Rugby union expert Tony Calvin has bagged a winner already today, and fancies France to keep tabs on England. Find out why...
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Luck of the Irish?
There is an oft trotted-out cliché in football, the most desperate of sports bar none, that bad luck evens itself out over the course of a season. Well, our recent good fortune in the Six Nations came to an abrupt halt in the very last play in the Ireland-Wales game a fortnight ago.
We had scraped winning handicap recommendations by the skin of our teeth in the Scotland-France and France-Italy games before the Dublin encounter, without literally a point to spare. And, in truth, we probably didn’t deserve to cop in either.
The same was true in Dublin a fortnight ago, too. I called the match bang wrong, with Ireland dominating in all areas, and how they were only three points to the good with 80 minutes up on the clock was a mystery.
Well, not quite a mystery as Jonathan Sexton’s moderate goal-kicking and some outstanding Welsh defence were the reasons.
In fact, Wales, who had opened up their opponents relatively easily to score two converted tries in the final quarter, were well set up to snatch the most unlikely of victories in the final play of the game, with centre-field ball on the halfway line, in broken play, against an Irish team coming to the end of their tether.
If Gareth Anscombe’s looping pass had eluded Jacob Stockdale coming in from the wing, then the Welsh had two players clear in an open-field scenario, and the try was on. But Stockdale snaffled it to see Ireland home by 10 points – scuppering the Wales +10 bet – and I can’t tell you how pig-sick I felt when he went in under the posts.
And, of course, a Welsh win (or draw) would have seen us land our 'No Grand Slam winner' bet, which should have already copped were it not for those four minutes of Sexton genius in Paris on the opening weekend.
But the more you view the Ireland match as a whole, the more you had to concede that the home side were not flattered by the winning score line at all. Far from it.
So can they back up at home to Scotland or, more accurately, cover the general nine- and 10-point starts they are asked to concede?
I wasn’t impressed by them at all in their opening matches against France and Italy, but the manner in which they pulverised and dominated Wales for large swathes of that match really was a sight to behold. Their hunger and energy on the ball swept Wales aside, and only some monumental defence by the visitors kept them in the game.
The Irish went into that match missing some key players – and they have lost centre Chris Farrell for the tournament now, too – but they welcome Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson back into the fold (the latter is on the bench), and Garry Ringrose at centre in place of Farrell, and it appears that home advantage is more important than ever this year.
Well, that is not strictly true, as England have looked clueless home and away, and Wales impressive in the main wherever they have rocked up, but Scotland really do have questions to answer on the road.
England were all the rage to beat them at Murrayfield a fortnight ago, and I didn’t have a strong opinion on the match given the six- and seven-point handicap lines.
But when Scotland went for a massive walk out to 5.1 on Betfair leading up to the match, my hand was forced. Mind you, I gave most of it back when trading the match terribly in-running.
If Scotland can reproduce the levels of intensity and execution that they did against an admittedly woeful and ponderous England - and they have made only one forced change from that victory - then Ireland are in for a game and a half in Dublin.
Finn Russell was given the man of the match there – and, while he did spark his backline well in a fine all-round game, he certainly chanced his arm on a few occasions and it could have backfired badly given the 50-50 nature of some of his passes – but it could easily have gone to a few of his colleagues in the pack, for which the back-row was outstanding.
The problem for Scotland is can they do it away from home? Recent results suggest not, though they did beat Australia in Sydney in June, let us not forget.
They have looked superb in front of their own fans in the past year or so.
They beat Ireland (27-22), Italy and Wales at Murrayfield in the Six Nations last season, are two from two at home in this tournament this year, and that is without mentioning their superb autumn performances against Australia and New Zealand.
But they lost in Paris and Twickenham last year, and got right royally thumped 33-7 by Wales in their opening game. Their last away win in the tournament was a 36-20 success in Italy in 2016, and the previous one was by a point (21-20) in the same place two years earlier.
If the England match has given them the belief, they can certainly give the Irish a scare on Saturday. And, since winning this fixture 23-20 in 2010 – that was the last time they beat anyone, bar Italy, away in this tournament - they have performed creditably on their last two visits to the Aviva, losing 28-22 in 2015 and 35-25 in 2016.
I am a big fan of this Scotland side and can see them running a big race here – and the forecast rain could prove a real leveller - but their away record is undeniably off-putting and Ireland -9 at evens (Betfair Sportsbook and Paddy Power) has to be the percentage call after what they did to a good Welsh side. They have one powerful bench, too.
A couple of other bets have taken my eye and I will be having a small interest on the handicap draw on the nine and ten lines. I know it sounds a bit "muggy" but I think they are overpriced.
Unibet effectively offer 24/1 Ireland to win by nine points (accept 20/1 elsewhere if you have to), and Ladbrokes and Coral 25/1 to win by 10 (again 20 is acceptable if needs be), and they will be getting some of my cash.
Several of the handicap lines in this tournament have been bang on, as I know to my cost, and that could be worth exploring elsewhere this weekend, too. More of that in a bit.
I was all set to have a good go on France +8 at evens with Betfred, but then my enthusiasm was tempered somewhat when the sides were announced on Wednesday.
England have been pretty rank in this tournament so far, and France at 11/4 (and bigger still on the exchanges) also looked very good to me at the start of the week.
But, unfortunately, I like the changes Eddie Jones has made.
Ditching his captain Dylan Hartley should have been a no-brainer this weekend, but he has been spared that decision as apparently his hooker is out with an injury, so in comes Jamie George.
I am not a particularly big fan of George, either – their opposite number, Guilhelm Guirado, on Saturday is easily better than that pair – but he will give England more dynamism in the eight, as will the likes of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds and Kyle Sinckler from off the bench.
Ben Te’o and Elliott Daly are improvements to the starting XV, too, and overall this England squad has a livelier, and pacier, look to it.
France have largely stayed loyal to the side that beat Italy 34-17 a fortnight ago, with Francois Trinh-Duc the only change at 10, and that surprises me.
The eight who were not considered for the Italy game, because of some high jinks after their Murrayfield defeat, have not got a look-in again and that is a pretty ballsy call considering the talent in that group and the importance France always attach to this match.
But I have to remain true to my instincts and take France at evens with that eight start.
They were incredibly disciplined in that unfortunate opening loss to Ireland, and only threw the game away in the last quarter at Murrayfield in a six-points defeat. And how they didn’t take their chances and put at least 50 points on Italy last time is anyone’s guess.
Mathieu Bastareaud was sensational in his return to the midfield there – you could hear the BBC backroom cheers as Jonathan Davies, with a pre-prepared line that had presumably been burning a hole in his throat for most of the game, called the burly centre "one big Bastareaud" in commentary as he was swatting defenders off with ease – and he gives the French attack a focal point to play off.
France have a better chance of winning this than Betway’s 11/4 suggests (and they are currently 3/1 in exchange land), but I will take the greater safety net of the handicap.
And, again, the 25/1 about the handicap tie on the seven- and eight-point lines is an interesting angle. I will have another small-stakes dabble on those in our staking plan this weekend.
Recent meetings between these sides have been pretty close in the main, and that eight-point start could be very handy if the wet weather weekend forecast for Paris materialises.
Italy up against it
I don’t normally like backing sides to give away big starts, because of the complacency factor.
That nearly cost Ireland backers dear against Italy after they went in 26-0 up at half-time, and it certainly did as France only beat the same side by 17 points a fortnight ago when a 30+ win would not have remotely flattered them.
But on the evidence of this tournament so far, then Wales really could give the Italians a proper seeing-to on Sunday. And, with the forecast looking decidedly damp in Cardiff as well, then we could see the roof closed and the match played in decent conditions.
I have been mightily impressed by Wales so far, and they could quite easily (rightfully or not) have been coming into this match unbeaten, no small feat given they have played England and Ireland away.
Of course, they have ringed the changes and given a whole host of second-choice players the chance to shine this weekend. But when you consider the players they give starts to include Taulupe Faletau and George North then the line-up is probably none too shabby.
I think North looked very lively and dangerous indeed when coming on against Ireland and I can see him filling his boots here.
But, if you are playing Wales at -28 and -29, then you do have to acknowledge that Italy do possess an attacking threat of their own, with seven tries already notched up, and it isn’t hard to see an unstructured match ensuing.
I can watch the Sunday match without a bet. Well, at this point, anyway.
Posted at 1730 GMT on 08/03/18.