The first round of the Six Nations this weekend as follows:
Friday 1st February 8pm
France v Wales
In style France have struggled to match the off-loading game that has become so prevalent in world rugby and in their best Top 14 sides and their focal point has been Toulon’s centre Mathieu Bastareaud a huge lump of a ball carrier through which a lot of their attacking play went. Whilst Bastareuad is a fine player the approach is quite one dimensional. France only scored 8 tries in 5 Six Nations games last year
France’s selection for this game for this game suggests another direction though with teenager Ntamack in the centres, seven changes from the November defeat to Fiji in attack and Bastareaud not in the 23.
Wales go into the Championship with injury problems amongst some very experienced players with Halfpenny and Faletau ruled out but with only three changes from the team that defeated South Africa in November 2018. The optimism around the Welsh concerns their recent strong record, the relative success implementing a more rounded style and the strength of their defensive patterns in an experienced and settled squad. The defensive strength is more likely to be key here than an expansive style. It should be a very close match and I would be surprised if it was more than a few points either way. Whether Anscombe (less reliable than Halfpenny) can kick at 75%+ in this game is likely to be a big difference maker to the final outcome
In terms of markets, the outright for the match is 10/11 France and some slight odds against about Wales and France -1 on the handicap. I have a slight preference for Wales but this match is also a candidate for a draw, for small stakes in a 15-15/18-18 type match. For all their weaknesses France only conceded six tries in last year’s championship and have a massive pack of forwards. Wales will look to move them around, France will look to dominate up front.
Wales to win 21/20 William Hill or evens widely available
the Draw at 22-1 Bet365 or 20-1 generally
Saturday 2nd February
Scotland v Italy 2.15pm
Scotland have won their last five in this competition at home and are a fast improving side whilst for Italy it remains a long term process to become competitive. They have lost their last 15 in matches in the competition.
Of course Scotland are strong favourites to win but Italy have a couple of encouraging aspects. There is individual talent in the side which Parisse aside the team lacked a few years ago and with Scotland injury hit up front they might be able to arm-wrestle the Scottish tight 5 here.
The handicap is huge. Scotland are -25.
That looks too big. Last year Italy lost in Marseille by 17 and in Cardiff by 24 having only trailed by 4 and 10 points at half time respectively. Generally they have had the problem that they have lacked the bench depth not to fall away in the second half of games. As the fruits of the burgeoning Italian academy system reach the national team their depth is improving, fitness has already improved and whilst it remains too optimistic to see them winning many Six Nations games narrower defeats are the likely next stage.
Italy +24 points at 10/11 generally
Ireland v England 4.45pm
Ireland are odds on to retain their Championship title and start at home as 8 point favourites against England.
In terms of a reversion to a power game, England looked a competitive side again in the Autumn Internationals and with some key players back from injury they look potentially better equipped to break the gain line than they were a year ago though the absence of Te’o is a blow to playing this type of game, hence the selection of Tuilagi.
The same approach could be what they adopt here. On its own it might not be enough but look for England to keep improving around the breakdown, to be smarter in their on-the-hoof decision-making and to be accurate and fleet-footed enough behind the scrum to unsettle even well-organised sides such as Ireland. England should be well in the mix, possibly more than +8 suggests with Farrell kicking the chances that come his way.
Ireland are of course the top Northern Hemisphere side with a rock solid tight five, a fierce back row, Murray and Sexton at half back running games and with that extra element the team lacked until the emergence of Stockdale and Larmour, finishers on the outside. It is a settled side with a defined playing style. Defensively they are rock solid. Witness the points England have scored on their recent visits to Dublin (most recent last): 13,13,13,8,12,9,9.
You have to expect Ireland to win but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was attritional and close. Expect a Farrell and Sexton kicking duel for starters. Ireland are likely to be more disciplined and to have a lower penalty count against them and I think they will win by no more than a score
Ireland to win by 1-12 points 8/5 Betfair Sportsbook 6/4 Ladbrokes