There are eight matches left in the Rugby World Cup, all featuring 0% commission when betting with Betconnect. Senior content editor OLIVER BRETT considers the clues thrown up by the Pool Stages as the tournament enters knockout time.

The dilemma when staging a World Cup, whatever the sport, is establishing a balance. On the one hand, you want lots of teams to encourage a carnival atmosphere. You want the event to help grow the sport globally. You want to create a rich, multi-cultural buzz. On the other hand, you don’t want too many embarrassing mismatches.

It’s a challenge that cricket fails terribly in by limiting the overall number of contestants to 10. This bars access to some very fine teams with a rich history of participation in the sport. Football is in a privileged position because EVERYBODY plays the sport and succeeds supremely. It brings together 32 teams, few of whom look out of their depth.

Rugby Union stages a relatively young World Cup. It began in 1987 at a time when South Africa was still serving international sporting sanctions and there were only seven competitive teams. The schedule pits together the best 20 teams in the world, and while there have been a few predictably non-competitive matches so far, there has been one enormous shock. Uruguay beat Fiji when priced up in some quarters at 50/1. Japan’s victory against Ireland was another significant surprise.

What has happened in the handicap markets?

To the naked eye, some of the scorelines in the Pool stages looked painfully one-sided. However, if you backed the underdog to win the handicap every time you would have emerged comfortably in profit. Handicap betting is popular in rugby. It allows bookmakers to even up the odds for two teams by giving a points advantage to one side. In Japan so far, bookmakers have tended to disparage the chances of the minnows and thought a bit too much of the big boys.

How has this happened? Remember the players aren’t remotely conscious of the handicap. Take New Zealand v Canada, notionally the biggest mismatch of the tournament. The All Blacks led 63-0, needing just five points from the last 20 minutes to cover their handicap. But they failed to score again, whether through a lack of motivation or a conscious effort to conserve energy for tougher battles ahead.

Other times, the markets have just looked plain wrong. When Tonga played France a number of tipsters were keen to back the tier-two side with a 26-point start in view of an injury crisis in French ranks and Tonga’s historical good performances against France. It wasn’t even close. France scraped a 23-21 win, the same scoreline that had seen them edge past Argentina.

But it all changes in the knockout phase

The problem is you cannot take that handicap trend and use it as a literal line into the quarter-finals. This is the sharp end of the tournament. There are no more lop-sided contests, no quarter given, no players rested, no second chances. The knockout phase certainly puts more of a premium in errors and here there are clear opportunities to explore the points lines – markets that allow punters to back over or under a total number of points shared between the two sides.

Taking a position on total points involves assessing a range of variables. They include weather conditions – still and dry leads to tries, wet and windy doesn’t – the relative attacking and defensive power of the two teams and the strategy they are playing to. When England played Argentina, strong consensus emerged that the points line was too high at around 46-48. After a brief early flurry of points, the two teams cancelled each other out for a while with gritty defensive play. Then a real spanner was tossed into the machinery – an Argentina red card in the 18th minute.

Despite this, England did not really pile up great heaps of points and at one point it looked like those backing “unders” on the points line were going to emerge in profit. Alas it wasn’t to be – a surprise Argentina try followed by an England reply on the hooter took the points line to an agonising 49.

Anyway, enough dwelling on the past. Let’s look at the four quarter-finals.

ENGLAND v AUSTRALIA (Saturday, 0815)

Eddie Jones’s men enjoy playing the Wallabies. They have won the last six meetings between the two sides and four of the previous six which is a fine record. Going further back, they beat them, famously, in the 2003 final and the 2007 quarter-final. England are skinny enough 1.33 favourites though and while I wouldn’t necessarily put you off covering a 9.5-point handicap at around evens it’s not an advised bet as such.

I would suggest a bet on the total points market might be more interesting and I am going to go under 44.5 at 1.98. Neither side will be inspired to play wide open. That would leave them vulnerable to interceptions or rapid counter-attacking turnovers – something each side is very good at doing with their agile flankers. You can expect to see England recycling possession more effectively but David Pocock jumping on Owen Farrell quite a lot. England’s weakness so far has been handling errors – a factor that would again restrict the flow of points – and I expect a lot of rolling mauls, rucks and counter-rucks. A game with periods of dour stalemate and a tense climax would suit this bet well and that’s what we may well get.

NEW ZEALAND v IRELAND (Sat, 1115)

Ireland’s failure to get past the quarter-final of any World Cup is something that haunts their supporters and it hardly gets any easier this weekend when they face the tournament favourites. The most optimistic Irish fans will point to the two wins over New Zealand in the last three head-to-heads involving the two sides and yet there’s no question the All Blacks have only sharpened their credentials over the course of the tournament. Ireland’s cause was weakened by the shock of their early defeat to Japan. (The Japanese have actually improved since that result in any case).

It is astronomically important for the Irish that the Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton produce a vintage display but you can be absolutely guaranteed that the All Blacks know that too and will pile the pressure on the opposing half-back pairing. Options are thin at centre for Ireland following the suspension of Aki Bundee while New Zealand have the opposite problem – four fine, in-form centres so which will the pick? The brilliant Beauden Barrett, provided he doesn’t go AWOL as has been known to happen, could help ensure a big win for New Zealand who can be backed at 1.95 to cover a 12.5-point handicap.

WALES v FRANCE (Sunday, 0815)

This is probably the best chance Wales have ever had of winning a Rugby World Cup, when you take into account their 14-game winning streak between March 2018 and March 2019 and their confidence-boosting success over Australia already in this tournament. The persistent brilliance of Alun Wyn Jones, who seems to always be in the right position to make momentum-sapping tackles, will be as irritating as a giant wasp to the French who have some major issues to sort out. There is even talk of a potential player revolt – it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened in a French team at a major tournament.

Wales are also at something close to full fitness with Dan Biggar, George North and Jonathan Davies all back in training while France have largely negative injury bulletins to deal with. Two key players – scrum-half Antoine Dupont and winger Damian Penaud – are unlikely to be at full fitness. It looks likely that France, who struggled to beat both Argentina and Tonga in the group stages, will be unable to penetrate the Welsh defence often enough to produce much of a fright. Back Wales with confidence to cover a 7.5-point handicap at 1.95.

JAPAN v SOUTH AFRICA (Sunday, 1115)

There is little question that the most pleasurable performances of this World Cup so far have come from Japan. First, they shocked Ireland, then they really turned on the style against Scotland with a wave upon wave of searing attacks, brilliant line running and offloads to die for. They play a brand of rugby that everybody would love to see played on a regular basis. Japan have one notable weakness, however. They simply don’t look like they enjoy defending and have a real issue with getting men behind the ball quickly enough ready to make the big hits that could drive opposing offences backwards.

South Africa have been at this stage before and are probably still smarting from losing to these opponents in Brighton four years ago. In Cheslin Kolbe they have one of the most exciting players in this Rugby World Cup. His sheer speed is enough to give rival coaches problems sleeping at night. The full-back could easily be given time and space to either set up or finish multiple tries. One player South Africa will need to watch is Japan’s classy no. 8 Kazuki Himeno. Get tacklers on him and the game is half won. Both are teams more than capable of scoring tries in clusters so expect a lot of scoring. I would be looking to bet overs in all the points markets.

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