Games for the first weekend are as follows
Wales v Scotland. Saturday, February 3.2.15pm
Wales have an extensive absentee list, containing many of their top players. Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Webb are all out of the duration of the championship, while Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar and Dan Lydiate are sidelined for at least the first few games. Liam Williams is still on the treatment table for this match and the missing Lions count is to eight. Add that to the loss of Jake Ball and Rhys Preistland and that could be classed as a full-blown injury crisis.
In light of this, it is no surprise that Gatland has picked 10 Scarlets players, from the side that10 days ago became the first Welsh region to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup in six years.
Rhys Patchell earns his first Six Nations start at fly-half, with Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams the centres. The only non Scarlet is the back division is Josh Adams, the leading try scorer in the Aviva Premiership, who wins his first cap.
Of course, Wales are not the only ones with injury problems. Scotland too have issues, particularly in the front row where six players are out including WP Nel and his understudy Zander Fargerson.
Wales have been labouring towards a more expansive approach, and attempted the most passes of any of the home nations in their autumn international programmes. At least here the back-line from the Scarlets are familiar with each other but it’s a very distinct style of play requiring very mobile forwards and it will be interesting to see how the styles of the national team and the Scarlets mesh together.
Scotland, under new coach Gregor Townsend, have some history to overcome. In the Six Nations they have won 24 of their 90 matches, 11 against Italy, and only twice have they won more games than they have lost, in 2006 and last year. Other than in Rome, they have recorded two away victories in 18 seasons, in Cardiff in 2002 and against Ireland at Croke Park eight years later.
Things are looking up though, with two talismanic players in Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell at 15 and 10 as part of a very talented back division. It may be a signal of Gregor Townsend’s intentions that John Barclay will lead the side against Wales, freeing the spontaneous Ali Price to continue in the No 9 jersey. Price is all about speed and service whereas Greg Laidlaw is far more of a game-controller and is one of the best box-kickers around. Laidlaw is a former captain and by far their most experienced back, but I hope Townsend goes with Price as the conductor to their up-tempo game.
Unlike his recent predecessors, Townsend has taken over at a time when foundations have been laid. Scotland’s past two Six Nations campaigns have been the only ones when they have scored more points than they have conceded and the two when they have reached a century, 122 in both years.
The key for Scotland will be to avoid being dragged into a dogfight. If the match becomes a forward battle based on power then I think they will struggle, but if they keep it open then there’s no doubt they can do a lot of damage. If the opposition tight five are dominating, which they might, then move them around the field until they are out on their feet.
Particularly if the roof is closed, this could be a very high scoring match indeed
Scotland are 5/4 underdogs here and +2 on the handicap. I like them both outright and in the winning margin market (1-12 is 11/5 with Betfred) albeit those lines can be tricky to to catch in high scoring games.
Scotland to win 5/4 Bet365, Betfred
France v Ireland. Saturday, February 3. 4.45pm
France have a very new coach and a young team. Their preparations for this year’s Championship have been hampered by a series of injuries and suspensions to key players. Scrum-half Morgan Parra and full-back Brice Dulin will both miss the opening game through injury while centre Mathieu Bastareaud is serving a ban. My main concern would be whether France have had enough time to become cohesive and indeed the difficulty in predicting what type of style we will see.
Ireland are not ideal opponents to be working things out “on the hoof” as they play in defined patterns, looking to reach certain areas of the field before they play and are a very experienced and settled squad. Not easily ruffled and they, unlike every other Six Nations side, have had to make just one change to their original squad for the first round of matches
So, all this is known and Ireland have been backed into 4/9 outright and the handicap line has moved from -4 to-6 in the last few days. I also expect Ireland to win but the suggested bet is at lower stakes due to the unpredictability of the hosts new side
Ireland to win by 1-12 points 8/5 betfred
Italy v England. Sunday, February 4. 3pm
Italy are on a 12 match losing run and prohibitive favourites to finish with the wooden spoon again this year. In their last 15 Six Nations matches, Italy have conceded 607 points, conceding an average of 40.5 points per game. In the same period, Ireland have conceded an average of 14.5.
Now into their second season the coaching team of Conor O’Shea, Mike Catt and Wayne Smith is doing all the right things, many with an eye on long term improvement such as identifying new talent
That new talent is in the early stages of reaching the national team and there is the odd sign of life from their teams in the Champions Cup and Pro 14. They also tend to be at their best in the early matches of a Six Nations
Carlo Canna will be vital at fly-half. If he can control the game as he has done for Zebre in their Pro14 victories this season he could play a massive role in any upset this season.
England of course have 13 missing, 2 of them suspended but have enviable depth. The starting 15 will look as strong as ever but where the absentees may be felt later in the Championship is in bench depth and a possible difficulty compared to the last two seasons of really stepping on the gas in the last twenty minutes when the benches come into play. The glaring weak spots in the front row (behind Vunipola and Cole) and back row (lack of balance) where injuries are concentrated shouldn’t be an overwhelming issue in Rome.
England are -17 on the handicap and Italy 9/1 outright underdogs. I am tempted by Italy on the handicap but have opted for a watching brief.
Top try scorer market
The head of the market for this year’s tournament is as follows
Jonny May 10-1
Anthony Watson 10-1
Jacob Stockdale 12 -1
Keith Earls 12-1
Stef Evans 14-1
Jonathan Joseph 16-1
Stuart Hogg 16-1
Tommy Seymour 18-1
The each way market pays a quarter 1,2,3,4
So no surprises here that the pairs of wingers for the two tournament favourites are at the top of the heap.
Last year, eight players dead-heated as top try scorer over the Championship on three tries each. The previous three years it took four tries to win this market, with one dead heat
Looking at team tries last season England had 16 (thanks notably to an “outlier” game, beating Scotland 61-21) and Scotland and Ireland 14 tries each. With 122 points Scotland were second highest scorers despite just winning three of their five games
This year Scotland have Italy last, traditionally the time to play them, and if things go to plan might need a big win to be in contention for the title.
Obviously over five matches in the modern game, for any single player we might choose avoiding injury is a big factor in this market, though rotation shouldn’t be much of an issue.
However as a Scotland “bull” (which will probably last until 5pm Saturday) I think we have to consider Tommy Seymour at 18-1 with 16 international tries in 39 games but mostly in a losing side. He is a great finisher, with two of the best creators in the championship inside him and if fit should play all five games.
It could be a market with some “springers”. The other Scottish wing position is less settled but Byron McGuigan (50-1) would join the likes Josh Adams at up to 100-1 (a starting wing now that George North is ruled out at the start of the championship) as the “pinstickers gambles” here
Tommy Seymour Top Six Nations Try Scorer 18/1 each way (1/4 1,2,3,4) Bet365, William Hill, Betfred