Matches this weekend as follows
Ireland v Italy 2.15pm
Ireland needed a sensational Johnny Sexton drop-goal to salvage Six Nations victory against France in Paris. It gave Ireland an eighth successive victory and kept alive their Grand Slam hopes with three successive home matches to come. It’s only the fourth time Ireland have won in Paris in the past 66 years.
For much of the match Ireland followed their plans, on course for the usual 200+ passes / 160 carries / low errors and kicking penalties. Their kicking game caused no end of problems to the hosts but they rarely threatened the try-line despite 68% territory and possession. Then at 13-12 down in the last five minutes they went trough 41 phases in attack, error free, to allow Sexton the opportunity
They will know they must improve their attack if they are to regain the title they last won in 2015. Joe Schmidt may now decide to use the same players again and resist the temptation to experiment against Italy in round two on 10 February.
They will be much better against Italy this weekend with the French victory showing the mark of a tough, experienced team who won without playing well.
In Rome Italy were their own worst enemy: They gave away cheap penalties yet remained in the game for 60 minutes. There were certainly encouraging signs. Allen at fly half played well and, unlike any recent Italian teams they looked to have a cutting edge out wide. O’Shea had promised that Italy would show spirit and initiative and they did. They kept coming at England with enterprising play.
Where they still lack the skills of the better teams is in defensive organization, and yet again this is at its most obvious late in games when the benches come on. Italy conceded
three tries in last 13 minutes.
The Long terms signs for Italy encouraging but of course Ireland in Dublin is a very tough proposition this weekend
This is reflected in a point spread of Ireland -32! Its tempting to think that with an Italy side with a bit more firepower and an Ireland side that got nowhere near to crossing the try line in Paris that Italy might cover, with one eye on the Dublin weather forecast too but instead the first scoring play market looks interesting with Ireland penalty at 9/4 with Sportingbet. Ireland are likely to have territory, Italy are profligate with “soft” penalties and Jonny Sexton normally does the rest.
England v Wales 4.45pm
Last year’s opener saw the English labour past France at Twickenham but that was not the case last weekend. They played with real vigour from the outset and raced into a healthy lead thanks to slick handling that led to Anthony Watson showing his finishing ability twice.
England’s scrum went very well too and gave the platform for the likes of Danny Care, George Ford and Owen Farrell to unleash their backline. The front-row battle with Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee this weekend should be a cracker.
Wales were very impressive and clinical against Scotland full of pace and verve. Despite missing hundreds of caps worth of experience in their XV, in form players were picked and the Scarlets back line
flourished. Wales achieved 18 clean breaks, beat 16 defenders and off-loaded 13 times. It may have been injury-induced but the selection of those form players being allowed to play contemporary rugby showed that the Welsh coaches can adapt their ethos
Credit also to the Wales defence. The Scarlets pair of Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams were rock-solid in midfield. The selection of Josh Navidi at open-side was questioned but his graft at the contact area resulted in turnovers.
The back row will be an area Wales will think they might have an advantage on Saturday. The players selected in Rome represented the 11th different back row combination Jones has picked in England’s last 16 internationals. In terms of individual performances in Italy at 6-7-8 England went well. Sam Simmonds on his six nations debut scored two tries, made 23 tackles, and had 14 carries for 80 metres but because of the injuries England have a 5 at 6 and a 6 at 7.
Against Wales they will be up against Moriarty, a big ball carrier, Navidi who is a real threat at the breakdown area and Shingler who was all over the pitch against Scotland .
Wales are 4/1 underdogs here and a point spread that made me do a double take when I checked it for the first time, Wales +11. I do expect England to win but (not as surprised as Scotland being beaten by 27 points in Cardiff, but still) would be surprised if a competitive Welsh side with a solid scrum, big ball carriers and a reliable goal-kicker but most of all with a Shaun Edwards coached defense lost by more than a dozen points.
Wales +11 at 10/11 looks a bet here (England 1-12 point winning margin at 7/4 with Skybet is an alternative)
Scotland v France 3pm
Being bullish on Scotand lasted about 15 minutes of this six Nations. They started brightly and should have crossed early, with Jonny Gray’s break one moment of promise. They were also willing to play with tempo and run it from everywhere, but the accuracy they had in the autumn was just not there in Cardiff.
A combination of errors and the Welsh defence foiled Scotland, whose afternoon plummeted play by play. They must show greater accuracy this weekend against France
Scotland will look back on this reality check of a contest and know this is a match they could have won. Instead, it was defined by a first half in which they had the vast majority of the territory and possession, yet went in 14-0 down.
“We did try to go too wide too quickly,” admitted Scotland coach Gregor Townsend afterwards
Before the match captain John Barclay had described Scotland’s style of play as organised chaos. After it, that description seemed half right. They still have the makings of a good side but this defeat will set them back.
With the benefit of hindsight there were some selection errors which should be fixed for this weekend
Pre-game, Scotland’s perceived weakness was deemed to be in the front row, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, Gordon Reid and Jon Welsh were very effective and helped deliver a scrummage completion of 85%. The major problems occurred with the ball in hand both wide and narrow. The Scottish back row carried just 21 metres between them, which is a remarkably low number. With the pack struggling to get over the gain-line, Scotland became overly dependent on their back-line swinging the ball from extreme left to extreme right
They get a chance to come again on Sunday against the French. Mass changes? Probably not, but Townsend will be checking on the health of Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor and Richie Gray for starters. Ryan Wilson, David Denton and Josh Strauss, all offer a lot more ”go forward” in the back row than the team showed in Cardiff. Scotland certainly look to be wanting a few big ball-carriers.
Townsend will wonder if it’s time to bring Greig Laidlaw back in after Ali Price’s nightmare. Laidlaw’s a steady old hand who has made a career out of doing the simple things well. By the time Laidlaw got on in Cardiff, five minutes after half-time, his team were 20-0 down.
I expect Gregor Townsend to make a change in midfield for that match against France. Chris Harris had a forgetful game and Scotland missed Huw Jones’ running out wide, so Pete Horne should be named in their side next weekend in a quartet of Price-Russell-Horne-Jones
Entering the final stages of the match in Paris we still seemed destined for a try-less encounter until, with eight minutes remaining, France wing Teddy Thomas capitalised on a disjointed kick chase to skirt round Rob Kearney and veer inside for a super 60m individual score. France converted for a 13-12 lead but then missed a relatively straightforward kick that would have put France four points up with two minutes remaining and lost to the last kick of the game.
With so many new faces and little preparation time, France could arguably claim a moral victory against the tournament favourites. They probably benefited more than the visitors from the rain that reduced proceedings, at times, to an error-laden bore;
It is obviously too early to judge Frances’s long-term prospects under Jacques Brunel other than selection he’s had little time to affect anything meaningful but lack of familiarity and time to work on a settled style shows in games. France conceded 10 penalties in total against Ireland.
France had to work hard too. They averaged 102 tackles a game in 2016, 113 in 2017. and were up to 173 after 60 minutes against Ireland, finishing with well over 200.
This weekend France will be without Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont and Kévin Gourdon after they were all sidelined through injury.
Jalibert the young fly-half has been replaced in head coach Jacques Brunel’s squad by Lionel Beauxis, who could win his first France cap in six years, while his Lyon team-mate Baptiste Couilloud comes into the squad at scrum-half for Dupont, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Brunel has also called up back-row Louis Picamoles as a replacement for Gourdon who injured his ankle and is expected to be out for at least three weeks.
It’s a bit disappointing to see Scotland as short as 1-2 here and -5 on the point spread handicap as I had hoped recency bias would push the price out as Scotland should improve substantially and France away from home aren’t a reliable betting proposition.
Instead my favoured bet is Scotland to win by 1-12 points at 13/8 with Skybet