Rugby union expert Tony Calvin previews the Guinness Six Nations, with recommended bets from 5/6 to 22/1.
What immediately strikes you - well it does me, anyway - when looking at the various squads for the Six Nations is just how little separates the best XVs in terms of ability.
You probably know where I am going with that line, but I’ll confirm it at the end. I’m nothing if not predictable…
Sure, Ireland just about edge it in terms of class, and most certainly depth, and few would argue that Italy continue to bring up the rear, but the remaining sides in the competition will all fancy their chances of beating anyone on their own turf, and probably away from home, too.
And that is especially true given the way the fixture list pans out this year.
But let’s keep things simple, and assess the countries in betting order.
Nobody is going dispute the fact that Ireland deserve to be strong favourites to retain their Six Nations title, which they secured courtesy of their winner-takes-all defeat of England at Twickenham in March.
Like all six sides, they have their injury problems, but the way they shut out New Zealand in the autumn further underlined what a superbly drilled and prepared outfit they are. Their coaching teams elevate their talent.
In head honcho Joe Schmidt they have the best tactician and, as much as I hate to admit it – he was a bit of a laughing stock when pulling on an England rugby union jersey, though he should have admittedly never been put into the position – league great Andy Farrell is the supreme defence organiser out there in world rugby.
And, of course, Farrell will be given the leading reins when Schmidt retires after the World Cup later in the year, as well he should be.
Anyone who can engineer New Zealand coming away try-less in the second Lions Test in 2017 and again in a 16-9 Ireland win at the Aviva in November (the first time the All Blacks have failed to score a try and notch up 10 points in a Test match since 1998) deserves the wider remit.
Ireland have been hurt in the build-up to their opening match against England by news that Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne are out injured, though they can still call upon the Toner-Ryan lock partnership that started against the All Blacks, and the most impressive aspect of this Ireland side is their strength in depth.
Johnny Sexton is Mr Irreplaceable, so his recovery from his knee injury is a huge positive (though he may as well paint a target on it for the opposition for the next 10 weeks), but this Ireland side can virtually replace like-for-like in all other areas.
Don’t forget that they were missing the likes of Conor Murray, Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy against the All Blacks, and they did well to beat Wales 37-27 in the Six Nations last year considering their absentees (and Sexton’s poor goal kicking), though the last play of that match is not something I wish to recall, thanks, having had a fair chunk on Wales +10.
So, with their hardest matches on paper (or at least according to the betting) at home – England are first up, and then France further down the line – then some will view the 5/6 about them prevailing once again as a very fair price.
I am not so sure. That pair of fixtures are no gimmes, and away matches at Scotland and Wales are games they absolutely could lose.
And what must be a nagging doubt for Ireland’s backers is that they have been very slow starters in their opening fixtures in recent years.
Two years ago, they lost 27-22 in Scotland after not waking up until 30 minutes into the match, and everyone saw the manner in which Sexton’s wand had to guide them home 15-13 in Paris last year. Granted they were away games, but they also drew 16-16 at home with Wales in their 2016 opener.
That would concern me slightly, but we all know that that they have been the best Northern Hemisphere side for the last two years or so, even if they did ride their luck in Australia in the summer.
However, I struggle to make them odds-on pokes myself, and 5/6 is the best on offer. Not for me, then.
What about their first-up opponents, England?
England, too, have been sweating on their main man, Owen Farrell, with a thumb injury. He would be a bigger loss to England than Sexton would be to Ireland, but it looks like he will be okay and that the the injury might have been a lot worse. It could have been one of his tackling shoulders, for starters.
I really must ditch this anti-Farrell bias, sorry.
Schmidt took off his odds-compiling hat for his opening gambit - "I don’t think we are clear favourites" – but, to be fair, there is a different dynamic about this fixture this time around.
It has been the tournament-closer in the last two years, and this is the first time these two sides have met on an opening weekend since England won 50-18 at Twickenham in 2000. It’s been a long time coming.
The relative strengths of the teams have changed a fair bit since then, and there is no doubt that England were moderate in this tournament last season, and pretty unconvincing to my eye in the autumn.
The latter comment may seem a very harsh assessment given they beat South Africa and Australia, and only the most marginal offside call saw them go down 16-15 to New Zealand, but they need to buck their ideas up in terms of creativity.
An opening game in Dublin will focus the minds, for sure.
And, although England scored in the final play of the game to make it a more respectable 24-15 loss to Ireland in March, that Twickenham game could actually have panned differently on another day, despite the apparent dominance of the Irish on the scoreboard from an early stage.
As everyone knows, England are a formidable set-piece outfit, where Dan Cole should be recalled at prop – though their line-out can go badly awry on occasions – but they are lacking in the back-row against top-class sides, with the injury to their arch-snaffler Sam Underhill a massive blow to their breakdown capabilities. And Brad Shields should be nowhere near an England shirt.
The three-quarters lack X-factor for me, for all Farrell is a clinical operator at 10 – there are at least six better scrum-halves in the competition than whoever England will choose in that position. They are solid but unspectacular, and best in testing conditions (which they won’t be getting in Cardiff in round three).
I actually wouldn’t rule out an upset in Dublin, but the fact of the matter is that England play the first and third tournament favourites away in their schedule, and France may well give them a game and then some at Twickenham on Sunday week. England were lucky to come away with a 20-16 win in that fixture two years ago.
They don’t excite too much me at a best-priced 7/2.
Don't underestimate Wales
Wales are the really interesting outfit in this tournament, coming into it on the back of nine straight wins, which have seen them beat South Africa and Argentina twice, as well as the likes of France and Australia.
Their pack wouldn’t scare many on paper but they are a very solid and dynamic collective, with the Benjamin Button of world rugby, Alun Wyn Jones – I can’t believe he is only 33 – still operating at a staggeringly high level.
Thomas Young deserves his call-up after being one of the few positives for Wasps this season, and they are just a very well-drilled, cohesive unit.
And their three-quarter line houses some formidable talents, with real options from nine and ten to spark the outside fireworks of the likes of George North, and the Davies-Williams centre partnership. The absence of Leigh Halfpenny, still recovering from that late challenge against Australia, is a blow - though hopefully he will appear at some stage.
But you have to love their fixture list this year, with England and Ireland at home.
The bookmakers rate their opener against France a week on Friday as a pick ‘em game, and certainly recent history will give their supporters plenty of optimism.
Since they went down 9-8 to France in the 2011 World Cup semi-final – and that after losing Sam Warburton with a red card – Wales have won six of their last seven against the French, and the only loss was the 20-18 reverse in that agonising injury-time-fest in this fixture in 2017.
The problem is that I rate France – and they lost just 14-13 in Cardiff last March - and Wales’ claims may be a little too obvious at a top-priced 11/2 with Ladbrokes and Coral. I’ll mull on that, though, and come to my betting conclusion at the end of the piece.
French have travel travails
As I have mentioned France, I may as well go there next, and Betfair are really dangling a carrot by offering them at 20/1.
Now, everyone knows that they can throw in some shockers, and they have been responsible for two of the biggest upsets in international rugby of late, when drawing 23-23 at home to Japan (happy memories, that) in 2017 and losing 21-14 to Fiji in November.
But I thought there was precious little between them, Ireland, and Wales in the tournament last year – especially as they were missing Morgan Parra, though they have enviable strength in depth in that area - and some of the scorelines in a 3-0 series loss in New Zealand, getting humped in two of those, did them a disservice.
A more consistent selection process saw them make real progress last year, and they have some formidable talent coming through now to add to the metronomic reliability and solidity of Guirado, Parra and Bastareaud.
But they are without some key players, not least winger Teddy Thomas – I was a bit slow to the party in recognising his talents – and the locking glue of Yoann Maestri, while you have to be worried by their away form.
Yes, they have come very close on occasions but it is quite a shocking stat to witness that their only victories on the road since 2015 have come in Italy twice, and against Argentina in 2016.
They have lost their last eight away from Paris, and 16 of their last 19. That ain’t great.
Scottish squad looks solid
Everyone knows that I love a Hamish as much as I do a Danish, so news that the best number seven in the Northern Hemisphere, Scotland’s breakdown doctor Watson, is out of the tournament after fracturing a hand playing for Edinburgh against Montpelier is a big blow, and they apparently have doubts about at least three other leading forwards, too.
There is much to like about this Scottish squad though and, if they get their set-piece right – keeping WP Nel fit is crucial for their scrummage and hooker Stuart McInally needs to be as accurate at line-out time as he is dynamic and impressive in the loose – then we all know they have the backs to hurt any side, as England and France found out year.
Greig Laidlaw is accuracy personified from the kicking tee, while his half-back partner Finn Russell has also been ripping it up for Racing 92 this season.
He can be infuriatingly inaccurate and hit-and-miss, but he can carve open any defence when he gets his offload game going, and he has the talent outside him.
Unlike France, their recent away record is not too bad, despite two losses and a fortunate 29-27 win in Italy on the road in this tournament last year.
They do have shades of the French about them in that they can and do lose when heavy odds-on – they went down 30-29 to the States in June – but they won in Australia in 2017 and can beat any team in this tournament on their day.
Putting in a series of winning performances has proved beyond them though and they are a frustratingly inaccurate and sloppy side on occasions, as they showed in a 26-20 loss against the Boks in November, a game that was theirs for the taking. I’d want a touch bigger than 16/1 to side with them.
They also have had plenty of problems with the Italians in recent years, and I was a bit taken aback to see the Scots 25-point favourites for their opening match this weekend, with Italy on offer at 22/1 for the upset with Betfair.
As mentioned earlier, it was heartbreak time when Scotland nailed a late penalty to see off Italy 29-27 in Rome back in March, but that was a continuation of a series of good Italian efforts in that fixture.
Scotland may have won their last three meetings in this tournament (and three other recent internationals, too) but these matches have traditionally been a lot tighter than the handicappers predicted.
Italy won 22-19 at Murrayfield in 2015, having gone down 21-20 in Rome the year before – they also won in their capital in 2012 and 2010 - and they come into this tournament with probably their strongest squad for a while.
Benetton Treviso have won seven of their 13 Pro14 matches – they beat Glasgow recently, and have also defeated Cardiff and the Dragons (away), as well as going down by just a point in Edinburgh (31-30) - and they provide 18 of the initial 31-man squad, with Zebre chipping in with 10.
Those Scottish club formlines are interesting.
Now, no-one is going to get carried away with a team that have won just six of their 33 internationals since 2016 – those successes came against the USA, Canada, Fiji, Japan and Georgia, with South Africa their big scalp in 2016 (won 20-18) – and drubbings at the hands of Ireland and New Zealand in November underline just how far they are shy of the top tier, as well as highlighting a lack of consistency.
But they increasingly have more to their game, and the 26-7 loss to Australia in Padova in the autumn does them a great disservice. They weren’t a million miles off winning that match, with some crucial calls going against them and two tries ruled out in the first-half alone.
I am not saying that they are going to win two games, but I think an upset is not out of the realms of possibility once again.
The Grand Slam should have been off the table long before the England-Ireland showdown at Twickenham in March, and I reckon this year’s tournament could be even closer and more competitive.
I’d make no Grand Slam more of a 1/2 poke than Betway’s 5/6, so that has to be the main bet here.
I started researching and even writing this piece fully expecting to tip France at 20/1, but their away form is off-putting. I didn’t realise it was so poor, on a strict results-basis, anyway.
They could easily see win their opener but, given Wales’s recent head-to-head dominance, that clearly is no gimme.
So it got me wondering, and I am going to chuck a few quid on a Welsh Triple Crown at a general 6/1. I also toyed with putting them up at 6/4 for a top-two finish with Betfair and Paddy Power.
It isn’t a stand-out bet by any means, but it has legs.
They managed only to beat Ireland with this set of fixtures in 2017, but they came a cropper just once before that in recent years, losing to England in 2015 (21-16) and 2011 (26-19) and Ireland in 2013 (30-22) and 2009 (17-15). They won the rest of the relevant games.
So they were clearly never far off completing the triple-header (and they won the Grand Slam in 2012), and that was again the case last year with near-miss losses at Twickenham – thanks to that miraculous Underhill try-saver – and Dublin, where they could have snatched the spoils had Jacob Stockdale been considerably shorter.
I was going to leave any match recommendations until I get the team news next week, but I can’t see Betfair’s 22/1 about Italy beating Scotland lasting, so snap that up if it is still there when you read this.
Indeed, I appreciate that I have gone early with this outright copy, and there may be more injury news after the weekend games, but that can work for and against us, so I am happy to get my thoughts out there now.
Best of luck, and see you next week.
Posted at 1315 GMT on 24/01/19.