Matches as follows
France v Italy Friday 8pm
France have finished 4th, 6th, 4th, 4th, 5th and 3rd in Six Nations Championships since 2012 and have lost their first two games this time round. On the upside they realistically could have been 2 from 2 this season but old habits (here, pointing a loaded shotgun in the direction of their foot and not moving said foot when pressing the trigger) die hard. They missed a simple conversion to be four points upon Ireland with three minutes to go and were ten points up against Scotland when fading, fitness and on field leadership both an issue, in the last 20 minutes at Murrayfield.
The selection response to these losses and more specifically some unauthorised extra-curriculars in Edinburgh after the last match has been carnage. Eight players (Belleau, Danty, Iturria, Lamerat, Lambey, Lapandry, Macalou, Picamoles and Thomas) have been dropped, notably the electric winger Thomas who had scored three tries in two games, all out of nothing. In have come Babillot, Bastareaud, Fickou, Galletier, Grosso, Le Roux, R Taofifenua and Trinh Duc.
From a predictive perspective this adds another layer of difficulty as not only do you have to try and work out which France will turn up playing what style but you’ve no idea if the squad is united off the field.
What we do know is that Brunel hasn’t had much time with his squad and that that lack of time means that their ambition in attack is hampered by a lack of precision and a lack of discipline. For example they conceded 13 penalties against Scotland.
Italy have suffered two heavy defeats against the two tournament favourites that are ranked two and three in world rugby. Despite that I think it is fair to say the Italian team is improving, an issue is that the rest of the competition is too
As it is the bare figures aren’t helpful. They have been white-washed in the last two championships and have suffered 75 Six Nations defeats out of 87 Tests since they joined in 2000.The last time they won was three tournaments ago against Scotland in 2015. Again there are calls for their future in the competition to be re-assessed.
Yet the focus on the clubs and the academies could yet yield better results. Italy are showing the kind of thinking that might one day give them a real chance of accumulating more victories. The improvement is mainly being seen, so far, in Italian provincial rugby. Last weekend Zebre won at Connacht and Benetton beat the Scarlets the week before handily. It is just going to take time for the national side as this talent comes through to the higher level
As it is Italy scored three tries in Dublin and two against England and lost by 31 and 37 points respectively.
Here there is some 9/1 Italy outright around and +18 on the handicap. This is probably the most unpredictable combination of teams in the Championship for a single game but I am compelled by three factors
a) the French flakiness and, fitness issues
b) Championship French penalty count, which should allow Italy to keep the scoreboard ticking over
c) Greater Italian try scoring potential in 2018 compared to previous years
To suggest that Italy can cover
Italy +18 10/11 Ladbrokes/Coral and Skybet.
Ireland v Wales Saturday 2.15pm
Ireland beat Italy 56-19 in Dublin and as the Six Nations could well come down to points difference between the top teams, that was a great result. It came at a cost with Henshaw and Furlong (the drop off from both players at their positions is noticeable) but the set patterns they play in leaves them well placed to keep rolling.
At Twickenham Wales were of course unlucky with a TMO decision and were denied a try by an all time great defensive play from Sam Underhill too, eventually losing by six points.
They have players coming back for this match with Biggar (for his out of hand kicking and territorial game) and Halfpenny (place kicking and defence) in particular upgrades but also Leigh Williams too. Ireland coach Joe Schmidt summed up their major strength (defence) as follows
“They play a lot of territory, they force you to bring the ball back against a full line of defence and they are very attacking as a defensive side and then they squeeze you and force errors.”
At Twickenham Wales conceded TWO penalties all match. That’s what you call discipline. Injury circumstances had forced Gatland to bolt on the flair shown by the Scarlets into what had been a settled team but it is that defence and discipline that is the key to their performances
For Ireland, this is the first of two games at home ahead of what is widely assumed to be a Championship decider at Twickenham. They haven’t lost a home Six Nations game in the five years that Schmidt has coached them
I expect them to win here but only narrowly and more narrowly than quotes of Wales 7/2 and +10 on the handicap suggests. This is a stronger Welsh team than played at Twickenham against a slightly weaker Irish team compared to the first two rounds. Whilst the level of discipline shown by Wales at Twickenham might be an outlier, the defensive strength and systems aren’t and I don’t see this being a game with lots of tries and would be very surprised to see Wales lose by more than two scores.
Whilst Wales +10 is a definite runner can get much the same idea around the following
Ireland to win by 1-12 points 7/4 Ladbrokes/Coral 6/4 Skybet
Scotland v England Saturday 4.45pm
Scotland got their reward for sticking at it and benefitted from a more direct approach in the second half against France against tiring opponents. It was a more balanced performance from Scotland than in defeat against Wales, although they will most likely need to improve further if they are to beat England here.
Vulnerabilities remain particularly in defence out wide, and the mercurial Finn Russell had a stinker too. Scotland only took control when he was off the field and Laidlaw moved to Fly half and the onus moved to straight running and playing territory. Russell is quite capable of turning it on here but Scotland will need that direct approach at times against England, where parity up front is essential to be able to use their skills out wide in attack.
This match sees the two year anniversary of Eddie Jones’ first game as coach where they won at Murrayfield. Including that game England have won 24 out of 25 under Jones (the exception being a 13-9 defeat in Dublin), two Six Nations Championships and a Grand Sla whilst all the while building for a run at the 2019 World Cup
England against Wales a fortnight ago was all about English power. The way their big men carried was exceptional and didn’t give Wales any entry point into the game. Perhaps even more importantly, their greater physicality meant that they dominated the gain line and with it they dominated the tactical direction of the game.
The balance still appears wrong in the back row despite some good individual contributions but Nathan Hughes will be back toad a big ball carrier into the combination.
When the tournament began I gave Scotland a fair chance of winning this match and setting up for a title tilt. I have to say that on what we’ve seen so far Scotland aren’t yet a teak tough unit that can take England on in tight quarters and a change of tack is appropriate
Eng are tough and experienced and Scotland are a bit behind defensively. England are six point favourites here and Scotland 5/2 underdogs.
England by 1-12 points seems reasonable to me. Scotland have a decent home record and will scrap and claw and Laidlaw will kick the penalties to keep it close. I think they might be over-powered at times though
England to win by 1-12 points 7/4 Ladbrokes/Coral 13/8 Skybet