Rugby union expert Tony Calvin thinks England will keep Ireland honest in their Six Nations clash on Saturday, with Italy also fancied to do better than many expect.
Ireland have the best squad in the Six Nations, guided by the premier coaching team in world rugby, and are playing their most dangerous opponents – to judge from the betting, at least – at home on the opening weekend.
They come into this tournament having won a series in Australia in the summer, and beaten New Zealand 16-9 in November, and have very few injury concerns.
So what’s not to like?
Well, the fact that they are asked to concede a very dangerous-looking English outfit nine points on the handicap line, for one, and I have to side with England at evens (bet365, Betfair, Paddy Power and BoyleSports) with the start.
That may come as something of a surprise given I am no massive fan of Eddie Jones’ side of late.
Let us not forget that they finished fifth in the Six Nations last year after losing their last three matches. They were flattered by the winning scoreline against Italy in their opener, the 12-6 success over Wales at Twickenham could have gone either way, and they didn’t convince me in the autumn, either.
As I said in the outright preview, that may seem very harsh on a side that beat Australia and South Africa, and were only the most marginal off-side call away from beating New Zealand, eventually going down 16-15.
There just seemed to be a lack of belief and cohesion to me, but there is surely nothing like Ireland at the Aviva to focus their minds, not that the home side will be putting down the red carpet and waving them through with love and kisses.
But I like the look of this England XV, and I may well have backed them at 3/1 and bigger to win the game had Sam Underhill – he of that tackle against Wales last year – been fit at seven. He’s a big loss.
I wouldn’t be the biggest fan of his replacement Tom Curry, not at this rarefied level anyway, and I would have given Jonny May the boot on the wing, too, for all he can be a lethal finisher.
But, elsewhere, I like the make-up of the side, though England could also come to rue not having Dan Cole on the bench, at the very least. He is surely their strongest scrummager, and has been back to his best for Leicester this season.
Even in the spikey Cole’s absence, England have picked a very confrontational pack, that is for sure, and I expect this game to be very niggly and nasty. Plenty of biff is in the offing for French referee Jerome Garces to get a handle on.
And that is before we get to Owen Farrell at 10, and the recalled Manu Tuilagi at 12 after five years in the Six Nations wilderness.
Tuilagi has been putting it about a bit in defence for Leicester this season, but the impressive Henry Slade gives them midfield subtlety too, and the inclusion of Elliott Daly and his siege gun-boot at full-back means that Ireland have to be very disciplined near their halfway line, or else they will be punished accordingly.
England have dangerous options off the bench, too.
I know opposing Ireland hasn’t been too clever a move in recent years, but matches between these side have traditionally been very close – only a point has separated them in their last six scorelines combined, where they have won three games apiece – and the best time to catch them out has been first time up in this tournament in recent years.
Not that France will agree.
It is okay singing England’s praises, but Ireland will know what is coming and will be ready and waiting. And I’m sure their Aki-Ringrose axis will be looking to target and expose Tuilagi down the centre channel.
But it’s a medium-sized bet on England on the handicap for me, and Ireland must be concerned that their talisman, Peter O’Mahony, only seems to be just lasting out matches – though pretty impressively, admittedly – for Munster of late. He looks like he is hurting.
I’m sure the England players will be introducing themselves to his rib cage at every opportunity, likewise Johnny Sexton and his knee. Legally, of course.
Weaknesses are obviously hard to pinpoint with this Ireland side – they have the premier half-back pairing, and the best pair of wingers, in the competition - but the surprise news that Robbie Henshaw is playing at full-back is a cause for concern.
Rob Kearney has long been their defensive rock, particularly under the high ball, though he has been struggling for fitness in recent months.
And they would have liked Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne as options off the bench, too.
I think England will be pretty competitive here, and there will be less than a score in it.
In the aforementioned outright preview, I tipped Italy at 22/1 to beat Scotland at Murrayfield in their opener on Saturday afternoon - that raised some laughs - and I’ve seen scarier-looking XVs than the home side is putting out.
Famous last words, no doubt.
They have a superb half-pack pairing – when Finn Russell is on a going day, anyway – and, of course, Stuart Hogg is a world-class operator at full-back.
Their front row is a very capable unit, but the back five of the scrum wouldn’t scare many.
They have been hit hard by injuries in this area – no Watson at seven, no Gray brothers at lock – and their bench looks light enough to me.
Of course, they are playing Italy at home, and they could easily win this by a street. You only have to look back to Italy’s November defeats at the hands of Ireland (54-7) and New Zealand (66-3) to see that. A good old trouncing is never far away for Italy, and they did lose this fixture 29-0 in 2017.
But if Italy bring their A-game to the table – and they gave Australia far more trouble than a 26-7 loss would tell you in the autumn - then this could be a lot closer than many would have you believe.
So I have to stick to my guns and tip Italy +25 at evens with Betway. The general 10/11 on the same handicap line is obviously acceptable, too.
Greig Laidlaw made an interesting point earlier in the week when he said that Italy always believe they can beat Scotland, if perhaps not the other Six Nations sides, and their recent meetings suggest that is true.
They won this fixture 22-19 in 2015 and near-misses followed later that year (lost 16-12) and last season (a last-minute penalty saw Scotland home 29-27).
Benetton Treviso’s record in the Pro 14 this season will give the Italians even greater, recent encouragement. Treviso beat Glasgow 20-17 at the start of January and only went down 31-30 at Edinburgh in September.
Remember, that Edinburgh side contained the front five that take the field for Scotland on Saturday, so I am certainly not assuming this will be a walkover.
The Italian side will need their subs to deliver here – Sergio Parisse, for so long their one-man band, looked a bit ponderous for Stade last weekend – but they have enough all-round class and talent to make this interesting.
And, hopefully, the aforementioned belief in what looks like being freezing conditions at Murrayfield on Saturday afternoon.
Posted at 1530 GMT on 31/01/19.