Rugby union expert Tony Calvin previews the final round of matches as the Guinness Six Nations comes to an end this weekend.
As bad beats go, Ireland failing to cover the handicap against France last week is right up there with the tale of woe from Benie Des Dieux backers at Cheltenham on Tuesday.
The mare traded at 1/33 in running but Ireland would probably have been an even shorter price to win by more than 13 and 14 points had the original handicap lines still been live during the game.
France had barely been in the opposition’s half in the match, and Ireland should have already had 50 points on the board when they scrummed down 26-0 up on the French five-metre line late on, with the visitors down to 14 men and already penalised three times at the same set-piece.
A penalty try was probably only about two scrums away, but then the ball squirted out the side door, and France somehow scored two converted tries in the last four minutes to edge it back to 26-14.
I only reference the above because it illustrates that Ireland still aren’t at the top of their game, even though their dominance in that match was at a level that you rarely see in any game of rugby, club or international.
France were absolutely woeful, equally as bad as they were in that 44-8 loss at Twickenham, so for Ireland only to win by just 12 points has to be viewed as hugely disappointing, however much you dress it up and view the stats.
There was an absence of accuracy and a lack of that clinical nature to their play against a side that travel worse than most of my bets have at the Festival this week.
Ireland will have far fewer try-scoring opportunities against a mean Welsh defence on Saturday, so they need to take their chances whenever they present themselves, be it by boot or by hand.
To be fair, the Irish undoubtedly played their best match of the tournament against France – though that isn’t saying much – and, remarkably, they still have a chance of winning the Six Nations, for all they are 20/1 chances. And they have named a pretty formidable starting XV, and squad, for this match.
Their most recent, relevant record in Cardiff is far from the best though, as they have lost 22-9 and 23-16 on their last two tournament visits (though they won a World Cup warm-up 35-21 in the summer of 2015), and they have struggled a bit of late in Dublin against them, too.
To carry on the Cheltenham theme, Wales have been the Altior of this year’s Six Nations, always looking in trouble at some point – and at 16-0 down against France at home, it was a whole world of woe – but then finding plenty for pressure late on.
That relentless spirit and drive was shown in the second-half against England too, and the manner in which they repelled wave after wave of Scottish attack in their own 22 last week, when only four points clear after dominating the first-half, illustrated perfectly why they are on such a winning streak.
They have scored 57 points fewer than England in this tournament, but have conceded five less, and their organisational structure in defence is simply superb.
Now, the dam may well burst at some point and they may need to find their attacking legs again, and that isn’t a switch that you can flick straight on. They haven’t created a great deal going forward in their four matches to date.
But they have a meanness and unity of purpose about them, and the crowd in the Millennium will be electric, doubly-so if they close the roof this weekend. Plenty of rain is currently forecast in Cardiff.
We had two pre-tournament positions which means that we can’t lose – we win 3pts on the No Grand Slam bet if Wales lose or draw, or 6pts if they win the Triple Crown – and I suppose I could level it up a bit by having a point on Ireland +2.
But I am not sold on Ireland’s form at the moment – for all their team does have a frightening look to it – and, if anything, I think Wales are marginally the better bet at 5/6 to win the game. But there is very little in the prices to get you excited.
I would go with Wales outright if you need an interest – they have named an unchanged side, and that consistency and familiarity is a massive positive – but I am going to sit tight, given the ante-post positions.
Initially, it was a bit disappointing to see Italy getting only a 10-point start against France in the first match up on Saturday, though this is in Rome. We know by now how poor the visitors are away from their capital and they have made six changes from last week.
However, France have romped home in this fixture in recent years – winning 40-18 in 2017 and 29-0 in 2015 – and they will be hoping the Italians prove as porous in defence as they were then, and against England last week.
But even if Italy concede plenty, they could adopt the old Kevin Keegan "you score four and we will score five" strategy, and I have actually been pretty impressed by their three-quarters in this tournament. Michele Campagnaro will be a big miss at centre, mind you.
They have only notched up three fewer points than France and have scored three tries against Scotland, and two each against Wales, Ireland and England.
If their forwards can gain parity against the French pack – and they have shown blind loyalty in selecting their captain Sergio Parisse at number eight again, as he is a light of former years in terms of work-rate and dynamism – then they could give the opposition, who have conceded at an average of 26 points a match so far, the run around on their own patch.
The more that I look at the sides – and for me Italy have had the lock of the tournament in Federico Ruzza – the more I think the hosts may actually win this match. So even though the market has all been one-way in the last week, I still think there is a little bit of juice in a 10-point start.
Italy only lost by 13 points in Scotland, and by 11 and 10 points respectively at home to Wales and Ireland. But it’s only a one-point play on another quiet punting weekend.
England are asked to give up 18 points to Scotland at Twickenham, and they would have covered that start six times out of nine since the turn of the century, with winning margins of six, 12 and 14 on the other three occasions.
The Scots were pretty disgraceful in a 61-21 defeat in this fixture in 2017, and the sides come into this game with very different injury concerns.
England may still be without first-choice forwards Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola, but they have made their four changes to the side that beat Italy from a position of strength.
Everyone was raving about Joe Cokanasiga last week, and some even made him their man-of-the-match, but he has been brought right back down to earth by being left out of the squad by Eddie Jones, perhaps with a nod that he needs to improve defensively.
He is replaced by Jack Nowell and, elsewhere, I am glad to see Mark Wilson and Henry Slade returning to the starting XV, with Ben Moon coming in at prop being the other change.
You can’t argue with England’s Twickenham form in this tournament, though they rather took their foot off the pedal in the second-half in both of their matches against France and Italy, and that is a concern for their handicap backers along with the weather forecast, which calls for rain prior to kick-off.
Scotland have been their usual frustrating selves so far, in that you know there is a good side in there somewhere, but it only announces itself once in a blue moon.
They could easily have won close games against Ireland and Wales, but they just lack poise at crucial moments, often making brain-dead decisions.
They kept on banging their heads against a brick wall against Wales last week, instead of taking three points and moving on, and at one point they even used the diminutive Darcy Graham on a crash ball near the line.
On players alone, they should not be 18-point underdogs, even at Twickenham.
However, their talent pool is draining by the match. They now have an appalling injury list, and it did make me laugh when some wag on Twitter "announced" the Scotland XV earlier in the week.
Full back: Hamish Watson; Winger: Hamish Watson… you get the picture.
The Mighty Hamish was brilliant when coming on as sub last week, but one man alone can’t stem a white tide, and they have had to make six changes to the side that went down by seven points to Wales, including replacing their impressive full-back Blair Kinghorn.
The three-quarter cupboard now looks very bare, even with Finn Russell pulling the strings, and one suspects that their pack will need to do a job on their English counterparts if they are to keep this respectable.
It is in fact pretty hard to see that happening, for all that I like the look of the Scottish eight and a bench which gives them options, too.
I don’t really like backing teams to give away big starts and, crucially, this is the last game of the day so England could already know their Six Nations fate if Wales have won.
There's an obvious risk this is a dead rubber, so I am looking elsewhere for my bet and I was very surprised to see Scotland at 7/1 with Sky Bet to win the 'race to 10 points'.
I know it appears a bit of a muggy, guessy bet but in these circumstances I always ask myself "what price would I lay it at?" I didn’t get anywhere near 7/1, given the random nature of the bet.
If Wales have sealed the Six Nations by kick-off – and that is a 10/11 poke – then England could just make a subdued start, which furthers belief that it's worth a small bet on Scotland to reach 10 first.
Posted at 1745 GMT on 14/03/19.