nobody that really jumps out at you in that price band. You’ve got aging stars who won’t reach their former peaks again like Andrew McLeod and David Wirrpanda. You have the key position players who have already hit their ceiling such as Brian Lake, Scott Stevens and Brett Jones. There’s the perennial underachievers who look great in March but inevitably let you down in June, like Beau Waters and Josh Drummond. Then there’s the gaggle of Fremantle backs, of which there seem to be legion but none can bob their head up from the pack for more than a week before descending back to fantasy mediocrity.

No, my thought is that the natural replacement would be Nick Malceski, coming off a double-digit drop in his fantasy averages during an ACL-interrupted year. He’s yet another injury risk to throw on the pile, I know, but I can’t see anyone with a higher ceiling at about that price. Plus you get a few extra dollars to play with elsewhere. To be honest, though, Ellis was such a good fit and his contemporaries are so relatively untrustworthy that I’d consider rejigging other parts of your team to enable you to upgrade Ellis to a true premium. Ellis’ teammate Grant Birchall comes to mind.

Finally, if Ellis does miss a significant stretch of the early part of the season, who replaces him in the Hawthorn team? There is already a competition going on to fill the retired Shane Crawford‘s role between Travis Tuck, Josh J. Kennedy, Beau Muston, Ben McGlynn and Brendan Whitecross, and my feeling is that that the second placegetter in that particular handicap race would get Ellis’ spot. Tuck and Kennedy would be my favourites, if only due to having more senior experience and more upside than McGlynn, who seems to have been marginalised this year. Muston is getting a lot of Hawk fans excited with the traditional pre-season reports of him “FLYING!!!”, but so he should be flying in comparison to teammates who have just gone through a gruelling 26-week premiership season. To my mind, Muston has to prove himself thrice over that he won’t break down for a third time with his dodgy ACL. Whitecross is the big smokie.

This is one battle well worth watching in the preseason, and hopefully we’ll even get to find out who wins if the Hawks release their squad before the 160 minutes of madness begin before round 1.

Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth commence in the comments!