Rugby Union

Six Nations: World Cup aside, England the value

England player Jonny Wilkinson
Taking a shower with Jonny Wilkinson doesn't lead anywhere

"I think about individuals in that team a lot when I'm in the shower, but rarely do I consider them all at once…"

Trend analysis of previous World Cups might be useless, writes Jack Houghton, but what is clear is England's current supremacy in this Six Nations...

Beware of trend analysis

Several times on these pages I have warned against following historical trends when betting, arguing that they often masquerade as a form of statistical analysis, when in fact they are anything but, often being based on ludicrously small sample sizes, and rarely measuring what they claim.

In preparing for the Guinness Six Nations, then, I've been concerned that I've become a little obsessed with my own form of trend analysis, knowing all along it was spurious.

Taking a shower with Jonny Wilkinson

It all started when I was taking a shower the other day and couldn't stop thinking about England's 2003 World Cup heroes. (I think about individuals in that team a lot when I'm in the shower, but rarely do I consider them all at once. My shower cubicle is just too small).

It wasn't so much their World Cup performance that I was interested in. No, it was what happened at the following year's Six Nations that was noteworthy.

England were long odds-on, at around 1.608/13, to win the tournament, and were only fractions over even-money for the Grand Slam. Even though Martin Johnson had retired, and Jonny Wilkinson was struggling with injury, most expected the newly-proclaimed best-in-the-world to dominate now back in local waters.

England's demolition of Italy in their first match only strengthened that view. Then they lost to Ireland at home and, despite dominating the second-half, suffered a similar fate at the hands of France in Paris. There was talk of World Cup hangovers and of a period of transition and rebuilding. But, in terms of the Six Nations, that was slow in coming: England had to wait another seven years to regain the title.

What can the World Cup tell us about the Six Nations?

It was these reminisces that got me trending. How good an indicator of Six Nations performance, I pondered, was a team's result in a preceding year's World Cup?

The answer: it's not.

In fact, in eight previous World Cups, the best performing Six Nations' side has only gone on to win the subsequent Six Nations tournament twice. One of these was when England followed-up their runners-up spot in the 1991 World Cup with a 1992 Grand Slam. And the other was when Ireland won the 2016 Six Nations after being the joint-best performing team at the 2015 World Cup. (It was a dismal World Cup for the Northern Hemisphere, with England getting knocked out in that infamous Group A, and the four Six Nations teams who got through to the knock-out stages all being eliminated in the quarter-finals, so it's hardly a glowing indictment of the usefulness of the World Cup as a predictor of Six Nations performance).

So has the market overreacted to England, like it did 2004?

Interestingly, no. According to the Elo ratings I collate on international rugby, England should be much shorter - at around 1.501/2 - to win the title than the 1.875/6 that's freely available.

Now, part of the market's tepidity about England is undoubtedly driven by an opening match in Paris, but beyond that, it's hard to see why punters are so reluctant. After that opener, England are at home against all their main rivals, they have a settled squad and coaching set-up, and it was only a few months ago that they were disassembling New Zealand at a World Cup where England went into the final as odds-on favourites.

Is it France's World Cup that's driving the thinking?

England's odds are partly explained by a flood of money for France in recent weeks. Pundits are making a compelling case for France as value outsiders. They have a young and exciting squad, they have a new management and coaching set-up, and they have drawn England and Ireland at home.

Mostly, though, commentators seem to be focusing on that World Cup performance, where only harshly-punished, ill-timed indiscretions denied them a place in the semi-final.

So, how will the trend analysis fare?

Well, it's not really analysis, is it? It's impossible to measure World Cup "performance" using so simplistic a measure as how far a team got in the tournament, the data-set is comically small, and the other variables affecting the outcomes of matches are impossible to account for. The "analysis" was nothing more than a nerd's post-shower obsession with finishing a spreadsheet that he knew was of little value.

Which is why it should be ignored. England are the best value to claim Six Nations glory, even at odds of 1.875/6. What the World Cup showed us was that they are one of the three best teams in the world (which we knew beforehand, too), and little has happened since that should change that view.

England's opening match could certainly be easier - and it is no gimme - but I make them 1.351/3 shots to disappoint the French in Paris, from where they should be able to capitalise on home advantage to take the Six Nations.

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