Dublin delight for England
David Gee takes a look ahead to the second round of action in the RBS 6 Nations, with England fancied for victory in Dublin.
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This match had been billed as the wooden spoon decider but Italy's shock victory against France last weekend has thrown everything up in the air and this has now become a 'must-win' game for Scott Johnson's men. The Scots took an early lead against England last Saturday but were eventually taken apart by a thoroughly efficient England side who are now as short as even money to win this year's tournament. Understandably, Scotland are now the red-hot favourites to land the wooden spoon and even a victory against the Azzurri at Murrayfield on Saturday may not be enough to keep them from propping up the table. Plenty of superlatives were thrown Italy's way after they beat France on Sunday and several pundits were left to wonder where that performance had come from. However, the Azzurri had been on the verge of something like this for a while and the difference may well have come from fly-half Luciano Orquera. The stand-off was fantastic and not only set up two tries but more importantly kicked two conversions, a penalty and a drop-goal. Italy haven't had a reliable goal-kicker since Diego Dominguez hung up his boots several years ago and Orquera's cool head could be the key to taking the Azzurri to the next level. Understandably, coach Jacques Brunel has kept faith with the side that beat France but he has had to make a change at inside centre, where Alberto Sgarbi has been ruled out with an ankle injury. He is replaced by La Rochelle centre Gonzalo Canale who himself has recovered from a slight setback. Johnson has resisted making wholesale changes to his starting XV but he made switches in two positions, with Robert Harley replacing the injured Alasdair Strokosch in the back row whilst Ross Ford takes the place of Dougie Hall who injured his knee in the Calcutta Cup clash. Scotland are the five-point jollies for this match and it's understandable to see them as favourites as they have home advantage and Italy will definitely be targeting their games at the Stadio Olimpico rather than those away from Rome. Nevertheless, this is the sort of handicap mark I would expect the Scots to have even if Italy had lost against France last weekend so to see the Azzurri get five points is surprising to say the least. It's fair to say that Italy have yet again been underestimated by the layers and if I'm right and Orquera has made the difference, then not only can Italy cover the handicap but I feel they can also win this game. Murrayfield is hardly a fortress at the moment as well with Scotland losing their last five at home. The outright price is tempting but we'll take the cushion of the handicap because if Scotland do win this one, I think they'll sneak it rather than handing Italy a beating.
Verdict: Italy by 3.
I didn't think I'd be writing this come the second week of the Six Nations but both France and Wales are on something of a retrieval mission on Saturday evening after both sides suffered a reverse last weekend. Wales were put to the sword early on against Ireland which sealed their fate but Rob Howley's men have to be given some credit for the way in which they got their way back into the game and eventually gave Irish backers a bit of a fright heading into the last 10 minutes. France didn't really get going against Italy and whilst we should take nothing away from Brunel's men, the reason for a rather lacklustre display from Les Bleus could be that the majority of their squad were jaded after playing in the Top 14 a week before. Whilst this should be no excuse, the players didn't really put in a performance that screamed of a well-drilled side and it could just be that the extra week together helps on that front. In typical French style, coach Philippe Saint-Andre commented this week that 'you don't change a winning side - well, we don't change a losing one' before insisting that this weekend's match represents a 'second chance' for many of his players. They need it though as if they produce another performance like last weekend's in Rome, then they could be in for a second successive defeat. PSA has made just two changes to last weekend's starting XV, with one a tactical change and the other an enforced replacement. Skipper Pascal Pape misses the game after injuring his back so Jocelino Suta takes his place and Thierry Dusautoir takes the captain's armband. The other sees Mathieu Bastareaud come in on the wing for Florian Fritz but Saint-Andre doesn't want the press to see this as a comment on Fritz's performance last weekend. Ospreys forward Ryan Jones will captain Wales on Saturday after the news that Sam Warburton has been ruled out. Justin Tipuric takes Warburton's place at openside while the only other change sees Jones' team-mate Richard Hibbard start at hooker in place of Matthew Rees. This match should go the way of France but I certainly wouldn't want to be a backer giving the Welsh eight points after last weekend's performance. Wales salvaged some pride with their second-half showing against Ireland but if they start this match in the same manner, it could be game over by the end of the first 40 minutes. Essentially, there are far too many question marks over both sides to make this a match to bet on and the layers probably have this about right.
Verdict: France by 7.
Many pundits are billing this as the 'title-decider' and whilst there may be some justification for this after two impressive victories last weekend, both Ireland and England know that it is a little too early in the tournament for that kind of rhetoric. Ireland simply blew Wales away in the first half at the Millennium Stadium last weekend but I got the distinct feeling that Howley's men made the Irish look very good in the first 40 minutes. The second half wasn't so impressive and Declan Kidney's side really let Wales back into the game and the end result was a little too close for comfort. Ireland looked to take their foot off the gas in the second half which was surprising and they will have to play a lot more evenly if they are to get the better of England on Sunday afternoon. England posted another ruthless performance against Scotland at Twickenham last Saturday and whilst it wasn't the most taxing victory they've ever earned, there was a real no-nonsense quality to it which seems to typify the Red Rose under Stuart Lancaster. Their pack is solid, their backs are creative and tough-tackling and the boot of Owen Farrell is more than reliable. Lancaster will have to do without Ben Morgan this weekend as he has not been included in the travelling party after spraining his ankle in the match against Scotland. James Haskell is expected to be promoted to the starting line-up at flanker with Tom Wood shifting across to cover Morgan at eight. Ireland are not expected to make many changes either with the evergreen Brian O'Driscoll spearheading their attack from centre. He rolled back the years last weekend against Wales and his link-up with exciting winger Simon Zebo will be the key to Ireland's hopes. However, there's not a lot wrong with England at the moment and I've no doubt that if they win this game, they will only have to overcome France at home to land the Grand Slam. I thought they might be slight favourites to win this match so to see even money available about an away victory is quite tempting. Lancaster's men were easily the more impressive in their victory last weekend and I still have slight doubts over the Irish having seen them let Wales back into the game so quickly last Saturday in Cardiff. I don't think there will be much in this game but England's new-found ruthlessness - coupled with the reliable boot of Farrell - should be enough to see them record their second successive victory.
Verdict: England by 5.