Tony Calvin is getting the big guns out for a meaty bet in this weekend's clash between Scotland and France.
Six Nations recommended bet
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Home side set to fire
The gunpowder is coming out in Sunday’s Scotland v France match at Murrayfield though, where I am going to recommend a decent bet on the home side -5 at evens (generally available).
That may seem odd given what I wrote about Scotland above, and the fact that the Murrayfield unsettled weather forecast on Sunday could prove problematic (though Saturday looks a lot wetter at the moment) to a fluid game.
But, basically, the reason is that I agree with all of the six changes they have made from the Wales game.
Greig Laidlaw will give them more calmness and direction from scrum-half, the Peter Horne-Huw Jones centre partnership looks far more solid, while Sean Maitland coming in on the wing gives them more menace.
Simon Berghan coming back in at prop is a big positive, while Grant Gilchrist and Ryan Wilson starting at lock and number eight respectively should give them a lot more go-forward from the off.
In fact, this Scotland side features 12 of the starters – the other trio are Laidlaw, Stuart Hogg and Gordon Reid – that beat Australia 53-24 in November, and I fancy them to do a number on France. I will admit to being a little nervous about the home side’s set piece again, though.
It does take a leap of faith after Cardiff, and their bench will frighten no-one, but Scotland’s starting XV has a lot more solid look to it now and if the side that trounced Australia, and ran New Zealand so close in a 22-17 loss, in November turn up then I can see only one winner.
France played well in their opening loss against Ireland –with hooker Guilhem Guirado monumental in defence with 31 tackles, and deservedly the man of the match - but how much belief the nature of that defeat has drained out of them remains to be seen. They looked shattered when that kick went over, as you’d expect.
They have also lost their influential number eight Kevin Gourdon with an ankle injury, though on the plus side, for them at least, Louis Picamoles has been recalled to the squad. Unbelievably, though, he only starts on the bench.
They will now have an experienced fly-half in the squad, in the shape of Lionel Beauxis, after the tournament-ending injury to Matthieu Jalibert. But I don’t think the 32yo veteran is necessarily the answer to igniting their back line, which does house some formidable talents like Virimi Vakatawa, who did look lively and hungry for work against Ireland.
At least Morgan Parra isn’t back yet, though, and hopefully Scotland can ease to victory here. They beat France 29-18 at Murrayfield in 2016 and hopefully the weather allows them to put on a show on Sunday.
I think Scotland are worth a decent bet -5 at evens.
Grand plans and all that...
It certainly wasn’t ideal for those of us who have got stuck into No Grand Slam winner at 11/10, but Ireland’s 41-phase play, resulting in Johnny Sexton’s drop goal to edge his side home 15-13 against France last Saturday, had an inevitability about it that was equal to its clinical brilliance.
I don’t readily recall any such successful final play of the match featuring a cross-kick either, but the manner in which the fly-half assuredly drove his side up the field in driving rain, and decided when the time was right to take on the long-range kick, was the stuff of legend.
Of course, Ireland know all about being on the other end of similar heartache, as New Zealand, 22-17 down with the clock up, marched them down 60 metres down the field in Dublin in 2013 and levelled the game.
And, to add devastation to deflation, Nigel Owens allowed the Kiwis to re-take the missed conversion and win the match 24-22.
Mind you, I distinctly remember feeling as much pain as any Irishman would have done when Owens ordered the conversion to be re-taken for players prematurely charging the kick, as I always keep the draw nicely onside when trading games.
When Aaron Cruden nailed it at the second attempt, just in from the left-hand touchline, I remember having to go for a walk. All the way to the gin bottle across the room.
So will that Ireland late escape against France lift them out of the mediocrity that pervaded their play for the previous 80 minutes?
Well, it helps that they are playing Italy at home next up I suppose, and are up to 34-point favourites on the handicap line.
Let’s not sugar-coat Ireland’s win last weekend. They were very poor in attack, creating precious little, and they were the only side not to score a try in the opening round of fixtures.
Their back-play was lateral and their ball-carriers thwarted by a strong French defence, but of course they will find the Italians more than a touch more porous.
They thumped Italy 63-10 in Rome last year, and recent Dublin winning margins against them read 43, 39 and 32, so I am sure plenty will be expecting normal service to be resumed this weekend, with the four changes to the Irish side underlining their strength in depth.
Italy, unfortunately, played true to form against England last Sunday. They bounced back well from an horrendous start to only go in losing 17-10 at the break, and were only 12 points down going into the final quarter before three late tries gave the scoreline an unflattering, and undeserved, 46-15 look.
Italy were better than that. They came off clear second best in the scrummage but their forwards held their own in the loose for 75 minutes, and two tries for their three-quarters reflected their improvement out wide.
Italy have made three changes in the forwards, including two in the front row that struggled last weekend, and generally their eight has a very solid look to it.
The problem is that you can see the same “late show” happening again, and even a first-half handicap play on the Italians (getting 15 and 16) could back-fire, too, as Ireland have scored four tries against them in the opening 40 minutes in their last two meetings. Mind you, it looks a pretty damp Dublin forecast for Saturday.
Wales a handicap puzzler
I can let the game pass without a bet – though the general 3/1 about Italy scoring first looks fair enough, given its random nature – and I must say the England v Wales match is a bit of a punting head-scratcher, too.
I wasn’t overly-impressed by England in Italy and the recent Twickenham results between the teams points firmly to punters to siding with the Welsh getting a 13-start at evens with Stan James (Hills are 10-11 on the same handicap line).
I was surprised to discover that you have to go back to 2010 to find the last time you wouldn’t have won by backing the Welsh +13 away at Twickenham in a Six Nations match – and that match ended 30-17 courtesy of a late England penalty – though England did win 27-13 in a summer international in 2016.
Other than that the recent Welsh losing margins have been 4 and 11 (and 4min a pre-World Cup friendly), with Wales winning by seven in 2012, as well as by three in that extraordinary 2015 World Cup pool game.
So what is not to like about Wales +13, or indeed at 9/2 outright, after hammering the Scots 34-7 last week?
Well, I think that result could well have flattered them greatly to be honest, with Scotland proving as dire as Wales were adept at taking their chances.
Scotland couldn’t have played any worse and still were in the game at 14-0 down at the interval, courtesy of the opening interception try totally changing the early dynamic of the game. Their line-out was a shambles, though I was pleasantly surprised by how well their scrummage held up, and their backs were a pale shadow of their autumn excellence.
I suspect England will give the Welsh front row a more severe examination – for all the jury is still very much out as regards Dylan Hartley - and their three-quarters, with Danny Care and Jonathan Joseph starting, do have a very lively and up-tempo look to them.
I think Eddie Jones probably sees Hadleigh Parkes as susceptible more to pace, than the punch of Ben Te’o, so I think England will be sending the “gas men” in and around his channel.
I went round in circles trying to find a bet and, if pushed, I would probably side with Wales on the handicap, not least because I think their bench has more impact potential than England’s, though both sides pride themselves on their 80-minute fitness.
But I am not going to put up a bet just because the occasion demands it – though, again, the fact that England struggled to beat Wales (21-16 and 25-21) on their last two meetings is another positive for those looking to take the points start – so powder dry here, too.
Posted at 1000 GMT on 09/0218.