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Can return of rugby teach U.S. a lesson?

By Ron Flatter  (Point Spread Weekly) 

May 25, 2020 04:52 PM

There is footy. And then there is footy. Since football codes literally make Australia a nation divided, American bettors who are about to see them on their betting menu again should know the difference.

Put aside Aussie rules football for now. The game derided north of the Murray River as “aerial ping-pong” is not expected to come out of its coronavirus pause until next month.

Instead, it is the ground-and-pound game of rugby league — or simply “league,” as it is known Down Under — that resumes in the wee hours of May 28. The appropriately named National Rugby League picks up where it left off two months ago, when every team had played only two of its 24 regular-season games. Make that 20 games now under a revised schedule.

In what might be a preview of coming attractions in the U.S., the 16 teams will resume competition in only six stadiums to follow what the NRL calls its “strict biosecurity requirements.” For at least seven weeks it means only four clubs will enjoy a true home-field advantage — if such a thing exists when fans are locked out.

Moneylines, spreads and, at some books, totals resemble American football betting. As for the other basics? Well, here goes.

What are the differences?

“League” and Aussie rules are as different as swimming and water polo.

Based in Sydney, the National Rugby League plays a game that more closely resembles American football, what with the lining up and running and tackling and restarting with no huddle after every stoppage. Born in Melbourne, the Australian Football League plays Aussie rules, which is a more free-flowing game that looks a little like large-scale basketball being played with hands and feet.

The NRL does not play rugby union, the code played at American colleges. Its rugby league rules have very few rucks — the scrums in which players lock arms and try to kick the ball out from between them. And they do not have lineouts — the sideline throw-ins that feature players performing feats of strength by lifting their teammates to get what amounts to jump balls.

What “league” does have is 13 players on each side. They play on a field that is marked in meters, runs nearly 110 yards between goal lines and is 74 yards across, nearly 40% wider than American football.

No matter where a team takes possession of the ball, it is like an “and-goal” situation in the U.S. In other words, the two possible outcomes are to score or to give up the ball. Players can pass with their hands, but only sideways or backward. Or they can kick anywhere to teammates who cannot go forward downfield until the ball is airborne.

Instead of four downs, each possession has a maximum of six tackles. (On TV the “first,” “second,” “third” and so on next to the score is the tackle, not the period.) Like on an American fourth down, teams frequently give up the ball by punting it deep after the fifth tackle to flip the field.

The goal of every possession is to score a try, which looks like a touchdown and is worth four points. The conversion kick through the posts on the goal line is worth two points, and it is not automatic. A penalty, which is a free kick that resembles a field goal, is also worth two points. A drop goal, which is a drop kick on the dead run and over the crossbar, is worth one point and is usually seen only late in a tied or one-point game.

And, yes, a game may end in a draw. Games consist of two 40-minute halves with few stoppages. After the clock strikes zero in each half, a team is entitled to finish its possession with a score, a turnover or the sixth tackle.

Oh, one big difference is counterintuitive for U.S. fans. When a team scores, it gets the ball right back on a kickoff from the team that gave up the points.

Last year NRL teams averaged 19.8 points per game, ranging from the Melbourne Storm’s 26.3 to the Canterbury Bulldogs’ 13.6. In this year’s two rounds played in March, including one week in front of spectators, the league average rose to 25.8, from the Newcastle Knights’ 31.0 to the New Zealand Warriors’ 3.0.

Who are the contenders?

The preseason consensus among Australian media and bettors was that the Sydney Roosters, the Melbourne Storm and the Canberra Raiders were a cut above the rest of the NRL.

Trying to be the first team in 37 years to three-peat, the Roosters stumbled to a stunning 0-2 start. They were disadvantaged because their home stadium, the Sydney Cricket Ground, was still being used for cricket. They are also one of the 10 teams that will now play at a home away from home, namely the year-old suburban stadium that is the home of the Parramatta Eels. Despite their poor start, the Roosters actually shortened at PointsBet from a season-opening + 500 to successfully defend their championship — er, premiership. Now they are + 450.

The Melbourne Storm, the team that had the best regular-season record three of the last four years, and the Canberra Raiders, controversial losers in the 2019 Grand Final, started 2-0. As one of the six teams that will play true home games for the next couple of months, the Storm is still the + 400 premiership favorite after opening + 350. Even though they have been forced to move 150 miles to the Sydney suburbs, the Raiders shortened from + 600 to + 500.

Here are the current PointsBet premiership odds (season-opening prices in parentheses) shown with each team’s current won-lost record:

    + 400     (+ 350) Melbourne Storm 2-0

    + 450     (+ 500) Sydney Roosters 0-2

    + 500     (+ 600) Canberra Raiders 2-0

    + 700     (+ 800) Parramatta Eels 2-0

  + 1000   (+ 1000) Manly Sea Eagles 1-1

  + 1200   (+ 1000) Brisbane Broncos 2-0

  + 1200   (+ 1400) South Sydney Rabbitohs 1-1

  + 1400   (+ 1200) Penrith Panthers 2-0

  + 1600   (+ 1600) Newcastle Knights 2-0

  + 1800   (+ 2000) North Queensland Cowboys 1-1

  + 3300   (+ 4000) Cronulla Sharks 0-2

  + 5000   (+ 5000) Wests Tigers 1-1

  + 8000   (+ 6600) St. George Illawarra Dragons 0-2

+ 15000   (+ 6600) New Zealand Warriors 0-2

+ 20000   (+ 8000) Canterbury Bulldogs 0-2

+ 25000 (+ 15000) Gold Coast Titans 0-2

Who are the stars?

The Roosters’ James Tedesco is globally the 4-1 favorite to win his second consecutive Dally M Medal as the NRL’s player of the year. He plays fullback, which is the last line of defense.

At 7-1, Jason Taumalolo of the Cowboys is the shortest-priced second-rower, which is like a two-way linebacker. Halfbacks like the Eels’ Mitchell Moses are akin to point guards, and hookers like 2017 winner Cameron Smith of the Storm are often top goal scorers. Moses and Smith are each 8-1.

If there was a hot player before the shutdown, it was the Sea Eagles’ Tom Trbojevic. The often-injured sometimes-fullback, sometimes-wing, sometimes-center scored a try and was the top defender in Manly’s upset of the Roosters on March 21. Trbojevic is 10-1 to win the Dally M.

Whom do the changes help?

Six teams — the Storm, Eels, Broncos, Cowboys, Tigers and Bulldogs — get to play in their own stadiums, giving them an obvious edge for at least the first seven weeks after the season resumes. The Storm and Cowboys do not even have to share their home grounds with anyone.

The other 10 teams are now vagabonds, especially the New Zealand Warriors, who will be room-service denizens based near Sydney for perhaps the rest of the year. The Raiders are also heavily inconvenienced being kicked out of the nation’s capital, but at least they did not have to go through draconian customs.

In addition to the Eels, Tigers and Bulldogs, five other teams based in and around Sydney — the Panthers, Rabbitohs, Roosters, Sea Eagles and Sharks — are just a commuter’s drive from home. So, too, are the Titans, who are an hour from home in Brisbane.

Because fans will be locked out indefinitely, the value of the home field is uncertain. So is the schedule itself. Matchups after Round 4 were not expected to be finalized before Thursday, and game sites after Round 9 will be determined as the path of the pandemic becomes clearer.

How does Round 3 line up?

Here are the games on deck with moneylines and point spreads from DraftKings Sportsbook.


Thursday, May 28, 5:50 a.m. EDT

Parramatta (-103) at Brisbane (-122)

Broncos -1½ (-105)

This is a rematch of the Eels’ 58-0 home victory last September in the first round of the playoffs. The Broncos are healthier than they were before the suspension, while the Eels are sweating a foot injury to hooker Reed Mahoney. Without the support of the loudest and most rabid fans in the league, this will be a litmus paper on how big the home-field advantage is. The nearly even-money play on the Eels looks like the way to go.

Friday, May 29, 4 a.m. EDT

Gold Coast (+ 235) at North Queensland (-305)

Cowboys -7½ (-125)

The Titans gave up 24 points to Canberra and 46 to Parramatta, so they seem defensively challenged going into what looks like a mismatch of a Queensland derby. Cowboys captain Michael Morgan is out after shoulder surgery, but North Queensland is otherwise healthy. With the risk of rust the Cowboys are too expensive a play, and 7½ points are not enough to take the Titans. This has stay-away written all over it.

Friday, May 29, 5:55 a.m. EDT

South Sydney (+ 188) vs. Sydney (-240)

Roosters -5½ (-125)

The renewal of the league’s oldest rivalry will be headlined by the Rabbitohs’ Latrell Mitchell playing his first match against the team for which he scored 679 points in three years. Without him the Roosters still look deeper and, for this match, healthier. They need to get more than just the one try out of Daniel Tupou that he scored before the break. The thinking here is that he and his Sydney teammates break out of their offensive slump. Take the Roosters and lay the points against a Rabbitohs team that is still owned in large part by Russell Crowe.

Saturday, May 30, 1 a.m. EDT

St. George (-150) vs. New Zealand (+ 123)

Dragons -2½

By getting more than two months to let three of their top players heal, St. George Illawarra may have been helped the most by the long break. Team captain Cameron McInnes figured to miss up to 12 games because of a knee injury, but he is expected back for this matchup with a Warriors team that has its own injury problems, let alone being without a country. Take the Dragons and lay the points.

Saturday, May 30, 3:30 a.m. EDT

Wests (+ 130) vs. Cronulla (-162)

Sharks -2½ (-115)

Both sides came into the season with questions about their back lines and, therefore, their defenses. And both teams get important players back from early-season injuries, so they will look different from how they did before the shutdown. Despite their two losses, the Sharks looked more competitive, especially in their 12-10 loss to the Storm just before the break. Go with Cronulla minus the points.

Saturday, May 30, 5:35 a.m. EDT

Canberra (+ 132) at Melbourne (-162)

Storm -2½ (-115)

This is easily the biggest match of the week. While the Storm is deep, healthy and home, the Raiders hope forward John Bateman will be back from his February shoulder operation. Canberra also should have had forward Hudson Young back from his second suspension for gouging the eyes of opponents in his rookie season, but he still has to serve three more games. The Storm is like the Dodgers — a good bet until the postseason. It is again for this match.

Sunday, May 31, 2:05 a.m. EDT

Newcastle (+ 123) vs. Penrith (-150)

Panthers -2½

At 16-1 to win the title, the Knights might look like a surprise at 2-0. But facing the Warriors and Tigers, Newcastle had it easy to start the season. The Panthers are the bigger undefeated surprise, starting the season in front of actual fans at their home stadium and beating the Roosters 20-14. Penrith is also closer to full strength and closer to home, but it is just not that good a team. Take a pass.

Sunday, May 31, 4:30 a.m. EDT

Canterbury (+ 235) vs. Manly (-305)

Sea Eagles -7½ (-125)

A team that scored a whopping 13 points in the first two weeks of the season is somehow a prohibitive favorite. This is more about how bad the Bulldogs are than the strength of the Sea Eagles. Trbojevic is healthy for Manly, and he will be the best player on the ground. That should be enough to make the difference, but not laying $3 or two possessions.

The long term

Because of the long break, the Grand Final was pushed back three weeks to Nov. 25 in Sydney. The playoffs, called “the finals” down there, are still expected to include eight teams. The top four face one another and get a second chance after a first-round loss.

The rewritten schedule eliminates the midseason bye, so endurance and depth will be at a premium by season’s end. That also should mean less scoring as the season wears down the 16 teams.

But whatever the pitfalls, this is one more sport to bide gamblers’ time and money until the big four start again in North America. And who knows? Maybe the NRL will show the NFL and colleges a safe way to go forward with a full-contact sport.

At least one hopes it will be safe.

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