Tony Calvin eyes a couple on the handicap as he surveys this weekend's Six Nations coupon including in Ireland v Wales.
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A night out in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago could just be the key to Italy running France very close in Marseille on Friday night, and I reckon they are worth supporting on the handicap, to small stakes, getting 18 points at 10/11 (Sky Bet, Ladbrokes, Coral and Boylesports among others).
And I was also going to have a small bet on the Italians winning outright at 14/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook, but that price didn’t last long on Tuesday.
They aren’t going to be my main Six Nations bet of the weekend but, given they kick off proceedings on Friday, I thought we would better start with this game.
By the sounds of it, it was all kicking off in Edinburgh two Sundays ago as well, as it appears a few of the French players got into an altercation in a bar after their 32-26 loss to Scotland. So after what has been termed “inappropriate behaviour”, eight players weren’t considered for this match.
And there are some significant absentees among the octet, notably winger and leading tryscorer Teddy Thomas, centre Remi Lemerat, lock Arthur Iturria – yes, I thought of the kids’ aardvark character, too, when I wrote that (though I had to google what animal he was) - and back-rower Louis Picamoles, who would have started this match having been left on the bench against Scotland.
In fact, you can argue Iturria will be missed the most considering how well he showed up in defence, and with ball in hand, against the Scots, and indeed Ireland a week earlier. Iturria is actually one of five changes made that from Scottish loss for Friday’s game, with the other four coming in the threequarters. Unfortunately, the Italians haven't named their XV at the time of writing.
You can fully understand why the French may have been a bit tired and emotional after that defeat to Scotland though – and susceptible to a bit of pub-ribbing from the locals, though I personally wouldn’t have been in a rush to wind up Sebastien Vahaamahina if he was in the boozer, even after a litre or two of gin as an emboldener - as they could quite easily be coming into this match unbeaten.
They were only undone by Jonathan Sexton’s late magic show in their opening 15-13 loss in Paris, and a second-half lack of discipline against Scotland cost them dear. The Scots were porous in defence and there for the taking, but the French didn’t possess the control and direction to see them home from a winning 26-20 position going into the final quarter.
How they would have rued the fact that scrum-half Morgan Parra was out injured, and indeed is now out for the tournament after needing a knee operation.
Quite what those two morale-crushing defeats would have done for their mindset is anyone’s guess, and I think they will be making a big mistake if taking Italy lightly here.
Yes, the Italians got humped 56-19 by Ireland, but the fact they were only beaten by 37 points after going in 28-0 down at half-time, and scored three tries of their own after the break, is testament to their tenacity, if nothing else.
Well, that and the fact that Ireland rather took their eye off the ball after the interval and, in doing so, no doubt gave their backers on the handicap some very uncomfortable moments late on.
But it is heartening to see that Italy have now scored five tries in the tournament despite having played the supposed two best teams – more of that shortly – and they do possess an attacking threat when they get some ball, and space to run at.
France have been very good defensively in their two games to date – they kept Ireland tryless and denied them a clean break, and it was down to Greig Laidlaw to kick Scotland to victory in the second half at Murrayfield – but they could pay if they go into this game with a laissez-faire attitude.
And history has shown they can come a cropper against the Italians.
Italy beat France in Rome in 2011 and 2013, and they came agonisingly close to victory in Paris two years ago when losing 23-21. And if Sergio Parisse had kept his head and not tried to win the game with a drop-goal at the death, and set it up for someone more suitable for the kick, then they would have won.
Of course, France could easily steamroller Italy. The Ireland game showed you that, and they have won the last five meetings between the sides, with winning margins of 20, 29, 22, 2 and 22.
But I reckon Italy could keep this close, and I am not ruling out a shock.
France are nowhere near at full-strength, even though they welcome back Mathieu Bastareaud into the starting XV after his ban, and they could just be complacent and vulnerable (and anyone who backed Virimi Vakatawa to be top French/tournament tryscorer will be gutted that he doesn’t even feature in the matchday 23).
And weekend wins for Zebre and Benetton in the Pro 14 last weekend underline the fact that Italian rugby is improving, albeit slowly.
The staking plan tells you that I am not going mad at all though, but I am pretty excited by the fact that Wales get a 10-point start in Dublin with Ladbrokes and Coral.
Now, I don’t like getting involved before the teams are known – and we have yet to see Italy, England and Ireland name their sides – but the betting moves in the Ireland-Wales earlier this week have forced my hand.
It was no surprise to see the 11-point start offered by Hills disappear quickly on Monday afternoon, and Tuesday’s general 10-point line is now being offered by just the two firms above. So I have to strike now.
Simply put, Wales have been the best side in this tournament so far, and Ireland have not been totally convincing.
I think it’s fair to say that Wales were a touch flattered by their 34-7 defeat of Scotland in the opening game, but that certainly wasn’t the case when they went down 12-6 at Twickenham. They were unlucky to lose.
England looked set to dominate when taking an early 12-0 lead there, but from then on Wales were the better side.
How the TMO didn’t give Gareth Anscombe’s try in the first-half was as baffling as Sam Underhill’s try-saving tackle on Scott Williams in the second was stupendous.
That may seem an overly-simplistic way at looking at the match, and it has to be said that a few of the Welsh three-quarters were found wanting, but the back division is clearly massively improved by the return of Dan Biggar at 10, Liam Williams on the wing and Leigh Halfpenny at full-back.
Halfpenny was a late withdrawal from the England match with an infected foot, but Anscombe was brilliant in his absence and he forms a decent bench along with the likes of George North. There is no place there for the discarded Rhys Patchell, though, or for Lions number eight Taulupe Faletau.
I think the Wales pack, led by the brilliant Alun Wyn Jones, will be able to hold their own up front, though I do have concerns about the physicality of the Irish forwards getting to the visitors.
And I can see Ireland getting some mileage from going direct down the centre channel, especially with the quick-footed and elusive Garry Ringrose’s return to the squad giving them silk to add to the midfield steel.
Mind you, if Wales discipline holds up as it did at Twickenham – remarkably, Wales only gave away two penalties in the game – then Ireland could be in for a long afternoon.
Ireland have not been at anywhere near their best in the tournament despite the two wins and they will be hoping the knock that forced prop Tadgh Furlong off the field against Italy clears up, along with the niggles picked up by Iain Henderson and James Ryan. Furlong would be a huge miss for them.
They have already suffered a big blow in midfield with Robbie Henshaw being out for up to four months with the shoulder injury he picked up against Italy.
Ireland do have an enviable strength in depth to cope – and we know what a class side they are when they click, as the All Blacks know all too well - but I have been massively impressed by Wales so far and the recent meetings between the sides are encouraging.
Wales won a World Cup warm-up 16-10 in Dublin in 2015, drew in this fixture in 2016, and then beat the Irish 22-9 in Cardiff last year, though the latter win was nowhere near as comfortable as the winning margin suggests.
The 4/1 in two places about Wales winning outright went quickly on Monday, and little wonder, too. On the evidence of what we have seen in this tournament so far then Wales are the form team, no question.
So Wales +10 at 10/11 is five-point betting recommendation – I would have the handicap nearer six or seven - and they could easily come away from Dublin with the win.
I have been very disappointed with Scotland in this tournament and, having had a fair chunk on them -5 against France, I was one relieved aardvark when Laidlaw took the shot at goal at 23-20 with four minutes to go. For one horrible moment, I thought they were going to go for the corner and run the clock down.
I will refrain from telling you what I was shouting at the TV when the discussion was taking place, as you may be reading this before 9pm.
But kick the penalty they did and we got very lucky indeed as they edged home 26-20.
As mentioned above, the French played as big a part in that Scotland win as the home side. But at least the Scots played a whole lot better than they did against Wales, and maybe they will take another big step forward this weekend with an unchanged XV named, with three players, notably WP Nel, coming back onto the bench.
They will have to tighten up defensively though, as if they fall off tackles as they did in the opening games, then England’s strike runners will make them pay, especially as the visitors will probably dominate possession and territory for large chunks of the match.
Given the way Scotland have performed in their first two games, the obvious temptation is side with England -6, but, then again, I haven’t been as impressed as some with Eddie Jones’ men.
In fact, they have looked bang average to me for the majority of their games against Italy and Wales, enjoying maybe a dominant 30-minutes in each match, so I don’t trust them to beat Scotland comfortably.
And news that their playmaker Owen Farrell has hardly trained since the Welsh match is not great news for them, though they reported no specific injury concerns when naming a 25-man squad today.
Sooner or later, the Scotland who terrorised New Zealand and hammered Australia in the autumn will return – and they are slowly getting influential forwards back into the fold – and quotes of around 11/4 winning the game (and they are edging 3/1 on Betfair) may tempt some in.
Mind you, the memory of their 61-21 loss at Twickenham last year is still fresh in the memory, and I can leave this match alone and just enjoy the 80-minutes.
Well, I may get involved in-running, if truth be told, but that is of no use to this column.
Good luck punting this weekend.