The Six Nations resumes this weekend, and there are some great matches to look forward to. England remain on course for a grand slam and triple crown after coming through a very tough test in Wales last time out, which also saw them win a record 16th match in a row. Italy provide the opposition at Twickenham on Sunday, and are in no way expected to threaten an extension of the record.
The more mouth-watering games of the weekend involve the other four nations, and arguably the pick is Ireland against France at the Aviva Stadium. The news that start fly-half Johnny Sexton is set to return to the starting line up is a huge boost for the Irish, who are fancied to get the better of a dangerous French side. It promises to be a tight affair, but home advantage and the return of their talisman can swing the balance in Ireland’s favour.
Meanwhile Scotland return to the scene of their incredible win over the Irish, when they welcome Wales to Murrayfield. The Scottish players can reflect on a disappointing performance in Paris, typified by Finn Russell’s rushed conversion attempt. Ultimately though a 22-16 defeat in Paris to a brutal French side which is growing in confidence and ability is not too much to be ashamed about, and Scotland can be hopeful, if not confident, ahead of the Welsh visit. However, the absence of captain Grieg Laidlaw and Josh Strauss for the rest of the tournament is a huge blow.
Ireland v France
This will almost certainly be a tight match so conservative punters might feel more comfortable taking the -294 about an Ireland win. The return of Johnny Sexton is a massive boost though, and if they can build up a head of steam in Dublin the even odds are worth a punt.
Ireland were completely shocked by Scotland in their opening 27-22 defeat in Scotland, getting their campaign off to the worst possible start. With the current mood of the English rugby team the Six Nations title may be out of reach for Ireland, but they do host the English in the final match of the tournament. If they can stay in touch before that game kicks off it will be a hell of a finale. It would require a win in Wales – no easy task – but before that they must get the better of a powerful French side.
Ireland lost 10-9 in Paris in last season’s competition, but they won the previous three meetings and haven’t lost at home to France since 2011. In fact, France have lost 12 of their last fifteen matches away from home, albeit against some very good teams.
The French are an improving side and they ran England close in the 19-16 defeat at Twickenham. A 22-16 victory over Scotland is hard to quantify – the Scots didn’t perform at the levels they showed against Ireland, but the French did what was required of them. Ireland will need to stand up to French intimidation, but have the players to come out on top.
Scotland v Wales
It’s hard to get away from a bet on Wales to win at -118 with Betway, despite Scotland’s recent improvements.
The win against Ireland will live long in the memory of Scotland fans who have become accustomed to abject failure in recent years, but will it prove to be a flash in the pan or the dawn of a new era? They certainly seemed to have stamped out the mistakes and indiscipline which has often cost them so dear, and that at least can make them more competitive.
Wales missed out on what could be a crucial bonus point in the 33-7 victory over Italy in Rome, and last week’s 16-21 reverse at the hands of England leaves them off the pace in the Six Nations table. In truth they were awfully unfortunate to lose to England, with Elliot Daly’s late try snatching an unlikely win for the visitors. Wales would have been good value for the win as well, and they can gain compensation with victory on Saturday.
The Welsh have won the last nine meetings including their last four visits to Murrayfield, and Scotland haven’t beaten Wales since 2007.
England v Italy
Eddie Jones’ England side have often been accused of playing a pragmatic rather than attacking game, but this provides them with an opportunity to extend the winning run to 17 matches, and make the critics eat their words.
England’s last three Six Nations meetings with the Italians have resulted in winning margins of 31 points (2016), 30 (2015), and 41 (2014). This is a big handicap to cover, but the Italy side is there for the taking. They stayed in touch with Wales to a degree in the 33-7 defeat in Rome, but were thrashed 63-10 by Ireland in the same venue. That’s a margin of 53 points, and the Italians were simply outclassed by the Irish.
England have racked up big scores over the likes of Fiji and Uruguay under Eddie Jones, and they should be going out to chase bonus points to secure their lead over Ireland at the top of the table. Ireland have amassed two bonus points to England’s zero, and that keeps them within two points of the leaders at this stage. There is little doubt that England will win comfortably at Twickenham, and it’s worth a punt that they rack up a huge score in doing so.
Ireland -7 to beat France
Saturday 25th February, 16:50 GMT
Wales to beat Scotland
Saturday 25th February, 14:25 GMT
England -42 to beat Italy
Sunday 26th February, 15:00 GMT