10 months ago - 17 minute read

How to bet on Rugby Union

Why bet on rugby?

  • It’s a game of incomplete information where it’s easy to find an edge
  • It can be a low variance way to build a bankroll
  • Research can pay off with the markets, not as “smart” as football

Rugby is a fairly ridiculous sport when you stop for a minute and think about it. Thirty blokes, who spend their lives drinking protein shakes and lifting weights, run around a field trying to smash seven shades of shite out of each other before walking off with a casual handshake and a pat on the back to go drink a few pints of lager together. It’s like most blokes’ Saturday night in reverse.

But this apparently incomprehensible complexity is the reason a few smart punters manage to regularly find value from the rugby betting markets. Where there is a knowledge gap there is money to be made. And the good news is it’s not hard to find out what you need to make money from the great sport of rugby union.
For a few weeks every winter during the Six Nations everyone becomes a rugby fan, but if that’s the only time you’re paying attention then you could be missing out on a big payday. So read on and get stuck into the best betting sport you’ve never thought about.

Despite losing their final game to Ireland in Dublin, England reigned supreme in last year’s Six Nations.

Handicap Win

As with every sport, the main betting markets revolve around the win, handicap and total score. But unlike, say, soccer, many games of rugby union at international level are absurdly one-sided. England could probably play Italy for the next 10 years and never lose so the traditional win/lose/draw market becomes a poor betting opportunity. That’s where the handicap market comes in, and it can turn a dull game into a great value bet.

Teams will be given a set number of points as a head-start and you can bet either with the points on the underdog (+5) or against the points on the favourite (-5). On some occasions, you will find a 0 point handicap, where both teams are felt to be evenly matched, but more often than not you will find one team is favourite. Your job is to decide if they are being overrated or not.

Some of the keys to placing a winning handicap bet are:

  • Analyse the teams playing style closely – are they high scoring or are they defensively minded?
  • Analyse their recent form – how have they performed in recent games and what was the standard of their opponents like? What margins have they been winning (or losing) by?
  • Check team news – are they likely to be missing any big players or are any coming back from injury?
  • Check other factors – what is the weather going to be like? Who is refereeing the game?
  • Look for 1H and 2H markets – is one team a fast starter or poor finisher? Is one team much fitter than the other?

First and second half handicap markets can be a particularly strong betting option. Rugby is a game where fitness is paramount and in unevenly matched encounters it can be the case the majority of points are scored in the final quarter when the weaker team tires. Equally, you can begin to factor in aspects such as teams with impact players on the bench or who have a tendency to be quick off the blocks, or sides playing at home where they will often come out strongly in the first 20 minutes. If the handicap line looks like it’s simply been chopped in two and there are some of all of these types of factors in play you have likely found a good bet.

English Referee Wayne Barnes (right) came in for a lot of criticism following his handling of the closing minutes of last year’s France Wales clash in Paris.

You will find some of the key numbers revolving around the points awarded for a penalty (3), try (5) and converted try (7). As such you should look on a line of 3.5 as significantly harder than 2.5 to overcome, but be wary of overrating the scoring numbers. Because of the complexity of rugby union scoring with conversions frequently missed you will find scores comprising multiples of 3, 5 and 2.

One crucial thing to note is there are three-way and two-way handicap markets, with the handicap draw coming into play more often than you might imagine. On Matchbook you will usually only find the two-way markets with both sides priced around 1.9, although occasionally these will become heavily one-sided and may move to something like 1.2 and 1.7. Because rugby union betting is a game of strong opinions.

Total Points

The over/under total points market is by far the most fun bet to place if you don’t care about the result or if you find the handicap market too difficult to understand. What you’re doing here is deciding how many total points will be scored by both sides and using your judgment as to whether it will be a tight or an open game. But there are some tricks you can employ to get an edge.

Always check the weather forecast before you place a bet. There is no other sport where the rain and wind can make as much of an impact as rugby. A wet windy game will normally be a very low scoring affair while a game played in the sunshine on a dry surface can see both sides racking up the points. Secondly, past results between the two sides are far less of a guide than the past three or four games they have played.

The weather is the biggest factor to consider when playing a Total.

What this means in practice is to check how they’ve been performing recently rather than the historic match-ups. If both sides have been scoring freely or easily letting in points then consider a bet on the overs as the odds will likely be based on historic match-ups rather than recent form. Also look out for key injuries as this can have a huge impact.

The Outright Market

While you should generally focus on the handicap markets in rugby union it can pay off to bet on the outright market too, with the markets often overreacting to recent results and some big prices available. Be very cautious here though and in general we would say avoid betting very short-priced favourites without having done your own research.

The six nations can be a great source of value on the outright win/lose/draw market. With so few games played against each other (or even the same opposition) and so many changes to teams, it is a game of incomplete information. Teams can often be significantly overrated based on historical data that has limited bearing on the game being played and at times the outright market can be a much better option than the handicaps when teams are significantly over or underrated.

The draw is another interesting option. In the past 10 years, there have been just four draws over the 150 matches played in the Six Nations, with a draw in just 2.7% of games. If you adjust to remove games involving whipping boy Italy the draw percentage rises to 4% so roughly in line with the 22/1 generally offered around the draw in these matches.

But not all Six Nations are created equally. Some years are much closer than others. And if you can bring weather or other factors into play then 25/1 can sometimes present a small amount of value.

How To Judge Your Bet

Unlike football, tennis, cricket or US sports there is a serious lack of data on rugby union available to the general public. There are no convenient searchable databases, and for some of the bigger betting events such as the Six Nations or European Cup, there is fairly limited historical data available. What this means is the eye-test becomes much more important, lines tend to move a lot more and mistakes are often made.

For traders, this is great news. If you have a strong view on a team and feel the market has misjudged it then it can often pay to get in early before the “smart” money comes in and trade out following the price move. For those who watch a lot of rugby, it’s also great news as it’s one of the few sports where you can pit your wits against those of the bookmakers or market makers on the exchanges and try and find an edge.

Italy got a huge start on the handicap last year for their trip to Twickenham and in turn covered the spread.

But if you’re not a rugby expert don’t panic. There are a few easy methods to stay on the right side of the betting.

  • Follow the smart money – With less liquidity in the rugby markets it doesn’t take a lot to move the price, so take big moves seriously although be careful not to chase a missed price too hard
  • Always wait for team news – Unlike in football teams are announced two days prior to the game and this is when the market normally takes shape. Unless you are very sure of the team it’s best to wait

Focus on key stats – When looking at summaries of previous games look at possession first and foremost but particularly possession in the final quarter of the field then tackles missed/broken second. Turnovers, clean breaks, and other sexy stats aren’t always as relevant as they appear

First Tryscorer

The ultimate mug punter bet, with the best chance of winning a bundle of cash in each game, it can also provide value with markets often set up for the “average” try distribution among the players or with certain popular players far too short. The obvious bet here is the wingers, who on average will score a try once every other game but that’s not to say this will always be the first try of the game.

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg is always a popular bet in the First Try Scorer market. Here he is pictured scoring his side’s first try during last year’s 27-22 win over Ireland.

What you also need to bear in mind is the style of play of both teams. Are they teams that like to fling it wide or do they tend to keep it tight? Are they a counter-attacking side or a possession team that likes to grind out results? For international matches looking at club rugby top try scorers can provide some guidance as to who is in form but pay close attention to when those tries are scored.

Hidden Factors

One of the most important things you can look for in rugby betting is the factors the general market isn’t thinking about. This can range from a whistle-happy referee to a predicted downpour to the potential impact of new rule changes. These small factors can have a huge impact on the game and can turn the expected odds on their heads at times.

Refereeing is a major factor in any rugby union game with so much leeway for interpretation around the key areas of the breakdown and the scrums. Some refs like to like to let the action flow and others seem to have the whistle in their gob about 75% of the time. This can really inhibit certain teams and can also have a bearing on the totals.

Weather is the other major one, with conditions having a big impact on the potential points totals with both rain and wind having differing but equally meaningful impacts. A big word of caution here if betting in the northern hemisphere is to keep your powder dry if you are basing a decision on a long-range forecast as these rarely turn out to be accurate. Look at the weather forecast at most the night before and make your decisions then.

As with everything in rugby union it’s about using the information you have available to you to outthink the market. There is money to be made out there and it’s easier than you think to go grab it, just don’t rush in where only fools dare to tread.