Alex Payne: Relishing Le Crunch
Well, it has been something of a relief to have had week's break in the Six Nations, round two was thrilling for the neutral but for those having a punt it was a bit of a nightmare - especially for this blog!
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However, onwards to Round three, and a chance to make amends.
England v France
Le Crunch this year sees top of the table England against basement boys France.
England's win over Ireland was hailed by many as a huge step forward for this young side, and they rightly start as favourites, though I think 1/3 does a disservice to the visitors. Lancaster has played the diplomatic card all week pointing out how dangerous this French side are, but when the teams are fairly evenly matched, England do tend to have a psychological advantage over the men in blue.
France have staked their lot on this game, talk of a win over England would be their own 'Grand Slam' and Philippe St. Andre selection is as close to Mea Culpa as you'll see from the French head coach. 8 changes to the side that lost at home to Wales may smack of panic, but many think he does now have the right players on the park and in their correct positions. The question is whether they've had enough time to gel and are fresh and fit enough. Stuart Lancaster has highlighted the final quarter as England's.
In terms of tactics, the guys on the Rugby Club saw England targeting the French back 3 who don't have a great kicking game - Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs will look to pin them down with accurate and varied kicks and then leave it to the forwards to squeeze the French line out, which seems to be lacking a general. The inclusion of Lawes will help with this, giving England an extra option at the tail.
Looking at the stats England have won 5 of the last 6 times these two have met in the Six Nations. A bit more digging reveals that the man wearing the white 15 shirt has crossed the whitewash in each of the last five meetings - four of them to Ben Foden, one to Delon Armitage. Alex Goode was superb out in Ireland, his confidence is high and I'm hoping he might hot step over (9/4 anytime). Basteraud (3/1 anytime) against Tuilagi (9/4 anytime) is also a mouthwatering head to head.
One of the most impressive aspects of England in their opening two games has been their control of the score board, and I quite like the England double result of half time and full time at 7/4 on. I'm spreading the responsibility this weekend though; Stuart Barnes said after the Rugby Club England by 10-12, I think it will be a fraction tighter and have taken England by 6-10, which has a price boost with Sky Bet, at 9/2.
Scotland v Ireland
Scotland have to shed the monkey on their back this weekend, having only won one of the last twelve Six Nations encounters with Ireland. However, Scott Johnston's men will be quietly fancying their chances. They do start as underdogs, but they are very live contenders - 5/4 is worth opening the wallet for. They are the side with momentum, consistency in selection and confidence.
Ireland have lost their Director General in Jonny Sexton, their tour de force Cian Healey, the man who brings the X factor in Simon Zebo and the established centre pairing is also broken with Gordon D'Arcy out. They have debutants at 10 and 12 in Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall and the pressure is on. After round 1 Jamie Heaslip was most people's tip for Lions captain, after round 2 one Irish rugby show was debating whether he should be dropped from the team. It is fair to say the men in green are loaded up on baggage this weekend and I'm not sure they can carry it over the finishing line.
Visser and Maitland have to be considered in the try scoring stakes for Scotland, Matt Scott at 12 has been impressing a number of our pundits too - he's at 16/1 to open the scoring and 7/2 anytime. For Ireland, Rob Kearney will hope to get a bit more time, space and ball than he did against England but I'm drawn to Heaslip to put in a performance to answer his critics - the Irish captain is 4/1 as an anytime try scorer and 25/1 for a double. This game could well be free scoring.
I'm covering myself again with our pundits view from Thursday's show - Bob Casey backed Ireland by a couple but Barnesy and Ieuan Evans have plumped for the Scots and I'm inclined to agree. Consider the draw too, at 14/1.
Italy v Wales
The headlines around the Italy v Wales game centre on two absent captains - Sergio Parisse who's been banned for 30 days for back chat to a ref and Sam Warburton who's on the bench for Wales.
The Welsh weren't brilliant against the French, but it was such a significant win for their confidence and morale and I think they will back it up this weekend, and with a bit to spare. It's another run for Dan Biggar to grow into the ten shirt, George North should get a bit of a canter, he's 8/1 to open the scoring, Toby Faletau was superb in Paris and Ryan Jones will ensure that mentally the Welsh are where they need to be.
Without Parisse the Italians lose a huge amount of their threat, they've changed their half backs again and although they are a much stronger proposition at home (of the last four Six Nations games in Rome only England have left with the win) I think Wales know what's coming and will have the fitness to come through in the second forty after weathering the initial storm.
So red, white and blue for me this weekend. I will be holding my breath, crossing my fingers and searching for four-leafed clovers in the meantime - whatever it takes! Best of luck.