Rugby union expert Tony Calvin fancies Italy to keep the scoreline respectable when they host England on Sunday.
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Best caught fresh
It doesn’t always transpire that the best time to side with Italy is in their opening match before injuries kick in, as they lost 33-7 at home to Wales in round one last season.
But that only tells half the story as Wales were hugely flattered there – Wales were losing 7-3 at half-time, and Italy conceded three converted tries in the last quarter – and I quite like the “first time out angle”.
Italy look a decent bet getting 22 points at evens with Stan James when they host England on Sunday, even if the forecast looks okay at the moment (plenty of rain on Saturday, though).
Italy only lost 23-21 to France in their first match in the 2016 tournament, and although they went down 26-3 in their 2015 opener (just 9-3 at half-time, mind you) against Ireland, a year earlier they gave Wales a game in Cardiff (losing 24-15). But even more impressive was their 23-18 defeat of France in 2013.
England are not the fastest starters either. They only beat France 19-16 at Twickenham last year, won 15-9 at Murrayfield in 2016, and edged home 21-16 in Wales in 2015.
It is probably tough to quibble with wins but they also lost 26-24 to France in 2014. I better stop there, though, as they humped Scotland 38-18 in 2013!
Anyway, back to Italy. Their clubs haven’t been doing that badly in the Pro 14 – Benetton have won 6 of 13, and Zebre three – and Italy certainly gave England a headache at Twickenham last season, before again conceding three tries very late on (in the last 11 minutes, in fact) in a 36-15 loss.
Sky Bet’s 8/1 about Italy getting to 10 points first didn’t last long on Wednesday, by the way. Their next price was 4/1.
Italy did have some disappointing results in the autumn against South Africa and Argentina but they did beat Fiji 19-10 and they have enough about them to give England a game.
I am filing this before seeing the England and Italy sides, which I don’t like to do, but I am not expecting any surprises. Put it this way, if Sergio Parisse isn’t in the XV then all bets are off!
Of course, if Eddie Jones’ men start well they could hammer Italy, Parisse or not. News that Ben Te’o is back gives their three-quarter line a far more menacing look and they have got a few players back earlier than expected - but I wasn’t at all impressed by England in the autumn and they could be in for a frustrating Sabbath.
I hope so, anyway.
Again, I won’t be going mad on the betting front with Italy +22 but it’s the best bet in the game that I can see, though I have to have a small interest on the half-time draw at 22/1 with Sky Bet. That’s just too big given Italy very often keep it tight after 40 minutes, and occasionally go in ahead.
Red alert in Cardiff
By Tony Calvin
The Wales v Scotland match in Cardiff opens up this year’s NatWest Six Nations, and I genuinely don’t have a strong opinion on the outright and handicap markets.
I was originally all set to give Scotland a confident vote as I think their back-row - I genuinely think Hamish Watson is the best seven in the northern hemisphere, even though plenty think I am joking - and, especially their three-quarter line, is much the superior.
And I really like the damage that Greg Laidlaw, Peter Horne and Sean Maitland can do off the bench against a Wales back-line that has clearly been decimated (and to that end Wales half-time and Scotland full-time at 8/1 did interest me a little). Remember, they are missing some of their more influential forwards too, such as Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau.
So, for those reasons alone, if I had to have a bet, then the evens on the away side with a three-point start (generally available) would get my money.
Luckily though, I don’t have to and won’t be doing so, as the Scotland tight five really do worry me.
Richie Gray is a big miss at lock, though an injury to his industrious brother Jonny would have been even more of a concern, but the front row really does look a bit lightweight with so many of their key props missing.
No Darryl Marfo, Zander Ferguson or Simon Berghan – their three starting props in the autumn internationals against New Zealand and Australia – and, with the likes of WP Nel also on the sidelines, the Scots look vulnerable at the scrummage.
If they can hold their own up front, and in the line-out against Alun Wyn-Jones and co, then I fully expect Scotland, who beat Wales 29-13 at Murrayfield last year, to win well. But that’s a big "if" and Wales are nobody’s fools at home, as Ireland found out in a 22-9 defeat in Cardiff last year.
While I like the idea of Scarlets dominating the Welsh side on a form basis, it must be remembered that they don’t always look and play the part.
Five of the Wales backline (Scott Willliams didn’t play) were in the Scarlets starting XV that were 28-21 down at home after 75 minutes against 14-man Benetton last month. They eventually scraped home 33-28, but it must be remembered that the Italians had their man sent off after just 25 minutes, too.
It probably means little compared to the Scarlets’ general excellence this season, but it is worth bearing in mind all the same.
If there is a bet in the match then I think it is a red card at 9/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook (17/2 with Paddy Power), as controversy seems to follow the French referee, Pascal Gauzere, around. It’s not a bet to get heavily stuck into, but I think it’s a fair punt, as hopefully I am just about to explain.
However, bizarrely, Betfair also offer 25/1 about a Welsh player being sent off, and the same odds about a Scotland player, which combined comes to 12/1, so take those odds instead. I don’t see how they can last but take them while they do.
To say controversy follows Gauzere may be a touch harsh and misleading - though I seem to recall that he was replaced for a Munster game a couple of years ago after some moaning from the Irish - but he is certainly not afraid to get his expulsion tool out.
I am sure a few Exeter supporters will be laughing at that comment as Gauzere let Cian Healy off with a yellow card for a forearm charge in Leinster’s Champions Cup game against the Chiefs in December – he was cited and got three weeks afterwards – and he also let Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini off for a similar challenge against Richie McCaw in 2014.
But Lavanini was definitely on Gauzere’s radar when he sent him off after two yellows against South Africa last year, and three other recent international dismissals by the Frenchman include Australia’s Sekope Kepu against Scotland in November, and Elliot Daly and Enrique Pieretto were both given their matching orders in the England-Argentina game at Twickenham in 2016. That’s a fair CV in isolation.
But Gauzere isn’t scared to act quickly in club rugby either - granted, French rugby is no place for the faint-hearted - as he sent off Racing 92’s Chris Masoe after six minutes against Grenoble last year. He also sent off another of Racing’s players the following month in a 10-8 win in Toulouse.
And our arbiter also has form in Cardiff too, as he sent off Fiji prop Campese Ma’afu at the Millennium Stadium in 2014. Let’s hope the Welsh air makes him trigger-happy once again.
Of course, a referee can only manage the game as it unfolds, and if it is clean and fair, then we have done our money.
But Gauzere is clearly not afraid to send someone on their way if the need arises, and he doesn’t bottle it if someone is already on a yellow. He even yellow-carded two players in a Baa-Baas match in 2013.
That’s good enough for me to get involved at the price. Oh, and I just remembered that Stuart Hogg was red-carded, by a French ref, in this fixture in 2014.
I think the 11/2 with Paddy Power and the Betfair Sportsbook about there being a drop goal in the match is fair, too, as both Rhys Patchell and Finn Russell both like a pop at a drop, even if the Scot has had his issues with execution in the past, as we saw against Georgia. But it’s a bet I can leave alone myself.
Incidentally, there is currently plenty of rain forecast for Saturday afternoon in Cardiff, so I don’t know whether they will shut the roof or not.
Irish eyes smiling?
If you read my outright preview you will know that my betting confidence in France a few weeks ago has all but dissipated on the back of injuries, suspensions, and bizarre omissions from the squad, while news that captain, hooker and talisman Guilhelm Guirado was one of two front-rowers suffering from gastritis on Tuesday was hardly encouraging.
As ever though, the market hasn’t been slow to react and Ireland are now up to seven-point favourites in places, and punters now have a tricky decision to make.
Trust in France to turn it on at home - and they are more than capable of doing so, even if they have picked the uncapped 19yo Matthieu Jalibert at fly-half and five others (four on bench) are set to make their international debuts - or maybe consider that the handicap drift hasn't gone far enough?
I think Ireland, who have the strength in depth to cope with the injuries that they have suffered, have the capability to win this game easily the way recent events have panned out – and France’s only win against Ireland in their last seven meetings came in a 10-9 victory in this fixture two years ago.
But I suspect the value has been drained out of the betting now that we have to take Ireland to win by a score or more on the handicap to cop - the general line is six - and odds of around 4/9 in the outright market. Mind you, that Ireland squad of 23 looks very tasty, indeed. The Paris forecast looks damp at the moment, by the way.
I have looked at the plethora of other, more obscure markets, and the only one that interested me slightly was Betway's 2/1 about Ireland winning both halves. But the foot-off-the-pedal factor looms too large here if Ireland get on top early.
I can’t see a bet in the game, sorry.
Posted at 2000 GMT on 01/02/18.