Once you have decided which team to back the next consideration is how to back them. On the fixed-odds you have a choice of match betting or going with the handicap, and you also have the option of a spread supremacy trade.
Off scratch, you'd get 5-6 or 10-11, but just three points on the handicap sends that down to 8-13. Taking such cramped odds when the bookmakers reckon there is a single penalty score between the teams seems poor value, but by the same token, the underdogs are more generously priced.
So it is important to weigh up both options when betting on narrow handicaps. Is it worth accepting reduced odds of 5-6 from 6-5 for the insurance policy of a three-point start? Think back to the reasoning behind your bet. If you are anticipating a close, hard-fought battle, the answer may be yes. If your analysis tells you the team receiving a start are actually stronger, then the bigger price is the one to take.
Once the handicap moves into double-figures it is much more difficult to give an equivalent match-betting price as bookmakers tend to play around with their prices. One firm may equate a 13-point handicap to match odds of 2-9 and 3-1, while another goes 1-12 and 11-2. Often they simply don't want to lay a solid favourite and will slash their price accordingly.
Many people are put off backing a team giving up double-figure handicaps, believing favourites are too often overrated. There may be some truth in that belief. The tables alongside show which Premiership teams have been most successful against the handicap over the three seasons from 2001-02 to 2003-04, and there are a lot of unfancied teams up there. And the records show that the team who have rewarded Six Nations backers most over the four seasons from 2001 to 2004 are Italy, despite their record of just three wins in 20.
However, there are times when a large handicap is perfectly acceptable. At the start we said that the odds-compiler sets a handicap at the point where he believed the two teams to be inseparable. That is not strictly true. He aims to come up with a figure where he believes he can see two-way action. English bookmakers will see plenty of money for the home side against Italy at Twickenham whatever the handicap, so they are happy to add a few points on.
And throughout the domestic leagues there are teams that are generally fancied and teams that are not. At the start of the 2004 Super 12, the champion Auckland Blues played the ACT Brumbies in Australia. The Blues were unbeaten the previous season and red-hot favourites to retain their crown. They went to Canberra giving up ten points, and were well beaten 44-27. The handicap did not reflect the relative strength of the two sides, merely that the bookmakers were confident punters would steam into the Blues.
Bookmakers are also unable set their handicaps too high, partly because they want to encourage two-way action, partly because they work on long-term statistical models that iron out lop-sided results. In one-sided internationals you can see figures up in the 70s or 80s, but in a league match it is rare for the handicap to go above 30 points, yet winning scores regularly top that.
When winless Rotherham visited form side Leicester in the penultimate round of the 2003-04 Premiership, they had a start of 25 points. It was not nearly enough as they were trounced 75-13.
In that case, a buy of the favourites' supremacy on the spreads could have yielded big profits, and it is worth considering the merits of handicap and supremacy betting side by side as they are both associated with the winning margin. The big difference, of course, is that if your handicap pick squeaks home, you get paid out in full, whereas your return on a spread bet may be minimal.
One strategy is to support underdogs with a big start on the fixed odds, where your potential loss is known and cannot be affected by a landslide defeat, and support strong favourites on the spreads, so that barring a catastrophic reverse, your downside is likely to be small.
Another popular bet where the spread and fixed-odds worlds collide is total match points. This is a hugely popular market and can be an extremely profitable one. You don't need to pick a winner, just to know how the match will pan out. Take into account the conditions and the shape of the two teams lining up against each other. Two big heavy packs slugging it out on a wet windy evening in February makes for a scarcity of points.
Two lightweight teams who favour an open game playing on a sunny spring afternoon are more likely to rack up big scores. In both those scenarios finding a winner can be tricky, and the points bet may offer more value.
Many fixed-odds firms now bet on total points, going, for example, 5-6 above or below 39.5. However, a better option may be to bet with firms who offer three or four prices - for example, Skybet might go 5-2 under 30 points, 31 to 40, 41 to 50 and over 50. The key is that you are most likely to get involved in this market when you fancy an extreme scoreline, and at the prices it is well worth sticking your neck out at the under 30 or over 50.
Other popular match bets on the fixed-odds include winning margin wagers, where the winning score for each team is broken up into five-point, or occasionally ten-point bands. The best bets here are on narrow wins. Backing a team to win by 25 to 30 points might pay double-figure odds but with a game as open as that, who's to say the margin won't end up in the 30s or 40s? But if you fancy a team to edge a close-fought game, taking the 5-1 about a win by one to five points is far more appealing than 8-13 to win the match.
In most matches it is odds-on that a penalty will be the first scoring play. However, the value can be found in backing a try to come first when you believe one team has a clear attacking edge - even with handicaps up in the 20s you can get 3-1 or better about the favourites opening the scoring with a try.