The British & Irish Lions tour is over. The Super Rugby final has been and gone. While we wait for the start of the European domestic season, international rugby returns with The Rugby Championship.
Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa will battle it out over the next two months for the right to be called the best side in the southern hemisphere. This is the sixth edition of the tournament since its expansion from the tri-nations in 2011 when Argentina joined.
All four sides will play each other home and away over the course of the competition. Teams gain four points for a win and two points for a draw. Teams earn bonus points if they score three more tries than their opponents or loses a match by less than seven points.
If teams are level at the end of the six matches, number of wins will determine the winner, followed by number of wins against the other team or teams tied on points. Points difference would then come into play. To date, there has never been a tie at the top of the Rugby Championship, which has been won five times by New Zealand and once by Australia.
The first betting market you will see is the outright winner market. Here you are betting on which side will top the table and claim the Rugby Championship title. New Zealand are overwhelming favourites, and the best price you can get at the time of writing is 1/6 with 10Bet. South Africa (11/1 with Betfair), Australia (13/1 with Paddy Power) and Argentina (150/1 with Ladbrokes) are not fancied.
Therefore, most bookmakers will offer an alternative market, where you can back the winner without New Zealand – or essentially back who will finish second. This is more competitive: with Unibet, for example, South Africa are 41/50 favourites, Australia are 5/4 and Argentina 15/2.
Ladbrokes offer a dual forecast market, where you can bet on which teams you think will finish in the top two. They make New Zealand and South Africa the most popular choice at 4/5 while you can also bet on each team’s finishing position.
You can also bet on each match once the tournament gets underway. This weekend sees Australia (34/5 with Marathon Bet) host New Zealand (1/8 to win with Betway) and Argentina (7/1 with Bet Victor) travel to South Africa (1/7 with Betfair).
New Zealand form and pointers
Last six matches (most recent first): DLWWWW
Despite suffering a shock loss in the second Test to the Lions and then a draw in the decider, New Zealand remain world rugby’s leading outfit and the form team to beat. Remember that those matches pitted them against the best players from four countries, and they still drew the series.
They have only lost two matches since the Rugby Championship began and if you include tri-nations series before that, they have won 14 out of 21 championships. They have been able to cope with the retirements of many great players following the 2015 World Cup success and are justifiably favourites again.
Even the loss of Dane Coles and Jordie Barrett for the start of the campaign, and Ben Smith on sabbatical for the end of it should not inconvenience them hugely as they have plenty of experienced cover on hand. They illustrated their strength in depth by deciding to drop Julian Savea, a man with 46 international tries to his name.
Australia form and pointers
Last six matches (most recent first): LLLWWW
Australia are the only other team to have tasted Rugby Championship success, clinching the title two years ago. However, they go into the tournament on the back of three straight defeats, and starting against New Zealand is going to be tough. They lost to England and Ireland, the best teams in the Six Nations, but a home loss to Scotland in their last outing was a huge disappointment. Before that, their tour of Europe began well with wins over Wales, Scotland and France, but the most recent results prove that they have been unable to step up against stronger outfits.
Their squad includes seven uncapped players, suggesting a lack of experience may just hinder them a little as they look to build towards the 2019 World Cup. However, they are sometimes at their best when everybody is writing them off so don’t discount them completely.
South Africa form and pointers
Last six matches (most recent first): WWWLLL
South Africa head into the Rugby Championship with arguably their best chance of winning it yet. They beat France in a three-match series over the summer, although that followed a terrible run of form in Europe which included defeats to England, Italy and Wales.
At home, and in the southern hemisphere, they tend to be a different proposition and won the tri-nations as recently as 2009. However, they do not always make the best use of the advantage they can gain from playing at altitude by not scheduling fixtures at those venues.
They have mostly kept faith with the players that helped them to a clean sweep over France, but with the addition of a few uncapped players. Their fly-halves – Handre Pollard, Elton Jantjies and Curwin Bosch – have just 24 caps between them. It is a bold choice but could be one that backfires on them.
Argentina form and pointers
Last six matches (most recent first): WLLLLL
Argentina come into the championship in horrible form. A 45-29 victory over Georgia was their first win since they beat Japan in November of last year. They would have expected to have got more out of England’s visit than three defeats (albeit none of them heavy) as they looked to build on last year’s Rugby Championship which included a home win over South Africa.
Now they start this year’s campaign by travelling to South Africa, and the nature of the tournament means you cannot grow into a campaign – any early defeat tends to mean you are in trouble. Experienced scrum-half Tomas Cubelli is back, but the form of the Jaguares in Super Rugby does not suggest Argentina are anywhere near ready to battle for overall victory.
Predictions and betting tips
New Zealand are odds-on favourites for many reasons and should easily complete a sixth Rugby Championship victory in or even before early October. However unattractive odds of 1/6 at best are, that is the obvious pick.
I think South Africa may struggle. They are missing experience in key positions and are not hosting enough games at altitude so backing Australia at 5/4 in the market without New Zealand appeals to me, as does the dual forecast New Zealand & Australia at the same price with Ladbrokes. If it goes wrong for South Africa (or even Australia), then Argentina to pinch third place at 14/5 with Ladbrokes is worth a small bet.
Regarding this week’s matches, there is no value in backing the expected winners (New Zealand and South Africa) as even if you combine them into a double, your returns will be minimal. Instead, take a look at the handicap or margin of victory markets instead, perhaps doubling up on the odds Ladbrokes offer for both to win by 13 or more points at around 6/4.