Wales to rise to challenge
The Six Nations is back, but before it has even started the process of picking a winner has been exhausting.
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To emphasise the point, this season we're running a 6N Charity Bet challenge with our analysts - seven of them are taking part and they have tipped four different winners between them. Listening to them all state their case with increasing determination has been disorientating to say the least, but here we go!
Ignoring the juicy 66/1 on a Scotland Grand Slam and a Hail Mary 500/1 on an Italian clean sweep, I'm going to disagree with Stuart Barnes and look past England (12/5 to win the Championship). No Manu Tuilagi leaves a big whole in attack and the rebuilt backline is high risk, high reward. The general consensus is that Stuart Lancaster has made the right choices, but it is also asking a lot of some very young and inexperienced players to create a spark that can win them the Championship. England will have a say in where the title goes, but I'm not sure they'll be the one polishing the trophy come March.
France (5/2 to win the Six Nations) cannot be as bad as last year - surely? I'm sure you've heard the stat about Les Blues doing well in the year after a Lions series - they've won the last four tournaments after the best of British and Irish have been on tour - but I'm not sure this crop are good enough to extend that. Fly-half Remi Tales' absence must be a real frustration for Philippe Saint Andre, and I think there are still questions over France's creativity, fitness and discipline.
So we're down to Ireland and Wales. If Ireland (11/2 Championship winners) can produce five games like the first 60 minutes against the All Blacks, they'll romp to the title - but it is a big if. No Sean O'Brien robs them of their brightest star while winning in both London and Paris looks a tall order.
Which leaves us with Wales, who have the most settled squad, a pretty clean bill of health and a firm understanding of what is required to win. The opener against Italy will allow them to gain momentum while trips to Dublin and Twickenham hold little fear having won on four of their last six trips to the respective capitals. Ryan Jones, who helped them to the title last year, said on the Rugby Club this week that there is a real confidence within the squad and interestingly he also dismissed any notion that the off-field issues would be a problem. So I'm going for it and tipping a Wales Grand Slam (9/2) and a third straight title.
In terms of top try scorers, it is really difficult to look past the three favourites of George North (6/1), Alex Cuthbert (13/2) and my preference: Wesley Fofana (10/1). If you do like the longer odds, Mathieu Bastareaud at 100/1 and Conor Murray at 200/1 could deliver very healthy returns.
Here is my game-by-guide
WALES V ITALY
So to Round 1, and I don't think we'll have too many surprises in Cardiff. Italy are terrible on the road (just one Six Nations win away from home since they joined in 2000) and Wales should win (1/33 for what it is worth) but they do tend to get out of the traps slowly in a new campaign and the nature of their power game means that they want to dominate in the second 40 when they have worn their opponents down. Have a little sniff at Italy half time/ Wales full time (7/1) but I think it should be comfortable enough for Wales and by more than the 19 point handicap (20/21).
In terms of try scorers, there is value in doubles for Cuthbert (4/1) and North (9/2) and Toby Faletau (5/1 anytime). For Italy, the spotlight always shines on Parisse (8/1 a/t), but last year he was given the freedom to play due to the excellent work of Alessandro Zanni. If Italy come out firing, the blindside is a juicy 66/1 to score first, and 11/1 to cross anytime.
FRANCE V ENGLAND
To go all Donald Rumsfeld on you, there are a lot of known knowns and plenty of known unknowns in Paris this weekend. France and England are in similar situations in that they have grunt up front but are searching for sharper attacks. New men have been brought in on either side to try to add some spark, Jules Plisson at fly-half has been handed the key to the blue backline, while England's three quarters boast a very skinny nine caps and two debutants. Will England play without fear, or are they going to struggle under the pressure of the situation?
Although the weather is set to be bright in Paris on Saturday afternoon, the state of the pitch, the strength of the defences and the lack of fluency from both sides going forwards means 'No try' (16/1) is worth investigating. However, Louis Picamoles remains the danger man in the French pack (4/1 a/t) while, having scored in his last two games against England and now settled back at 12, Fofana is always a lively option (7/2 a/t try). With England's centre partnership green in the extreme, I'm also tempted by Fofana and Basteraud both to score at a healthy 20/1.
For England, Jonny May has been picked for his unpredictability (11/4 anytime) but I also like the industry of Joe Launchbury - he scored twice in the autumn and is 12/1 to start this campaign with a try.
However, all things considered I have opted for the French to win (8/13) and by 1-12 at 6/5 on the alternative margin. For me they just have too much power and experience, they are better prepared than in season's past and they need no more incentive than England in front of them.
IRELAND V SCOTLAND
After a fairly disastrous 2013, Ireland look a much more dangerous prospect this time around. The key to their success is whether Joe Schmidt can blend the fine European form of Munster, Leinster and Ulster into the green of Ireland - a task many Ireland coaches have struggled with in the past. Ireland will play on the emotion of Brian O'Driscoll's last Six Nations campaign but they'll also have to overcome the absence of Sean O'Brien, which is perhaps more of a concern for later in the tournament.
Scotland have an air of experimentation about them, with incoming head coach Vern Cotter interested but not yet involved. Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland are sharp attacking threats but need quality ball and Kelly Brown will lead from the front and ensure they're be tough to beat, but improving on last year's third place finish looks unlikely. Like Wales v Italy, I think this will be close at half time, but Ireland should come through to win and I like the look of 20/1 for the draw at half time, Ireland full time.
I wouldn't be scattering too many chips on Scottish try scorers outside of Hogg, Maitland and the athletic David Denton. For Ireland Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony have scored some significant tries already this season, and seem to be picking up the reigns of the team for the next few years. I fancy Ireland come through with a lap to spare, 11-15 points at 9/2.
So that gives us an accumulator of home wins for Wales, France and Ireland. And as a treble of try scorers - how about Cuthbert, Fofana and Murray at 33/1?
I've deliberately gone fairly steady in the opening round, but if there's one thing we've all come to realise - there is nothing steady about this tournament. Good luck with your bets, and enjoy all the action. I'm going for a lie down before a ball has even been kicked.