The Ben Cousins issue

You may think that the biggest peril looming in the Ben Cousins saga, which has taken an upturn with the AFL approving his application to rejoin the league, is his predilection for nasty stuff that streams through his veins. Oh no. The real problem is fantasy coaches who are now in mortal danger of becoming addicted to Cousins’ fantasy point scoring potential in 2009.

Generally, coaches know what to do in this situation. A senior player with proven elite-level statistical output, missing a year through misadventure, comes back to the game with an attractively discounted price and a padlock on his spot in fantasy 22s. Think Nick Stevens and Troy Simmonds this year, Nigel Lappin in 2007, or Josh Francou earlier in the oughties.

However, we have never had to deal with a fantasy-relevant player whose injury is not just to the body – though with a history of hamstring injuries, there’s that to deal with as well – but to the mind, as a self-confessed drug addict. Add the associations with criminal elements, midnight swims in rivers, excursions to Arizona and the rest and it’s a circus freak show. How to assess his prospects in the AFL in 2009?

Let’s start with his price. Following the usual rule of a 42% discount on his year-ago production, Cousins will be priced at an average of 52.8 points per game in Dream Team, and 60.7 for Super Coach – I’ve got him at $252,600 in DT and $325,600 in SC in the Fanplanner based on a rough 10% magic number increase. This will put him at the equivalent price of Nick Stevens this year, after an early-season ankle injury in 2007 deflated Stevens’ price down to a point where he was a no-brainer midfield keeper.

Next, let’s check his historical numbers. Cousins was never an elite fantasy midfielder in his first nine years in the league, never reaching a DT average of 90, but that changed in the grand final years of 2005-06 where he topped 95 in DT both years and cleared the 100 in SC by a large margin. Obviously the advent of Chris Judd as the premier inside player in the competition did fabulous things for Cousins’ numbers, allowing him to play more outside. His mark tallies changed markedly: in 17 games in 2004 he only managed four or more marks twice with no bags of six, whereas in 2005 he got to four marks 12 times, and managed six marks on seven of those occasions.

2007, of course, is when the wheels fell off. I won’t go into the off-field stuff, you all know it. Suspended by the club, he finally returned in triumphant fashion with a legendary DT score of 140 against Sydney in round 16, only to break down in the first final against Port Adelaide clutching his torn hamstring. Rumblings in the media at the time included accusations of over-training, not helped by Cousins’ bagful-of-walnuts physique that looked a tad too muscly for football.

All of these factors must weigh on your decision on whether to buy him for your 2009 squads. That’s not a throwaway line, either: coaches I am listening to are being tempted by Cousins’ pure numbers, as if he’s just another Stevens or Francou with a simple injury, putting aside the ridiculous farce that Cousins’ life has turned into at times over the past few years.

There seems to be a mindset among a certain type of footy fan (who is also a fantasy coach in his/her spare time) that their club should just sweep all of Cousins’ problems under the rug because the only important thing is football, and certain clubs desperately need the sort of player they remember him as being. I feel a little skeptical of that sort of blind hope. It’s true that Brisbane, Collingwood and St Kilda are short a midfielder or two, but is Cousins really the answer? He’s going to be 30 next year, he’s not a game-breaker like Judd. His game has subtly shifted to more of an outside role, so to be as effective as he was at West Coast he’s going to need a Judd type (not to mention Daniel Kerr rotating through) to feed him the pill.

So we come to his potential suitors. St Kilda is the club most associated with him in the media, though Brisbane is also making noises, and has earlier picks in both drafts. Which would be better for his fantasy production?

My feeling is that the Lions would be ideal, and that’s down to one man: Simon Black. Just as Travis Johnstone‘s AFL career was reinvigorated this year by the Brownlow medallist, Black could fill that Judd-shaped hole in Cousins’ preferred gameplan to a tee. At the moment there’s not much to write home about in the Lions midfield from a fantasy perspective, with players like Justin Sherman and Michael Rischitelli burning fantasy coaches who showed faith in them in previous years. The advent of Cousins would be immeasurably helpful to their B midfield rotation, which contends with Fremantle for the worst in the league.

If he does go to the Saints, I think the likelihood is that the big winner from a fantasy perspective is Nick Dal Santo, who would thrive with less attention from taggers and return to being a top six Super Coach midfielder. Cousins himself may be used as a decoy by the Saints… when not suffering further hammy twangs from the concrete underlay at Docklands.

Personally, as a rather conservative fantasy coach, I am not going to take the chance on Cousins at this stage, especially if he does become a Saint. I don’t trust his hamstring, I don’t trust his temperament, and I don’t trust Ross Lyon to give him enough time on ground in the guts. To me, he’s like Nick Stevens at the start of this year, except a week before round 1 a horse has kicked him in the near-healed ankle and you’ll have to wonder each week if he’s truly fit or not. That’s the sort of uncertainty he represents.

Then again, I went through the same mental process with Lance Franklin and those rumours this year, and look where that got me. 🙁

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