Tony Calvin brings you his preview of this year's Natwest 6 Nations as his enthusiasm for France starts to wane.
NatWest 6 Nations recommended bets
For details of advised bookmakers and each-way terms, visit our transparent tipping record
I’m pretty sure the players haven’t been doing a ‘Darius Vassell’ and trying to pop blood blisters on their toes with a power drill – who would have thought that would end badly? Nevertheless, you just wonder what has been happening in rugby union this autumn, given that they have been dropping like flies.
Well, I say that, but it isn’t hard to piece together, though the players clearly have been. The sheer size of the athletes these days, and the speed and dynamism of 18st+ giants, allied to a packed fixture schedule, are making the sport a brutal physical test at every impact point.
You don’t need to tell Maro Itoje that, as he had his jaw broken after a meeting of ‘minds’ with his England team-mate Mike Brown. He was back within a month though, probably sooner than Darius after his own version of a ‘Bosch’ encounter.
The attritional nature of modern-day rugby union has made this year’s NatWest 6 Nations very tough to call, with each country experiencing a plethora of big-name injuries – England and Wales have probably taken the biggest hit, but France and Ireland aren’t that far behind – that will test their squad-depth to the limit.
Down the line, with more injuries inevitably being picked up as the tournament progresses - and with officials erring on the side of caution regarding concussion, that aspect will claim plenty, too - some teams could be fielding virtual second XVs by rounds three or four. That is something you have factor into your long-range Six Nations betting, even if players will be returning from injuries, too.
So where does that leave us as regards identifying this year’s winners? We may as well start with the outright market before drilling down (that was unintended, by the way, so I am not changing now) into the secondary betting lines.
Well, I got as much as I could on France at 20/1 six weeks ago, and even went to the stage of offering up a six-point arb at one point – and advertising the fact on Twitter – by requesting to back them at 15 (14/1) on Betfair when the 20s was still knocking about to some.
Unfortunately, arbers don’t exist anymore, for obvious reasons, whatever you may be told – you need a strong, liquid exchange market and that rarely materialises until much nearer the event – and fortunately someone jumped in front of me looking for 14 about the French, so I gave up and took the bet down.
Just as well as France - who have drafted in former players Julien Bonnaire (line-out specialist – and he was superb with Clermont in this area as a player), Sebastien Bruno (scrum) and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde (threequarters) as new coach Jacques Brunel’s assistants - are now out to 22/1 with BoyleSports, and it is not hard to see why, given events in the past few weeks.
The main reason why I liked the French at that price is the fixture list that handed them home ties against market leaders England and Ireland, and the fact that recent history suggests that they go well in the tournament the year after a Lions tour. The logic for the latter being the best players among the four Home Nations don’t get a decent break.
France lost by only three to England, and 10 to Ireland, away last season and won the other three fixtures, and that post-Lions tour stat really is quite compelling.
They may have only finished third in 2014 but they won in 2010, 2006 and 2002 & 1998. That’s pretty tasty form.
However, recent events have rather ebbed away my enthusiasm for the French, with the injury to Morgan Parra – who I think has been the most consistent number nine in Europe for a decade – a hammer blow.
He is apparently ruled out of the opener with Ireland (though the fact that he is included in the squad suggests his persistent, niggling knee injury isn’t too bad, so let’s hope for a miracle recovery this weekend…) and that is very bad news when you consider that France look set to rely on either the inexperienced Toulon fly-half Anthony Belleau or the Bordeaux-Begles teenager Matthieu Jalibert at 10.
A rock-steady nine, with a brilliant all-round kicking game (he is deadly from the tee), would have been handy in the circumstances given the fresh-faced innocence immediately outside them.
They have also plenty of other injuries , perhaps negating that Lions factor, and have lost man-mountain centre Mathieu Bastareaud because of his potty mouth against Benetton (I will spare you the exact details of his ‘homophobic slur’ that cost him his place in the opening squad) and they appear to have made some massive calls in selection.
Now, I don’t think Louis Picamoles has been at the top of his game for Montpelier this season (though his club head the Top 14 table, even if they only won two of their six Champions Cup pool games) but leaving him out of the 32-man squad is a very ballsy call.
Probably a very bad one too, as he probably said himself in private after scoring two tries as his club won 30-29 at Clermont last weekend.
Everyone knows how they can click on their day – an enormous pack is a given, and I think they have the best hooker in the tournament in Guilhem Guirado – and the French do provide four of the Champions Cup quarter-finalists, But their playing depth isn’t as impressive as that European record suggests when it comes to the international stage, given the inordinate amount of foreigners in some clubs, and their squad underlines that.
You may have guessed but I have gone off them quite a bit of late - their squad depth really worries me the more I look, especially with that 23-23 home draw with Japan on their recent dance card - especially with a relatively healthy Ireland first up. I hope I am wrong because my money is already on.
At the time I backed France at 20/1, I also had a saver on Scotland at 11/1, and the latter is a price that remains available with Betfair and Paddy Power.
However, once again, injuries continue to rear their ugly heads here, too. And in this case ugly is the right word, as they are currently struggling to put together a front row of any note for their opening match against Wales In Cardiff, with seven players currently out in this area alone.
As we will come to, Wales are having an injury nightmare across the board, but they will be targeting the scrum as a big potential weakness for the Scots.
If Scotland can regroup and gain parity in this area then I don’t think that any side will fancy meeting them after the way they played in the autumn, being unfortunate to lose 22-17 to New Zealand before putting Australia to the sword 53-24 the following week.
They are the form team coming into this tournament, make no mistake, and maybe part of that success was the fact that they had only three players on the Lions tour. Well, basically two, as Stuart Hogg copped one early doors in New Zealand and was soon on his way home.
I love the fluidity of their back play and, even though they will be underdogs for three of their opening four fixtures as it stands, with their easiest game their last (away to Italy), then I can see them scaring the life out of all their opponents.
However, the hits keep on coming for Scotland too, and lock Richie Gray was ruled out of the opener last weekend. His work-rate in defence will be a massive loss for them.
Ireland in Dublin could be a step too far for them, but they are no forlorn hopes there if some those dainty front-rowers have returned to the fold by March.
As you may have started to guess, I think a Grand Slam winner is unlikely given the competitiveness of the teams, fixtures and the injuries – more of that in a minute – but I suppose you can’t quibble too much with England being favourites at the even-money mark.
They, too, have many influential players on the sidelines – notably Billy Vunipola, I guess, and suspensions have ruled out Joe Marler and James Haskell from the Italy opener – but the one thing about them is that they have the best squad-depth to cope and also in their favour is that they ‘ease’ themselves into the tournament with a trip to Italy, a match where they are 1/14 chances and 19-point favourites.
That game may not be as straightforward as the betting suggests by any means, though, and not for one moment do I expect them to go through the tournament unbeaten with trips to France and Scotland, and a last-round Twickenham game against Ireland.
I saw nothing in England's autumn performances that impressed me (their 30-6 defeat of Australia was hugely flattering) and the fact that Dylan Hartley retains the captaincy after playing like a dog for most of the season is laughable.
Will Greenwood said recently that, aside from his coach, only Hartley’s mother would pick him on form at the moment. Few would argue.
I suspect that the rest of the England players know this deep down, too, for all he is apparently well-liked and respected in the squad. On current form he is lucky to even be starting for his club, and this could fester as the campaign develops if he doesn’t quickly begin to earn his stripes. Eddie may have to make a big call sooner rather than later.
They will be keen to get Ben Te’o back into the fold as soon as possible - he has returned from a personal Australian training camp, though Italy at the weekend maybe will come too soon - as he gives them a bit of a biff and X-factor at centre but evens England? No thanks.
I fancy they will be solid, but not spectacular, and eminently beatable in their tougher fixtures.
If you are playing at the top end of the market then Ireland are probably the better bet at 15/8 as, even in the absence of the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Garry Ringrose and Jared Payne to name just four of those sidelined, their squad still has a very powerful look to it. Actually, there is no probably about it.
They are set to face a Parra-less France first up in Paris on Saturday and then have three successive home games against Italy, Wales and Scotland before yet another final-weekend interlude with England at Twickenham.
In fact, I think you can make a very good case for Ireland being favourites from the outset in this tournament, especially with my trading hat on, so I am not going to put anyone off them at 15/8 (or 7/2 for Triple Crown and 9/2 for Grand Slam). Get past France and they will be tournament favourites, all right. In my book, anyway, and that’s all that counts.
At this stage, though, the one team that is intriguing at the prices is Wales. The 20/1 doing the rounds in three places really is a tempter.
Now, their injury list really is as bad as it gets in the threequarters – you name him, he is injured, especially if he normally has a 10 on his back – but this is where Warren Gatland will earn his coaching corn, starting with a near pick ‘em game against Scotland at home.
I think they have the pack to cause every side in this tournament a headache but the problem for those tempted in at 20/1 is they have England at Twickenham and Ireland in Dublin immediately after the Scotland match.
I am not ruling it out, or backing them, but it will be Gatland’s finest achievement if he can get this Wales side to lift the trophy in the absence of his top 10s Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, not least the loss of Rhys Webb, Liam Williams (last I heard, anyway) and Jonathan Davies. That is half of a Lions backline.
Then again, they can still put together a decent threequarter line, and the manner in which the Scarlets have been playing this season gives them the blueprint to adopt, and shine, in this tournament, but it remains to be seen whether a hard-headed Gatland will follow suit.
As regular readers will know, I never put up anything up as a bet if I am not willing to risk my own money on. But I am now in the unusual position of already having done so, and not really wanting them any more for the reasons outlined above.
The simple fact is that I don’t think there is much in the way of a tempting price in the outright market.
That may seem a cop-out but how many six-runner races have you seen and said “no bet”. Why should rugby be any different?
Like I said, I think there is a fair argument for thinking Ireland should be favourites, so the 15/8 about them is very fair but it’s a price I can leave alone, all things considered.
I rarely play at short prices, but having gone through the fixture list, I would make no Grand Slam winner more of a 4/6 chance, so my headline bet has to be that eventuality at 11/10 with Ladbrokes, Hills, Coral and Betfred. England in 2016 have been the only Grand Slam winners since Wales in 2012.
I think further injuries could make games difficult to call week-by-week – what may seem like a straightforward win now may no longer once we're two or three games down the line – and no side strikes me as dominant with the way the fixtures have fallen.
Possibly Ireland, but they have England away last up, and the 11/10 no side to win all their games gets more enticing the more you look. The more I look, anyway.
I have to leave the other secondary markets until I see the opening teams later in the week – whoever England select for their opening match in Italy will have a decent bearing on tryscorer markets, for example – but I did take a look at whether Italy being as short as 1/25 to finish bottom left an opening elsewhere on that line.
This is going to make me sound a right clueless clown – it wouldn’t even be the 28th time, so no worries there – but the 25/1 about France (Betfair, Paddy Power) finishing stone last did strike me as on the generous side. They got the wooden spoon in 2013, remember.
But backing a team at 20/1 to win the tournament, and 25/1 to finish last, would only invite ridicule. Wouldn’t it…?
I’ll be back later in the week with my thoughts on the weekend fixtures once I know the sides but for now the advice is to have a decent bet on no Grand Slam winner, and this tournament proving as unpredictable as it appears.
Posted at 1700 GMT on 29/01/17.