The Second Weekend of the Six Nations

Saturday

2.15pm Scotland v Ireland

At 33-3 up with a quarter to go at home to Italy last weekend everything looked rosy for Scotland. Hogg and Russell, two of the world class players in the entire tournament, were in the vanguard of a creative attacking display using a variety of lines to confuse but then in the last quarter Scotland conceded three tries and the gloss was rather taken off what had looked like a routine win.

Nevertheless Scotland have now won their last seven at home in the competition and have now scored 25 points or more in 10 of their last 16 Six Nations games. From 2000-2015 (ie from their last winning generation to this one) they scored 25 points plus in only 8 of 80 Six Nations games. A much more potent side nowadays.

Against England, Ireland were beaten physically at the contact areas in attack and defence and this is likely to be an easier task for the Irish as playing the Scotland pack is not the same prospect as countering the big English ball carriers. Ireland will improve and will find it easier to impose their style which is to pick and drive and allow Murray and Sexton to control games off the front foot.

That said their squad depth is already being tested. Henderson and Beirne missed the first game and now CJ Stander is out for 4-6 weeks one of a number of other injuries sustained in Dublin including those that see Ringrose, Henshaw and Toner miss this game. Toner hasn’t missed a Six Nations game since 2013.

Scotland +6 points at Evens

4.45pm Italy v Wales

Italy were absolutely miserable for an hour in Edinburgh, incapable of even doing the basics in defence and it looked like the most lacklustre handicap bet of all time for much of the match. It subsequently emerged in post-match interviews that the squad had been hard hit by illness in the days before the game that had disrupted preparation.

Then Italy scored three tries in the last 20 minutes. The significance of this was not that it put Italy in with a chance of getting a win, it didn’t, but that is indicative that the team is fitter than previous seasons and has more depth off the bench as the players emerging from the Academy system begin to reach the national team.

At this stage what this should mean is that Italy won’t be falling away at the end of matches (they have spent two seasons being competitive for 45-50 minutes then fading away) and might be a consistent prospect to beat handicaps until those spreads adjust.

This weekend with Wales unlikely to be as generous at Scotland is a test for whether this is a thesis to follow for the remainder of the tournament, or not

In Paris Wales’ first half performance in being down 16-0 was atypical. They didn’t play the conditions. They tightened up after half time, begun to play territory and won the second half 24-3 albeit with the help of two major French errors enabling them to do so.

Bright spots for Wales were the back row which is clearly one of the best in the tournament and that once Biggar came on at fly-half they were able to impose the correct style on the game

Clearly Wales should win this, despite a raft of changes/rotations. Italy are 12/1 underdogs. The question again is the handicap. Italy +22 was the early quote. By way of comparison in their penultimate game of last year’s competition Italy lost in Cardiff by 24. Italy might be a sturdier prospect now. Wales make ten changes and we are looking at Italy +18. So I have switched to the first half handicap, expecting a much changed Welsh side to take some time to gel and knowing that Italy, when not blown off course as in Murrayfield by off the field issues, have been competitive in first halves for a couple of years now.

Italy +8 1st half handicap at Evens Ladbrokes/Corals

Sunday

3pm England v France

Before their game in Dublin most thought England had a squeak but no more than that against a side with 12 successive wins and who hadn’t lost at home under Joe Schmidt. They then proceeded to dominate the gain line in attack and with excellent suffocating defence. England’s defensive system was based on pressuring the opposition’s playmakers. The kicking game was really on point and pulverised the Irish back three.

This on its own was impressive enough. What this team had that the team of a few years ago lacked was a proper number seven breakdown presence in Curry (England won all 88 of their attacking rucks in this match, testament to their breakdown accuracy) and some creativity in the backs with Slade and Daly with May exceptional outside.

The loss of Itoje is a blow but this is the one side above all others in the competition with plenty of depth in squad resources. Plug in two of Lawes, Launchbury and Kruis for this weekend

From 16-0 up against Wales, the French team had a collective brain fade in the second half in their style of play and then in the individual errors that presented the Welsh two tries.

This is a pattern for a team with only three wins under Brunel. In their last three games they were 26-22 up against South Africa in the opposing 22 as time expired and lost. They were then beaten by Fiji at home and now coughed up a 16 point lead at home.

The team has a lack of cohesion borne of many selection changes (six this weekend, only two enforced) and doesn’t have a defined style (Bastareuad is back for this game as the French go for bulk against bulk) Against Wales a monster sized pack suggested they may play it tight, whilst a small nimble back line suggested they may go wide. In practice apart from the first 20 minutes they did neither very well. This match has a far bigger back line and a more nimble looking pack.

England are 13 point favourites here and the French are habitually poor travellers, something that has applied at club and national level for about a decade. The side and coach have received an absolute shellacking in the French Press and the players have had a good old moan back.

I am more tempted to suggest England will cover than won’t and should be two to three scores better than the visitors.