The appointment of Warren Gatland as coach of the British and Irish Lions for their 2013 tour of Australia prompted British and Irish bookmakers to do something unfathomable and install the tourists as the Test series favourites.
The gap between the Lions and the Wallabies in the betting is not vast – Gatland’s gang of guys are around 5-6, while the Wallabies are around 5-4 and the draw is available at around 28-1 – but that the Lions are favourites is bizarre.
The Lions have won six of their eight series in Australia but most of them took place before Gatland was born in the New Zealand city of Hamilton, where the former All Blacks hooker played in the front row for Waikato with distinction.
Importantly, the Lions have lost their only series versus the Wallabies in rugby union’s professional era, going down 1-2 after the hosts lost the First Test in Brisbane but fought back to win the Melbourne and Sydney matches.
Indeed, the record of the Lions since rugby union ceased to be an amateur sport is pretty poor. They beat South Africa 2-1 in 1995 but lost 1-2 to Australia in 2001, crashed 0-3 to New Zealand in 2005 and slumped to a 1-2 loss in the republic in 2009 as the Springboks got their revenge.
Quite how the Lions, winners of only two of their last nine Test games against the southern hemisphere nations, are the early favourites to win next year’s three-match series in Australia is strange. Even privately, one would be surprised if Gatland thought that his collective of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales players was entitled to be rated as the most likely winner of the eagerly anticipated clash.
The Wallabies are not in one of their golden eras but they were the Rugby World Cup 2011 bronze medallists, bouncing back from a lacklustre loss to Ireland in the pool stage to beat South Africa and Wales in the knockout stage. There was no shame in losing to New Zealand in Auckland as the All Blacks were – and still are – the best side on the planet.
The International Rugby Board’s latest world rankings, up to date as at Monday 17 September 2012, place Australia second on 86.62 points, with England fourth (83.09 points), Wales sixth (82.26 points), Ireland seventh (79.85 points) and Scotland ninth (77.97 points). The rankings may have their faults but they provide an objective assessment of the 96 countries who play international rugby union and they have the Wallabies behind only the mighty All Blacks currently.
So how have usually rational people such as the odds setters of British and Irish bookmakers reached the conclusion that the Lions are the favourites to win in Australia in 2013?
Well, they have probably made the schoolboy error of looking at the potential Lions squad and forgetting that only 15 of them can be on the field at any one time. The Lions may have greater depth than the Wallabies but rugby union is a 15-man game and it does not matter that the Lions B, C and D teams would beat their Australia equivalents. It is all about the A teams, albeit not the one featuring Mr T as BA Baracus.
Also, they have probably got it into their heads that the travelling hordes of Lions supporters will transform Suncorp Stadium, Etihad Stadium and ANZ Stadium into virtual home grounds for the touring team. There will be thousands of Lions fans in Australia during June and July next year but the possibility of them outnumbering Wallabies followers in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney is not all that great. The locals will come out in big numbers to support their side.
And finally, they have probably fallen prey to what is known in the sports betting business as the patriotic punting bug. Normally, the virus infects punters but, as far as the Lions are concerned, it seems to have bitten bookmakers as well.
That the Wallabies are trading as underdogs for their 2013 series against the Lions appears to have flown under the radar of most punters, with the announcement of Gatland as coach of the touring side falling out of the 24-hour media cycle pretty quickly. That is the only reason why bookmakers have not been forced to revise their weird opening markets.
It is inconceivable that Australia will be odds against to beat the Lions over the best of three games by the time that the First Test rolls around so snap up the 5-4 about the Wallabies before it evaporates into thin air. The 11-2 available about the green and golds winning all three matches is incredibly generous so take it as well.
One Lions betting market with which it is hard to disagree is the installation of Sam Warburton as the red-hot 1-3 favourite in the race to be named as the official captain.
Warburton led Wales brilliantly at the Rugby World Cup 2011 and retained his country’s captaincy for this year’s Six Nations Championship in which the Red Dragons completed their 11th Grand Slam. Gatland loves him and, fitness permitting, surely he will be picked as Lions skipper.
The 2013 Lions tour of Australia kicks off, strangely, in Hong Kong on Saturday 1 June with a game versus the Barbarians. The three Test matches against the Wallabies will take place on consecutive Saturdays – 22 June in Brisbane, 29 June in Melbourne and 6 July in Sydney. Head to www.betfred.com and take advantage of their free bonus while getting the early prices on the British & Irish Lions Tour.