RBS Six Nations: Statistics point to over-bet England

Despite market favouritism, England may well face more misery in this year's RBS Six Nations
Despite market favouritism, England may well face more misery in this year's RBS Six Nations

Patriotism may be the cause of artificially short odds on England, writes Jack Houghton, who thinks their world ranking and away-match schedule make them unlikely winners...

"Ireland would have around a 9% higher chance of winning a match against England on neutral ground on current rankings..."

Did you know that just 10 surnames account for over a quarter of the people in Wales? That if you bump into someone at random in anywhere from Mold to Merthyr Tydfil, there is a 6% chance they will be called Jones? And that, according to YouGov, 44% of Welsh residents consider themselves rugby fans, with a quarter going so far to call themselves "rugby lovers"?

All very interesting, perhaps, but you might be asking what this has to do with the upcoming RBS Six Nations. Well, as someone who loves data, and loves using it to find contrary (and profitable) approaches to punting, I've recently been dreaming of rugby betting data.

The dream is this. I get the keys to the Betfair vault and find a list of every person ever to have placed a bet on international rugby. I get their surname, their postcode, and which team they've been betting on. I then use it to find out the extent to which there is a patriotic bias in the way that punters behave.

It's a beautiful dream. Unfortunately, of course, it's not going to happen. For one thing, Betfair doesn't have a vault, or at least not one they've told me about. And even if they did, I don't suppose they would let me anywhere near it.

Not that I'm too disheartened, though, because I think I can make a pretty reliable prediction of what the data would show me anyway: England are over-bet.

Patriotic punting of this sort is nothing new, of course. Those of us who can remember the light-devoid days before Betfair will recall the ridiculous odds offered on England winning football World Cups: 6/1 about a team that should have been double that; the odds sustained by a combination of over-zealous fans and bookmakers who didn't feel the need to offer more realistic prices.

However, post-Betfair, instances of that level of patriotic odds-bias are increasingly rare. With a freer, more internationally-diverse betting market, pricing ricks soon get swallowed up and the bias disappears. My contention, though, is that the unique nature of the RBS Six Nations means that such biases are more likely to survive.

This is based on an assumption that few punters outside of the six nations will punt on the tournament. For starters, Rugby does not have the same ubiquitous international appeal of some other sports. Secondly, even in those nations where it does - New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, for example - there is presumably little interest in the outcome of a regional competition.

This leads to England always being, to me at least, shorter odds than they should be. The most extreme example of this was prior to the 2004 Six Nations. England, World Cup heroes, were long odds-on, at around 1.68/13, to win the tournament, and were only fractions over even-money to win all of their games. Even though Johnson had retired, and Wilkinson was struggling with injury, most expected the newly-proclaimed biggest-of-the-big-fish to dominate now back in local waters. They finished third.

Take this year. England, naturally, are favourites, at around 3.02/1. And yet they shouldn't be.

International rankings maintained by World Rugby have them as the fourth-best team in the world, behind Ireland in third. These rankings - unlike those maintained by some other internationals sporting bodies - are pretty sound. I have a few issues with the extra weighting they give to World Cup matches, and the way they factor in points supremacy within a match, but broadly speaking their numbers tally with a quick-and-dirty ELO system I've put together.

We put the Six Nations teams in the same order (Ireland, England, Wales, France, Scotland and Italy), and we both have a similar differential between Ireland and England which, by my reckoning, would mean that Ireland had around a 9% higher chance of winning a match against England on neutral ground.

Which brings me to another reason why England are artificially short. Various statistical studies have conclusively demonstrated that home advantage is significant in the Five/Six Nations, and has been consistently so since Rugby's move to professionalism in 1995. The fact that England will have to travel away to face Ireland and Wales - their strongest competitors in the tournament - does not bode well for them.

The smart call this year, then, is to keep up with the Jones's and lay England.

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