SPORTS BETTING analyst Ben Hathaway (@SkipHopz) reckons England look a little overrated for their opening autumn international against South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday.
England v South Africa | Saturday 14:30 | Sky Sports 1
Imagine a scenario, if you will, where a bookie will offer you 9/2 (Paddy Power) on a side in the Match Odds with the following information freely available to all…
One side is W11-D1-L1 in the head-to-heads, and that’s at all venues, including winning the last four away games.
That side have lost once in the head-to-heads in over a decade, and that was a slender two-point defeat on their travels when they were 13-6 in front at half-time.
You'd think with such a dominant record, 9/2 on the side which has lost 11 of the last 13 would seem about right, maybe a touch of value at home. But then you see the most recent games is W4-D0-L0 in favour of the other team so maybe 9/2 is potentially on the anaemic side.
Then you look closer, and see it’s the side that have the dominant record, who’ve an 84.6% win rate over the last decade. It is they who are 9/2 to win.
You can also now get them (South Africa) with an 11-point headstart at 11/10 (Bet365). How can that possibly be right?
It was only a year ago that South Africa lost in the semi-finals of the World Cup to the greatest side of the modern era New Zealand, and that was by a very fine two-point margin when they were five points up at half time.
The Springboks powerhouse second row of Eben Etzebeth and Luuk De Jager looked like they could bully any team off the park.
England had long since packed their bags, of course, in their home World Cup. Their back row of Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola had been exposed as ITM cup standard, at best whilst Mike Brown would’ve looked slow and ponderous on the county circuits. The knacker's yard beckoned.
Don't discount the Springboks
Fast-forward a year, England have won their last 10 games, completed a Grand Slam and the world is rosy.
The Boks are in disarray. Not one of the Francois Louw, Schalk Burger or Duane Vermeulen back row remain. Quotas, odd selection, strange coaching decisions, inconsistencies and a plethora of other sins surround them.
The Boks are down, in theory, to their sixth or even seventh choice openside. They are a side short on confidence. But how bad are they?
In the last 12 months South Africa have played nine games and W4-D0-L5; not great, yet not abysmal. Have they had any freebies against the farmhands of Italy, or the tinpot French side, for example? No. Six games in the Rugby Championship against elite opposition, and a tri-series against Ireland, which they won.
The Boks have taken a duo of fearful hammerings against the All Blacks but who hasn't? Taking the games against the Men In Black out of the picture, they've not lost by more than six points. And losing away in Argentina by two is no disgrace.
Have South Africa played well over the last year? Absolutely not. Can they play well? Absolutely. Will they play well on Saturday? Probably not. Yet their issue has been in letting games slip, losing ones they shouldn’t, not closing them out, or being sloppy. They aren't routinely getting slaughtered home and away by 20.
Their tight five is remarkably good. Their set piece should go well (whether it does or not, who knows, but the personnel are there). Willem Alberts would be their first choice blindside, for me, and he surprisingly plays. Warren Whiteley is no mug – he's not Vermeulen, but very few are.
It’s a very strange looking back line, however. What does Rohan Van Rensburg have to do, exactly, to start at inside centre? Genuinely baffling stuff.
England at their weakest ebb in 2016?
Talking of genuinely baffling, we switch attention to the W9-D0-L0 record of England in 2016. How can you criticise them under Eddie Jones? You can't. What you can do is identify the factors that helped England get this record.
I would argue heavily their most important players during this run, in order, have been Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, and James Haskell. Three of those five are missing here.
The age-old conundrum rears its head, the openside turnover issue. This has been answered by a 21 year-old second row that has been able to play like an openside, both in turnovers and tackles, as well as his traditional second row duties. Throw in Haskell 2.0, playing his best ever games in an England shirt (v Australia) and you've covered the issue. I don’t think this is unrelated to Haskell having a year playing alongside George Smith at Wasps.
Now, Jones has an issue. Tom Wood and Robshaw have shown, plodding round the field, padding their stats against the weaker nations, time and time again, they aren't a good enough back row combination against the top sides.
Courtney Lawes is a downgrade on Kruis, and Itoje. You have the magnificent work rate of Joe Launchbury as a plus, but this is the worst England pack of the year. Three Northampton players make-up England’s eight – odd given the dross they've served up this season up front.
Wood ahead of Nathan Hughes and Marland Yarde ahead of Semesa Rokoduguni are on a par with decisions by the Boks to start Damian de Allende instead of Van Rensburg.
The betting angle
All I’ve read is about how bad South Africa will be and that England should win by 25+ points. They may well do. I think it’s certainly less than a 50/50 shout that they lose by more than 11 points, however, and comfortably.
I think this could be relatively cagey and have therefore considered South Africa/England in the Half-Time/Full-Time market at 6/1 (SkyBet). Other markets of interest were the Springboks with a +5 first-half handicap start at 1/1 (Betfred) and England -6 on the second-half handicap at 10/11 (William Hill).
I like the widely available South Africa +11 points at 11/10 (Bet365). This may even drift further by kick-off, so I'm holding fire and trying to wait for +12, but I still like the 11-point start at the odds available.