Ireland v Italy | Saturday 14:15
Jonny Sexton’s exceptional 45m drop goal deep into stoppage time saved Ireland’s blushes in Paris last Saturday night but Joe Schmidt’s side will know a major improvement is required over the coming weeks if Grand Slam dreams are to be realised.
The Shamrocks gave little away – France didn’t even enter Ireland’s 22 until the 65th minute – but the visitors struggled to assert themselves with ball-in-hand despite eventually stretching their current winning streak to eight.
A home tie against Italy is arguably the best possible next contest and Schmidt’s side will be desperate to fix last weekend’s wrongs against an Azzurri outfit facing a tough six-day turnaround following their defeat to England.
Conor O’Shea’s charges competed valiantly for an hour in Rome, crossing the whitewash twice, before eventually succumbing to Eddie Jones’ outfit. Ill-discipline and a poor set-piece performance held Italy back.
Ireland tend to dominate these meetings in Dublin, enjoying an average 36-11 victory from the previous nine encounters here. However, with plenty of wind and rain forecast for the Emerald Isle on Saturday, a 34-point handicap hurdle is far from appealing from a home perspective.
Italy may have lost their last 13 Six Nations, been beaten by 20 or more points in 14 of their previous 16 outings in this competition whilst averaging over 40 points against, but their best efforts tend to arrive in the first-half of matches.
Indeed, the Azzurri conceded 67% of their points tally after half-time in last season’s competition and over their previous six campaigns have only trailed by an average of six points at the interval.
So the offer of Italy with a +16 first-half start stands out – the guests have only twice failed to cover this spread in their last 16 away Six Nations contests.
Italy +16 first-half handicap
England v Wales | Saturday 16:45
England’s showdown with Wales promises plenty for neutral observes with the two nations embroiled in a war of words in the lead-up to Saturday evening’s Twickenham meeting.
The hosts head to their south-west London base having won each of their last 14 Six Nations games in TW3 and bullishly confident they can extend a wonderful run of results under Eddie Jones’ watch.
Little has been made of England’s preparations, mind. The team have endured a six-day turnaround and only arrived back at their accommodation on Monday afternoon. Chuck in the very wet weather forecast for London this weekend and the Red Rose may struggle to surpass a chunky 12.5 point handicap spread.
England should succeed – there’s only been seven away triumphs in 42 Six Nations campaigns over the past four years when excluding Italy – but Wales make the journey across the Severn Bridge with little to fear despite their catalogue of injuries.
The Dragons have beaten England three times at Twickenham during Warren Gatland’s 10-year reign – they managed it just once in the 20 years prior to his appointment. In the same 10-year spell, Ireland, Scotland and France have recorded a solitary success at Rugby HQ.
Wales’ squad boasts 10 players who played a part in those victories and whilst Scotland weren’t at the races last weekend, the manner of the Dragons’ victory over their Celtic counterparts has raised belief and expectation in camp.
Gatland’s group silenced their critics with a supreme display, embracing the Scarlets’ expansive style. Although conditions may not suit a similar approach on Saturday, Wales have plenty of previous recent experience in playing a tight and confrontational game-plan.
The underdogs potentially hold the upper hand in the front and back row, whilst the rock-solid midfield combination of Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams are capable of keeping England’s attack in check.
The home side have a habit of starting slowly, relying on their finishers to carry them home. That may well be the case again on Saturday but I fancy Wales to keep the contest competitive, at least for the opening 40 minutes.
The Dragons have led at half-time in 69% of their Six Nations games since 2015 when excluding Italy so a 6-point start on the spreads in the opening 40 minutes has legs.
It’s a selection that’s proven profitable in five of the past six meetings.
With England winning the second period in 20 consecutive tests, this could well be a game of two halves.
Wales +6 first-half handicap
Scotland v France | Sunday 15:00
For the 17th time in 19 Six Nations years, Scotland kicked-off their campaign with a defeat. On 12 previous occasions, the Bravehearts followed an opening weekend reverse with a second loss although Sunday should see Gregor Townsend’s troops return to form.
I’m happy to overlook a poor recent record at Murrayfield against France (two triumphs in nine) and support the Scots to win this showdown by 1-12 points. Sure, they were dreadful for large swathes of last weekend’s clash with Wales but a return home should inspire a positive response.
Inaccuracy with ball-in-hand, failure to get over the gain line, numerous turnovers and poor discipline all contributed to a dreadful afternoon in Cardiff and Townsend’s looked to address such issues by making six changes to his XV. Few could argue with the new-look team the Bravehearts will field this weekend.
France may have suffered last-minute heartache against Ireland and received plenty of deserved plaudits for their monumental defensive work. However, Les Blues made little impression in possession, recording week one lows in passes carries, meters run and defenders beaten.
That’s probably not a huge surprise considering France have been far from fluent in attack in recent seasons. Since 2011 the visitors have averaged just eight tries per-tournament whilst injuries have forced Jacques Brunel’s boys into three enforced changes.
Les Blues are never easy to trust on their travels – losing nine of 12 Six Nations away days when excluding Italy – and have covered the handicap in only seven of their past 26 Six Nations battles.
There’s a case to be made for Scotland covering the spread but the Bravehearts seldom settle matches by more than a converted score and the 1-12 winning margin is preferred. The hosts have won seven of their last eight at Murrayfield and could/should have toppled the mighty All Blacks here in the autumn.
Scotland to win by 1-12 points