Kicking yourself

Rugby Union – Six Nations, starts 4th February

A puff-piece in Tuesday’s Evening Standard had SpIn trading spokesman Wayne Lincoln expressing his desire for “tight scrappy games with few points”. Human nature makes us buyers of tries and points; we want to see the extraordinary happen, we remember the 42-33 thrillers and forget the ground out 5-9 slug-fests, we are tempted by the unlimited up of the buy against the limited return of the sell.

The fact that markets are often skewed against the buyer is no secret. Sporting Index is quite happy to advise punters to sell – they know human nature is difficult to overcome and, in any case, I’m sure they’d all sit more comfortably at the trading desk with a more balanced market. It would take an extraordinary doublethink to imagine that a bookmaker (or market maker if your snobbery prefers) is doling out benevolent information from the kindness of their icy flint hearts.

This year’s tournament is as open as ever. France are favourites on the outright index (60/40/20/10/5/0) at 37-40 and England are a lowly fourth at 24-27. Disregarding Scotland and Italy (sorry), all of the four other nations are title contenders, but each has positives and negatives.

France might have reached the World Cup final, but let’s not forget, at times in the group stages they looked abject. Wales were by far and away the best home nation in New Zealand, but can they shake off their tag of perennial ‘nearly men’? England’s disastrous World Cup has been exhaustively documented; they enter the Six Nations with a new-look squad eager to impress. Ireland look solid, full of experience, and have the advantage of three home fixtures. As far as the outright index goes, I think it’s a case of take your pick.

Rugby Union, perhaps second only to cricket, is a sport designed for spread betting. Points, tries, drop-goals, shirts, yellow cards all offer potential. As such, each individual match and the tournament as a whole offers myriad markets. I’d echo the advice of Brett Arends’ book Spread Betting: A Football Fan’s Guide, a dated tome but still full of good sense, that it is better to focus on one or two markets rather than spread oneself thinly to cover a variety of potentially contradictory indices.

Assume Standard readers have heeded Lincoln’s sagacity and are now proudly selling tries, allowing Sporting to even their exposure in the process, – let’s leave this market alone. I think the Kicking Metres markets are worth a glance and are, potentially, overpitched.

The market is a prediction of the ‘aggregate distance’ of all successful kicks at goal. Sporting goes 730-760 on England’s kicking metres for the tournament. It’s saying it thinks the make-up will be around 150 on average in each match England play.

This feels high to me. Sure, it might be tempting to think Hodgson, or whomever Lancaster picks to wear 10 by the end of the tournament, will bang over three penalties from on or around the half-way and you’re in gravy. This market exploits the buyer’s folly that extraordinary kicking performances happen more often than they do.

Things can, and do, go wrong: the wind might be adverse, the kicker might have an off day, tries are scored in the corners making conversions devilishly tricky. But there’s another consideration – the match conditions. There can be little more demoralising than the buyer of kicking metres watching his side go a couple of tries down early on – the side are now likely to go striving for tries in an effort to make up the deficit and will often turn down kickable shots at goal in the search for a five-pointer. This can lead to alarmingly low make-ups, trust me, I don’t think I’m ready to forgive Rory Clegg just yet.

Ireland’s kicking metres are pitched even higher, 740-770, and they will play three fixtures at Lansdowne Road where the weather can be absolutely filthy with mists as thick as soup. Certainly scope for a sell here, despite the undoubted quality of O’Gara and Sexton.

The joy of spread betting is it allows us the freedom to flick allegiances between sides and enjoy what is always a glorious tournament. Selling kicking metres has the added advantage of following Lincoln’s advice and ditching buying, whilst still allowing us to pray and hope for flowing, running rugby with plenty of tries (preferably in the corners into the wind).

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