Tony Calvin previews the Rugby World Cup. The betting momentum is with South Africa - and so is our rugby union tipster.
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Procrastination may be the thief of time, but it is often the pickpocket of punters too, and those who have dithered about backing South Africa for the Rugby World Cup, starting on September 20, are now presented with a dilemma.
The Springboks were available at 13/1 in November last year, and were even on offer at 10-1 in places after beating Australia 35-17 on July 20th, but the market has finally cottoned on to their outstanding claims for the tournament.
The shortening odds present price-sensitive backers – and surely all Sporting Life readers fall under that category, eh? - with that age-old question to answer.
Do I look elsewhere after missing the wedding, or do I still think there is value in wading in late and forcefully announcing my attentions at the reception, even if the free bar has closed?
My personal answer is that I have been hammering away at the Boks for a while, and nothing I have seen in the last 12 months or so has deterred me for reaching for the chisel at this juncture and pressing up at 9/2, and a touch bigger on the exchanges.
In short, I think they win.
Certainly, the price differential, even after the recent tumble in odds, between them and tournament favourites New Zealand has no basis or logic on current form.
Let’s start with the bare results, before we get on to some of the personnel.
South Africa went into last year’s Rugby Championship having lost 11 of their last 12 matches against New Zealand, and had copped a few hidings in the process, too. It was only in September 2017 that the All Blacks beat them 57-0, having trashed them 57-15 and 41-13 in their two previous meetings.
But they won 36-34 in Wellington – granted, Beauden Barrett would have been more accurate off the tee if kicking in high heels (he owes me big-style for that last missed conversion to level it up at 36-36) – to gain their first win in the fixture since 2014 and their first victory in New Zealand since a 32-29 Hamilton success in 2009.
They nearly backed up that win in Pretoria three weeks later, but somehow contrived to throw away a 30-13 lead to lose 32-30, with the All Blacks scoring two tries in the last five minutes, the last being converted after the hooter (Richie Mo’unga nailed that one, unfortunately).
The Boks got their own back to a large degree with a last-play Herschel Jantjies try to draw 16-16 in New Zealand in July, and that pretty much underlines where both teams are at the moment.
Forget the laughable world rankings, this pair are in the best in the world, with precious little between them. In fact, the aggregate scores from their last three meetings read 82-82 (and two of those were in New Zealand).
I reckon South Africa are in a far better place, too.
They showed they have enviable strength in depth – matched perhaps only by England – when a second-string XV beat Argentina 24-18 last month (their first-choice side having physically dominated and man-handled the same nation in a 46-13 away victory the week before) to secure their first Rugby Championship/Tri-Nations title since 2009.
The sheer size and physicality of their forwards is frightening, and you have to love their back-row options, where Diane Vermeulen (who had a recent spell playing in Japan) has turned back the clock and Pieter Steph du Tout is immense at 6 or 7, and he can step in at lock, too.
I am always loathe to talk about set-piece strength, given the pendulum-nature of scrums in international rugby these days – domination is often dictated by engagement and is intermittent and often fleeting, and obviously each team has a replacement front-row on the bench that can change matters, too, as we saw in the recent Australia v Samoa game – but they have looked pretty solid in the main, and often devastating in parts, as Argentina discovered in that 33-point drubbing.
You would have to be a little concerned by the back-up in the three-quarters, but I think they have the best half-back combination in the competition in Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard (and they certainly do have world-class back up at nine) and the star-in-waiting of the tournament, Cheslin Kolbe.
If you haven’t seen him play, then prepare to be wowed by our Ches. If you thought Jason Robinson had quick feet and was elusive, you are in for some treat with this pocket rocket.
Lyric Fantasy had nothing on this speed freak (non-racing readers can google the horse in question, should they feel the need….).
I do have big concerns about them defensively at full-back – any Wasps fan will tell you that you’d rather have Mr Tickle, than Willie Le Roux, as your last line of defence, so I want Warrick Gelant to get the nod – and the Northern Hemisphere sides may take heart from their autumn showing against them last year.
But Southern Hemisphere sides are like drunks on the way home from an all-dayer in those October and November internationals on their travels – in short, ripe for a mugging – and the 2019 Springboks look a very different beast altogether.
You have to love their preparation under a very impressive coach in Rassie Erasmus – they were in Japan early too, for their match against the hosts earlier this month, where they sounded suitably commanding in a 41-7 victory – and their draw.
Of course, they are in the same pool as New Zealand (the other sides, headed by Italy, are in for a proper humping), and they meet in their opening match – more of that when I have a look at the opening round of matches at a later date – and that at least ensures they won’t be locking horns again until the final, should both get there.
That’s not a bad safety-net.
On the evidence of recent internationals, South Africa should be favourites against any side they may face in the quarter or semi-finals – though England supporters may dispute that, and I can see their argument, if not agree with it – and I can’t have them as anything other than marginal underdogs in the final should the All Blacks get there.
If (and a fair if, this) the draw pans out as the betting suggests – and by that I mean the Boks losing to New Zealand in the opener, which I would obviously question, before seeing the sides anyway - then South Africa will meet Ireland in the quarters and Wales (or Australia) in the semis, and I would fancy them to beat both of the Celt sides.
Wales could be problematical given their defence, but Ireland are not in a good place or in any danger of scaring Mr Jelly at the moment, let alone Mr Erasmus, even after watching their 19-10 win in Cardiff last weekend. I see a theme from my youth re-surfacing here, so I better ditch that or else Roger Hargeaves will be on the phone complaining...
I could blather on – and explore the Scotland-England quarter-and-semi route should they win that opener - but the word-count is mounting up, so I better speed up.
The suggestion from this quarter is clear, though.
Back South Africa at 9/2, however the opener and draw plays out.
On to elsewhere, where I have already touched upon New Zealand to a fair degree.
They should be favourites in their bid for a third straight world title – when they click, they are obviously devastating, but the pastings are usually reserved for Australia (and Tonga) – but I can’t have them, even at the top price of 11/8.
As with South Africa, I am willing to forgive their end—of-season autumn showings here and a defeat to Ireland, and a fortuitous 16-15 win at Twickenham in November a week earlier, but their form in the Rugby Championship this summer certainly didn’t have the clinical swagger of All Blacks of old.
In fact, they should have lost in Argentina, only drew with South Africa at home, and their two games against the Wallabies were not anywhere as good or bad as the scorelines would suggest.
In short, their 47-26 loss in Perth could have been very different had Scott Barrett not been sent off with the scores standing at 13-12 in the first half, and Australia were very wasteful in the opening quarter, with try-line attacks and with the boot, before succumbing to an on-paper humiliating 36-0 defeat, which flattered the Kiwis in the re-match.
They simply don’t have the settled brilliance of past teams coming into this tournament – and even then the 2011 intake only edged France 8-7 on home soil - and several spots will be up for grabs at the tournament progresses.
I’d be pretty sure they don’t know their best XV, as it stands, and that is never a good look.
Their rock in recent years, Brodie Retallick – he has the kind of granite face you just know will hurt your fist more if you chin him – has been a shadow of his best this season, and he won’t be available until the quarter-finals anyway due to a shoulder injury.
Throw in their number 10 dilemma, and each-of-two selections elsewhere around the park, and I think they are eminently beatable, for the all three Barrett brothers are some specimens and Kieran Read finally hit a bit of form in his last match against the Aussies.
A couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have had England on my mind, after their Six Nations collapse and in a pool which includes France and Argentina, two sides that really come into their own in World Cup competition.
But I was very impressed by them in their two games against Wales, even if the sides shared a match piece, as they appear to have added pace and nous to their size, looking close to perfecting a deeply effective off-loading game from their premier monsters such as Billy Vunipola.
Of course, it all came right with a rather loud bang in that summary second-half dismissal of Ireland, and that would have sent a big signal to every team in the tournament.
Namely, they were back in business.
What was the most encouraging aspect of those warm-up games was the depth that England showed – very much along the lines of South Africa in terms of sheer physicality (all their forwards are proper units) and squad back-up – and of course Eddie Jones coached in Japan for six years and famously was the architect of the national side’s 32-30 defeat of South Africa in 2015.
His local knowledge will be invaluable. You’d have a decent bet that England are booked into the best hotels and training grounds, at the very least.
They are big runners and the betting suggests (again, I don’t necessarily agree) that they are in line for a semi-final with New Zealand (or the Boks) in the semis.
That’s a biggie, but they could be up to it.
Much to my disappointment, I am struggling to see a winner outside of the top three in the betting, as much as Australia looked in much better nick – and far more dangerous in attack - in the recent Rugby Championship and are fully capable of a one-off shock against the odds. They could offer a bit of trading value at 18/1 to some, but they didn’t impress one jot against a limited Samoa side last weekend.
Forget those world rankings (again), I don’t think I have ever seen a team regress so much, so quickly as Ireland have since their November 16-9 defeat of New Zealand.
It’s as if someone has flicked an off-switch, and they simply look a side who don’t look anywhere close to handling a top side in their current form and, perhaps, mind-set. It just seems a troubled camp to outsiders, right or wrong, though some may be lured in by that 19-10 defeat of Wales.
No such worrying issues with the beaten team there, and Warren Gatland reckons his side go into the tournament with their best squad yet.
I’d take serious issue with that, but it is true that this is a more open World Cup than in recent renewals – the betting backs that up, as regards the number of plausible winners – and there won’t be a better defensively-drilled or fitter side in Japan.
They pride themselves on their 80-minute game and rear-guard excellence, which is perhaps understandable given you’d have scowling Shaun Edwards chewing your ears off for a couple of months if missing a tackle.
But I don’t think they have the attacking threat and potency to go all the way – they seem at least one world-class winger and two front-rowers short to me, and the injury to Gareth Anscombe has robbed them of a real threat from either 10 or 15 – so I can’t have Wales or Ireland at 10/1 (though they are a bit bigger in exchange-land).
Ireland’s biggest problem is that they will either play New Zealand or South Africa in the quarter-finals (should they successfully negotiate Scotland and Japan in their pool) – so they will be flying home the following day if recent form is anything to go by – while Wales could be locking horns with England again in the last eight should they fall to Australia in their pool match.
I always try to make a case for an outsider whenever possible (or attempt to, anyway) – Scotland’s 35-34 loss to Australia in 2015 still haunts me but let’s not go there, eh Mr Joubert? – but I can’t go near the Murrayfield mob again as, for the same reasons as Ireland, they will be immediately pitched against New Zealand or South Africa if getting through their pool.
And, as much as they always have a big game in them, I just can’t see Scotland challenging that pair.
At home maybe (they only lost 26-20 to South Africa in the autumn); elsewhere, no.
I watched Japan’s 34-20 defeat of the USA in Suva to win the Pacific Nations Cup while I was away in August and I was expecting a lot more from them – especially as the Americans lost their influential fly-half in the first-half – so I am not totally sold that the host nation are as dangerous floaters that many believe.
Sure, they have some brilliant athletes – it won’t be just nervous commentators that will keep an eye out for winger Kenki Fukuoka, as he scored a brilliant, disallowed try against the States and looked like lightning (though he picked up a knock in their recent loss to South Africa) - and it could be that home advantage takes them to another level, and they did take care of Fiji and Tonga convincingly in that tournament, too.
But, having also watched a dire Fiji v Samoa match (Fiji won 10-3 courtesy of a breakaway try against the run of play) on the World Rugby live streaming twitter feed – it’s all rock and roll when I go on holiday – I don’t have a high opinion of that tournament, with Fiji bitterly disappointing in the summer.
Stranger things have happened but, like the Sunwolves in Super Rugby, Japan’s defence is nowhere near as good as their attack and they will ship too many easy points, as the recent South African game maybe underlined once again.
Which leaves us with France and Argentina from England’s pool as punchy outsiders with a tier-one, and World Cup, pedigree to consider.
Again, these sides can beat anyone in a one-off and whoever progresses from their pool alongside England – I am assuming Jones’ men won’t blow it again early a la 2015 – doesn’t have an overly-daunting quarter-final against Wales or Australia.
Neither would be a massive underdog in that match – especially as getting through their pool would suggest a fair showing from them going into that game – and then one of the big boys looms in the semis.
Everything is about the price obviously, but you’d want a touch bigger than their current prices in the outright considering their four-match acca to win the tournament would entail beating each other (or England), then Wales or Australia, then probably South Africa and New Zealand in either order.
That comes out at bigger than their current outright price in my book, though on the face of it France do look pretty enticing at the general 33/1 (and 40s in a place), and Argentina are certainly not the mugs their price of 70 on Betfair suggests, though they have gone off the boil a bit.
Maybe there is an angle with them when we come to do our secondary piece on specials, and also Australia, too.
But that’s for another time and place. Stay tuned.
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- Preview posted at 1230BST on 10/09/2019
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