Tony Calvin picks out four selections ahead of the opening round of Rugby World Cup games, including hosts Japan's clash with Russia.
And on to the first batch of games, we come.
It may make for safety-first reading, but I always tend to tread carefully and keep stakes low in the openers, especially as the lesser teams can really turn things around in the intensity of tournament rugby, as we saw most dramatically with Japan beating South Africa 34-32 in 2015 and, to a far lesser extent, Tonga edging France 19-14 in 2011.
Teams can be caught cold, with complacency a big factor, and I like to see each side at least once before really unloading, hence the conservative staking plan.
The second (and third) tier sides get more time together to train and gel more effectively than a stolen week or two here and there allowed previously, and this leads to a greater cohesion and sense of unity.
Take Russia in the tournament-opener, for example.
The handicap line for their match against Japan ranges from 39 to 41 - who said it was just racing odds-compilers that read from the same hymn book, though a two-point difference is as big as it gets with rugby these days - but, from what recent evidence tells us, that would appear to be at least 10 points too low.
This Russian side lost 85-15 to Italy last month, and since then they were beaten 35-22 in Jersey, a club that only finished fourth in the Championship last season, and 42-14 in Connacht.
That is 100-point potential for the top sides playing them in their pool, if putting in an 80-minute shift.
But, then again, Russia only lost 32-27 to Japan in Gloucester last season (they were 16-0 and 27-24 up, and it was still 27-27 after 71 minutes), and it is not as if the host nation are renowned for keeping moderate sides out, either.
Well, that is a bit harsh as they restricted Tonga to seven points at home last month and nil-ed Georgia last summer.
This game gives you some idea of the dilemma punters face when sides are giving away big starts to the lesser sides though, and that is without factoring in the conditions, which could have a massive impact on results and how you should bet.
We can expect hot and humid apparently – that equals a slippery ball – and rain is an ever-present threat (in some areas more than others, as Ireland and Scotland are discovering).
So it is important to know your indoor stadiums, and ones with a retractable roof in the case of bad weather.
Anyway, I am told space is at a premium and I always over-write, so here is my take on all of the opening eight pool games (Russia play again in the ninth, so that is my cut-off point here).
Shorter and sharper maybe than I would like, but hopefully helpful. It is always tricky early doors, though, as I have outlined above, especially as plenty of the teams haven’t been announced as yet. But I will give my views as of now.
In the tournament-opener on Friday, I would probably have to side with Japan giving the 39-point start away, given Russia’s dismal warm-up matches, if my hand was forced (it isn’t going to be).
You would have to expect a more cohesive and honest showing from the underdogs on this world stage, but if Japan get their power, high-tempo, fluid game going then this could prove extreme one-way traffic. The ground is open but no rain is currently forecast until the weekend.
Surely, the most relevant form-line here is Russia’s 85-15 defeat to Italy last month. There is a five-minute highlights package of the match on ultimaterugby.com and Russia’s defence had more holes it than a dartboard at the most run-down pub imaginable.
But it’s not a match to hold a strong betting attraction for me, though Russia look a fair price at 10/1 in places in the "Race To 10 points" market, as they may be able to hold their own early doors (eight of their 15 points against Italy came in the opening 18 minutes) before capitulating.
In fact, I am going to recommend a minimum-stakes bet on them at 10/1 (Sky Bet) to score ten points first. They did lead 16-0 when the sides met last time after all, though that included an interception try.
I’ll take the other matches in chronological order, and concentrate on the betting angles (if any), rather match analysis.
I’d favour Australia at evens on the -15 line (Betway) against Fiji, as I wasn’t at all impressed by the underdogs in the Pacific Nations Cup and the Wallabies are an improving outfit.
But, in truth, there is probably little mileage either way on the handicap lines, as recent matches between these sides hammer home.
The Aussies won by 23 on home soil in 2017 and by 15 in Cardiff in 2015. And Fiji are one of those sides that can obviously blossom under the dedicated umbrella of a World Cup, as Wales know only too well. The raw talent they possess is behind very few.
I can’t argue with any of the prices in the France v Argentina game.
France are the correct marginal favourites – they won their last meeting 28-13 in Lille last November – and the handicap lines of one and two would seem bang on, given neutral soil. The draw probably isn’t a bad runner at 25/1.
Incidentally, like the England v Tonga game, this is to be played in the Sapporo Dome, on a retractable surface, where the grass slides in and replaces the baseball surface. The video of this transformation is rather impressive, if you want to seek it out.
And so on to the game of the opening weekend, New Zealand v South Africa.
Anybody who has read any of my preview articles will know that I am all over the Springboks in this tournament. And although the eight-point start for them disappeared on Tuesday, I still believe the seven-point line with Hills is about two too much, so take that start.
A South Africa win is very much on the cards, too, though the odds on them on that front have been shortening.
Logic and recent form tells you that there is nothing between these sides in the last 12 months, as both have won by two points away from home against each other in a couple of thrillers, with the sides drawing 16-16 in New Zealand last month. So the scores stand at 82-82 in their last three games.
There is a part of me that hopes that South Africa narrowly lose out here – actually a big part of me as that will probably mean that they will be in the other half of the draw to both England and New Zealand in the knock-out stages – and, of course, the All Blacks have it in their armoury to blow any side away.
And you suspect the fact that they haven’t dominated the talk coming into this tournament for once, after a series of unconvincing results in the recent Rugby Championship (and the 36-0 defeat of Australia wasn’t as dominant as the score-line suggests), will be all the motivation they need.
I do sense they may even be under-rated, though, crucially, not by the bookmakers, which is all that I am bothered by.
There is surely no justification in them being seven-point favourites against the Boks on neutral soil in their current form, and I have bet accordingly. I am keeping the draw onside at around 33/1 on Betfair, obviously...
Sunday's matches kick off with Italy v Namibia, and I imagine even some hardy rugby union fans will be giving this 6.15am match a miss and staying in their pit.
That could be a mistake as I think Italy -28 in a couple of places – the 29 line is acceptable, too, if you can’t access that – is a bet, so I really hope the weather is kind to us (it is an open pitch).
I know what I said earlier about big handicap lines, but bear with me.
For that reason, I imagine backing Italy to give away a start that spans four converted tries is probably not for many people – they were smashed on the scoreboard against England and France in their most recent warm-up games - and Namibia actually lead the head-to-heads between the sides 2-1. Though as the last game was in 2001, that has zero relevance here.
What undoubtedly has is that, before their 85-15 defeat of Russia last month, you had to go back to 2011 to find the last time they had beaten any side by more than 30 points (and that was Russia, too) and before that it was 2006.
And they are often infuriating the way they fail to convert possession and territorial dominance into points, most obviously in their Six Nations game against France earlier this year.
That was one of the most frustrating games I have ever watched from a betting perspective, proper full swear-box mode.
But it is true that Italy generally have more about them these days, certainly enough to easily dismiss the minnows, and they may not come smaller than Namibia in this tournament. On what their recent results tell us anyway.
They seem to do well against Uruguay, and beat them 30-28 in June, but this Namibia side lost 20-0 to Russia in their most recent international and also went down 34-13 in Spain last November.
I wouldn’t profess to know much about them individually – so this bet has something of the unknown about it, and that is never a good look - but as a collective they would seem ripe for a fair plucking in this tournament, and Italy are the first plucky pluckers up.
Given some of the forecasts that have been bandied about in recent days – there was talk of an inch of rain this weekend in Yokohama – punters may be better off waiting until nearer the time before getting involved in the Ireland v Scotland match.
At the moment, I’d be leaning towards Scotland and their 10-point start, but I am not getting involved personally just yet, so I can’t recommend a bet.
The same goes for Wales v Georgia on Monday morning, for which the handicap is 27 and 28, which leaves us with Sunday’s England v Tonga as the last of the opening eight games to consider.
Given that I am just about to recommend England giving away the general 39-point start, I probably should re-write some of the above comments, but I really do see a hammering in the offering.
Tonga put up a much better showing against Fiji and Canada in the recent Pacific tournament after being beaten 41-7 by Japan, but this is a side that lost 74-24 in Wales last year and were run through at will by New Zealand in a 92-7 drubbing last month.
If England are anywhere near as good as they looked at home in their warm-up games, then Tonga could be in for a proper tonking, I suspect.
One last point before I go.
If I see any bets on the day in any matches during the tournament, I’ll tweet accordingly on @tony_calvin, and copy in @Sportinglife, too.
Posted at 0910 BST on 19/09/19.
Related Rugby World Cup links
- Rugby World Cup 2019 Hub Page
- Rugby World Cup: Tony Calvin's outright betting preview
- Rugby Union World Cup Guide - Fixtures, pools, history, odds and highlight video
- Rugby World Cup: Squads & team-by-team guide
- How the World Cup will be won
- VOTE: Who will win the World Cup
- QUIZ: Rugby World Cup
- RWC: View from the press box
- More Rugby World Cup news
- More Rugby Union news
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