Takes place this weekend

Saturday 2.15pm
France v Scotland

After only two rounds of this Championship, already what else can be said about France? Selection is inconsistent, a coherent style is absent, fitness is lacking. France started the England match with a wing at full back and two centres on the wing. No wonder England targeted that back three with their pin-point kicking game

They definitely need new blood in their coaching ranks, and obviously seven months out from a World Cup this is a terrible time to make wholesale changes but they look bereft. If you are not competitive with experienced players you might as well blood more from the recent U20 World cup winning team and start the rebuild.

In terms of team selection for this match at least they have moved in the direction of picking the younger players. Ramos. Dupont and Ntamack all start, though Dupont/Ntamack is the 11th 9-10 combination for France since 2017. The French selection looks a bit more coherent. What we don’t know is the style of play they will attempt, mainly because there isn’t a consistent one in place.

Last week when beginning to write this piece my frustration was that after three poor halves in a row by the French we weren’t getting quite the price on Scotland that we were getting for this match pre-tournament as I had them ear-marked to win this game The quote at the time was Scotland +2 and 11/8.

Last time out Scotland committed 15 handling errors against Ireland and having been on the front foot for most of the first half they were suffocated in the second three of those handling errors coming on rare forays towards the Irish 22.
In defence also conceded 3 poor tries, and the combination of the errors/poor decision making and the defence meant that a chance to win slipped by.

Whilst Scotland lack some heft in the tight five their ability at the breakdown and the potency of the backs looked to bode well here, and then last week they lost full-back Stuart Hogg and centre Huw Jones to injuries that may keep them out for the remainder of the tournament then this week Finn Russell, a real difference maker, was ruled out after being concussed playing in French club rugby last weekend

Russell has been in brilliant form for club and country this term, having a hand in all five of Scotland’s tries against Italy and setting up their solitary score against Ireland. Scotland were already without their first-choice back row from last year in John Barclay, Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson, as well as starting forwards from round one Sam Skinner and WP Nel.
Scotland don’t have the squad depth of England, Wales and Ireland (essentially borne of having only two major franchises to pick from, albeit the vastly improved Glasgow and Edinburgh) and whilst in general we can say that the impact of individual injuries might sometimes be overplayed in prices and analysis we here have to add to that lack of depth that Russell, Hogg and Jones are Scotland’s key backs, especially in the style they play. They are transformative losses for this game and as a result through the week prices have moved. Scotland are now 9/4 and +6 on the spread. That said, the players coming in were all together for one of Scotland’s best recent victories, 44-15 in Argentina last summer when most of the big guns were also missing.

The effect of all this is to make predictions fraught. Will France gel finally? Can Scotland possibly challenge without their big guns?

I couldn’t possibly take France at 1/2 and -6 though I suspect putting square pegs in square holes will at least lead to some improvement. Scotland +6 was of more interest.

Instead I am going to have a small bet on the following in the half time/full time market. France Half Time/ Scotland Full time at 9/1. This view is based on Scotland fielding new combinations and France likely starting fast at home, as against Wales. In the second half I have yet to see any evidence that French fitness is up to required levels, or the bench is used effectively

Half Time/Full Time France/Scotland 9/1. William Hill
Saturday 4.45pm
Wales v England

This is a crucial game for a number of our positions taken before the tournament. If England win here, with Italy and Scotland to come, a Grand Slam and the Championship is likely.

Wales have looked far from convincing in two games so far, though the ten changes for Rome last time has at least meant that a number of key players come into this game off three weeks rest, and obviously they will need to improve massively to be competitive here.

In their favour they are defensively very sound, have probably best defensive coach in world rugby and he will need a plan to combat the big English ball carriers and also the kicking game that pulverised France at Twickenham.

What England have been doing so well thus far is kicking from fourth, fifth, sixth-phase ball and from a number of players in multiple areas of the pitch. Encouragingly for Wales Liam Williams at fullback for Wales is an entirely different proposition to an out of position centre (Henshaw) and an out of position Winger (Huget) that England have targeted so far this championship. The Wales scrum half often acts as sweeper in their defensive set up too. The Welsh back row is a strength and stands a chance of slowing down the ball that England have used so well so far.

Returning to the injuries theme, England have lost the excellent Mako Vunipola with nhis exceptional work rate. Nonetheless the Welsh front five are going to be under pressure but I think Wales will win enough set-piece ball. They will want to spread the play, get Tipuric and Navidi into the outside channels, and stop those huge collisions that England hammered Ireland and France with. This approach is what New Zealand did so effectively in the second half at Twickenham last autumn and England failed to adapt. The selection of Anscombe at fly half over Biggar speaks to that likely approach.

Before the Championship I had Wales to win this match, they were 3 point favourites and now with England so impressive since the visitors are 4 point favourites. Wales outright are 7/4.

I see this being very close, would be surprised if it was more than a score either way and think the value here is Wales +4.

Wales +4 at 10/11 generally

Sunday 3pm
Italy v Ireland

Italy covered their second point spread in a row in this Championship against Wales. I think they are genuinely becoming a more competitive team, the issue being that coinciding with that the quality of their opposition is higher than in some seasons. The Six Nations features the world ranked numbers 2,3 and 4.

England aside this is clearly their toughest test as Ireland won’t offer the opportunities Wales and Scotland did when the former put out a patchwork team and Scotland took their foot off the gas after 60 minutes in the opening game
Here they miss their talismanic captain Parisse, consistently their best player and the tendency to play a bit like “headless chickens” without his leadership is increased as a result

Ireland did enough against Scotland, back to their trademark suffocating style, dominating territory, set plays impressive and are going to win here.

Italy are +29 on the point spread and that becomes a familiar question: Should we take them again getting more than a four converted tries points start?

Ireland have stuck 56 and 63 points on Italy in the last two years. They are most likely good for 40-45 here against a modestly improving Italian team meaning to cover Italy would need 15 plus. That seems do-able.

Italy +29 points at 10/11 generally