The Six Nations returned to our screens last week and we were treated to three very close matches. This year’s tournament has been hailed as one of the tightest ever, and the opening weekend certainly lived up to that billing. Ireland and Wales served up the most compelling match of the competition so far with a thrilling 16-16 draw in Dublin, with Ireland letting a 13-point lead slip as the Welsh battled back for an unlikely draw.
Both England and France got off to winning starts to put themselves in pole position in the early table, but neither side had it all their own way against Scotland and Italy respectively. England retained the Calcutta Cup with a 15-9 victory at Murrayfield, but it was far from a convincing performance and Scotland once again paid for their inability to make the chances count. France were also given a mighty scare in Paris with Italy running them very close in a 23-21 win.
This weekend England travel to Rome to take on Italy in what could prove to be a much tougher encounter than many expect, while France face another home game but this time against a stronger side in Ireland. Wales return to Cardiff to face Scotland and will be expected to win their ninth consecutive fixture against the visitors.
Italy v England
The Italians are an improving side and they showed their battling qualities in the narrow defeat by France last weekend. They are good value to get much closer to this English side than the odds suggest. It was a fine performance from the Italians in Paris and they came close to recording just their third away victory in six nations rugby since they joined the championship in 2000. Both previous wins came at the expense of Scotland, but Italy were leading at the Stade de France with just five minutes remaining. Jules Plisson’s late long-range penalty settled the tie in favour of the French, but Italian captain Sergio Parisse almost snatched it late on with a last-gasp drop-goal attempt. What the Italians did show is that they are capable of causing England problems when they return to Rome to play in front of their own fans, and it will be difficult for the English to replicate last year’s 47-17 win at Twickenham.
England opened their campaign under new boss Eddie Jones with an underwhelming win, but it was just what was needed after a disastrous world cup on home soil at the back end of 2015. Kruis and Nowell scored the tries that ultimately gave England the victory, but Scotland failed to make the most of a host of promising opportunities and could easily have embarrassed the new coach if they had taken their chances. This was a bruising performance rather than one of expansive rugby, and while we would expect them to make it two wins from two games by the end of Sunday’s clash, we don’t expect it to be the ‘hiding’ that Eddie Jones has talked up in the match build-up.
Wales v Scotland
A big game against England for the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield will always see the Scottish perform with typically dogged spirit, but they’ve been beaten the last eight times they’ve faced Wales in six nations rugby. It was a very tight affair at Murrayfield last year when they only went down 26-23, but last time they visited Cardiff they were on the end of a 51-3 thumping in March 2014. Scotland coach Vern Cotter summed up the mood after the England game when he said the players were disappointed because ‘the game was there to be won’, but once again the Scots let themselves down by not capitalizing on their own good play.
Wales showed their own quality and spirit by coming from 13 points down away at Ireland last weekend to finish with a 16-16 draw. Dreams of Grand Slams and Triple Crowns were put to bed immediately for both sides, and Ireland’s hopes of a third consecutive title were also dealt a hammer blow. After the dust settled it looks to be a better result for Wales, who can now assert their authority over Scotland.
The Welsh have been handed a massive boost with the news that fly-half Dan Biggar has made a ‘miraculous’ recovery from an ankle sprain that had been thought to have ruled him out for four to five weeks, and he will be able to line up in Cardiff. We’d expect Wales to come out firing and get early points on the board and that can carry them through to a decent victory.
France v Ireland
The French showed their vulnerability last weekend in that close encounter with the Italians, and it was almost a terrible start for new coach Guy Noves. His side came through in the end but Ireland will present a much bigger challenge. They will have been disappointed to let that lead slip against Wales last weekend, and although some will say this is an Irish team in decline, they still retain plenty of ability. They’ve been given a double boost with the news that Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney are both fit to play after injury ruled them out of the Wales game, while Johnny Sexton and Andrew Timble have also both been cleared to play.
This will be another bruising affair, but the Irish have just enough quality to make it four wins in a row in all competitions against the French.
Italy + 16 Handicap to beat England
Sunday 14th February, 14:00 GMT
Wales -11 Handicap to beat Scotland
Saturday 13th February, 16:50 GMT
Ireland to beat France
Saturday 13th February, 14:25 GMT
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