A supercharged Six Nations gets off to a strident start this weekend with Joe Schmidt’s enigmatic Ireland strongly fancied to retain the crown this season following fine form in the Autumn Internationals that resulted in emphatic victories over both the Springboks and Wallabies. Fellow favourites England get proceedings under way on Friday evening with their crucial clash against a precariously wayward Welsh outfit in Cardiff, but the visitors will need to overcome an incapacitating injury list if they want to live up to current expectations. Of the remaining contenders it’s the passionate Scots that are most likely to prove a dark horse this season, with Vern Cotter’s young side now producing some exciting running rugby that had even the formidable All Blacks sweating earlier this season. They are positioned for their strongest showing in the current format of the competition.
Wales vs England | Friday 06 February | Millennium Stadium | 22:05
With Wales and England set to battle it out in the pool stages of the upcoming World Cup, a victory in Cardiff this Friday is worth more than just a few log points.
To Win (80mins)
Wales (-4.5) 1/1
England (+4.5) 8/10
Wales head into the competition with a well-seasoned squad boasting the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts, and they know their way around this competition having clinched back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. They came unstuck last season finishing third following losses to France, Ireland, and England and they failed to impress in the November Test series, going down to the Wallabies and All Blacks, before picking up a consolation victory over a depleted Springbok side in a clash that fell outside of the international Test window. England will kick off their campaign without several key players including Davey Wilson, Geoff Parling, Brad Barritt and Tom Wood, and they haven’t fared too well on previous visits to Cardiff, having lost five of their last six clashes at Millennium Stadium. A traumatic 30-3 drubbing two years back that cost them the Grand Slam being the most recent of those. They were unlucky to miss out on the spoils last season with their narrow 26-24 opening round loss to France being their only defeat of the season.
VERDICT: Wales (-4.5) 1/1
The Red Dragons are always tough to beat at home and with a more settled side this week it looks as if we are going to have to tolerate foghorn Warren Gatland gloating for a while.
Italy vs Ireland | Saturday 07 February | Olimpico Stadium | 16:30
Most sides would welcome the opportunity to kick off their campaign with a clash against the abysmal Azzurri, home or away. But the Irish head for Rome this week with an understandable amount of trepidation as the memory of their 22-15 loss at Stadio Olimpico back in 2013 continues to haunt their dreams.
To Win (80mins)
Italy (+11.5) 9/10
Ireland (-11.5) 9/10
Italy have been consistently catastrophic in this tournament, claiming the wooden spoon in ten of the competition’s fifteen years. They lost every outing in last year’s Six Nations and managed only one victory during the November Test series, but they must be given credit for pushing both Argentina and South Africa closer than expected. They head out with an experienced team this week, boasting 660 caps in the run on side, with just two changes from the side that went down to the Springboks. The Irish are travelling hurt with a growing list of injuries, but they were far from full strength when they toppled the Wallabies and Springboks a few months back so they definitely have a decent amount of depth in their young side. They have taken a big knock with the loss of star pivot Jonathan Sexton who sits out with a concussion, but Ian Keatley is a more than competent replacement.
VERDICT: Ireland (-10.5) 9/10
Ireland will be aiming for maximum points this week to send out a clear message to other sides. They’ll clear the handicap easily.
France vs Scotland | Saturday 07 February | Stade de France | 19:00
Scotland set sail for Paris this week eager to put paid to the demoralising sixteen-year drought they have endured on French soil.
To Win (80mins)
France (-9.5) 9/10
Scotland (+9.5) 9/10
Les Bleus will be looking to build on a relatively successful run during the Autumn Test series that yielded wins over Fiji and Australia and left us all a bit gobsmacked as Philippe Saint-Andre named an unchanged run on side for the first time in his three-year tenure. He is back to his tempestuous selection policies with several new faces named to play this week, and a fourteenth new half-back pairing under his reign in South African Rory Kockott and Camille Lopez. Scotland have made tremendous progress under Vern Cotter, so expect a marked improvement on last year’s performance in the competition that netted just a single win from their five clashes. With New Zealand born Cotter having spent eight years in charge of prominent Clermont Auvergne he will harbour a fair amount of insight into the French setup. A strong showing for Glasgow in this season’s PRO12 sees eight of the club’s stars featuring in Saturday’s side including the likes of Rob Harley, Euan Murray, Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg.
VERDICT: Scotland (+9.5) 9/10
Les Bleus are looking for a ninth consecutive victory over the Scots this weekend and they will more than likely achieve it purely because they’re such a resilient bunch at home. But Scotland are playing with a newfound confidence, and having lost by seven points or less in their last three Six Nations showdowns with Les Bleus, there is certainly plenty of value to be found in the handicaps for this clash. Taking them on +7.5 at 11/10 would be my pick of the lot.
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