Our man in the betting field, 'Orrible Punt, delves into all the rugby action that awaits in 2013. Happy New Year!
Remember you can contact Russ with all your comments and questions on Twitter - @rpetty80.
Long term predictions often walk the thin line between triumph and utter humiliation. For every 'Chris Robshaw to be next England captain at 20.0', there is a 'Sale to make the play-offs' or 'Cheetahs for Currie Cup' to keep you honest.
Last season's champions Harlequins began as third favourites for both the regular season and grand final winner and the bookies didn't really sway from that view until after this round of fixtures. They now have Quins, Leicester and Saracens all at 3.0 - which may not be a shock considering there is distance between those sides and fourth place. By Round 19, that trio will have all played each other twice and trying to separate them now is going to be tricky. In the pre-season picks, I thought Saracens 'early away trips would count against them and had Leicester as the team to finish top. However, at this stage, Saracens have six home games left compared to their rivals' five, show little sign of being effected from no permanent base and have beaten league leaders Quins in 6/7 meetings. If pushed, I'd opt for Quins to finish top due to a greater bonus-point tally, but to be pipped in the final by Sarries.
You have to go back to 1997 for the last time the same teams finished in the top four in consecutive seasons. Saints are currently sixth and with that record of 14 defeats in 16 games against the current top three and more than a whiff of change (Grayson, Mujati, Tonga'uiha etc), I see them falling out the play-off race and being replaced by Gloucester. But whilst the 21.0 for the Cherry and Whites to win the final may be worth a play at this point, I think they are probably a season away from challenging. Having confidently tipped London Welsh to be adrift by Christmas, the sight of them at 34.0 to go down last week was a stark reminder of what a great job Lyn Jones has done there. That price has gone now though (closer to 9.0) - and with Quins, Leicester, Sale up next and then four away games, I do still think they will get dragged into it. If you were judging on current form, then it's London Irish and their defensive frailties who likely have the most to fear - as reflected in their 2.37.
With Ulster nine points clear, the regular-season betting offers some big prices for Leinster at 7.5 and the rest at 17.0 or greater to catch them. I have been keeping an eye on Glasgow and think the 34.0 to win the final is a bit big for a team right in the mix and that can rely on a firm scrum and strengthened by Josh Strauss and Sean Maitland. The obvious retort would be that their 4 defeats have all been to their close rivals though. Leinster do have key players on the way back from injury and the 2.75 for them to triumph is going to be well backed.
Over in the Top 14, it's tough to see past Toulon's star encrusted squad, but I have a feeling that Castres will slip down the table with Montpellier finishing fourth in the regular-season.
Having heralded Ulster's Heineken Cup chances at 26.0, the early pool games have mostly been satisfactory. The French powerhouses will attract plenty of support but remember that the semi-finals go back to a 'draw' format. Quins started the tournament at 15.0 and are 9.0 now, they will get accused of having a favourable pool and not being properly tested but with big match experience and a high seeding likely, that price is definitely worth a look.
Under Jamie Joseph's reign the Highlanders have started both seasons by winning 7/9 games before fading. They have favoured a relentless 'pick and go' game, grinding teams down and winning by small margins. With the recruitment of great experience in Ma'a Nonu, Brad Thorn and Tony Woodcock and having six of their first nine games at home, they may well be the early pace setters again. It will be interesting to see how they get on with that latter collection of away games but have had a play on both the 6.0 for the conference and 13.0 for title. The Brumbies avoided games against the Crusaders and Stormers last season and their 10 wins did come against sides ranked eighth or lower in the table. That being said, they weren't defeated by more than seven points in their defeats against the play-off sides and Jake White added a steely resolve. The loss of Michael Hooper has been offset by the addition of David Pocock and I think they will improve again in 2013, so will take 3.0 for them to win their conference. The Stormers hit on a formula of gaining an early lead in games, holding on by trusting that mean defence and relying on accurate goal kicking and an ability to strike on the counter with dangerous runners like Gio Aplon. They have brought in Jaco Taute, Elton Jantjies and Pat Cilliers from the Lions and have possibly learnt the lesson about being over-cautious in matches. I agree with them being favourites for the South African conference. At the other end of the table, it's disappointing that the 2.0 for the Kings to finish last has gone. The Force lost 13/14 games by an average of 17-29 and Rebels 13/16 by 18-36 in their debut seasons and I don't see that trend changing.
In the Six Nations, 9/13 winners have played three home games - so it's England, Italy and Scotland that have that advantage this season. I am considering the 4.33 price for Scotland to finish bottom with Scott Johnson in charge and think the 3.4 for England to win the tournament is a decent enough. Have managed to hold off British & Irish Lions series betting so far, but the 3.4 for Australia to win 2-1 may not be around long. Good luck in 2013!