Tony Calvin previews the latest round of fixtures in the Six Nations

Get Tony Calvin's Six Nations analysis
Get Tony Calvin's Six Nations analysis

Another winner for Tony Calvin on Saturday and he has a strong fancy for Twickenham this afternoon.

Recommended bets

2pts Italy +9 on the half-time handicap (10/11)

1pt Italy to leading at half-time at 5/1

3pts France +14 (evens)

You normally come away from an opening Six Nations weekend with a pretty good idea what teams you want to keep on side, from a handicap point of view at least, for the rest of the tournament.

But, with the exception of England, the performance of the other five countries sent out some very mixed messages indeed.

And it would appear that the coaches agree by the number of changes they have made to their starting XVs this weekend.

So let’s start with England then, who are now 14-point favourites, and as short as 1-7 in places to beat France at Twickenham on Sunday.

It was no surprise to see a general rise of four points on the handicap line for this game after last weekend’s performances.

England were under-estimated by the market going into the Ireland match, but even their most loyal supporters must have been taken aback by their formidable dismantling of world-class opposition.

From the get-go, they won all the collisions and played with a purpose and tempo that had been missing for a long while.

Their forwards won all their individual battles against their opposite numbers – though it was a close-run call in a couple of positions – and they seemed to have a game-plan for once.

And you have to conclude that Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell were as out-thought in the stands, as much as their players were out-fought on the pitch.

Ben Youngs celebrates in Dublin
Ben Youngs celebrates in Dublin

What was most impressive about England’s performance was the way they came back to dominate the game after Ireland weathered the early storm to lead 10-7.

Okay, they were fortunate to go 14-10 up thanks to Jacob Stockdale losing the ball over the line, but their pressure from thereon in deserved more than a 17-10 lead at the interval.

I was sceptical about whether they could maintain that level of intensity, but they were pretty ruthless to seal the deal in the final 40 minutes.

That crushing win must have done their confidence and self-belief the world of good, and the only negative was the injury to Maro Itoje, whose work-rate and sheer effervescence around the pitch will be sorely missed, though Courtney Lawes is a decent like-for-like replacement in terms of power.

And, in the only other change, Jack Nowell can feel a bit aggrieved to lose his spot to Chris Ashton, if there wasn’t an injury element to the decision.

The issue is whether the market has over-reacted to that defeat of Ireland, and France’s loss.

If England’s confidence sky-rocketed after Dublin, then France must have been one deflated unit after throwing away a 16-0 half-time lead at home to Wales.

And, quite literally, throwing it away, too.

Granted, France’s first-half score line domination owed as much to a shocking, error-strewn performance from Wales – and aided by Liam Williams dropping the ball in the act of scoring – but France played the wet conditions well and went in at half-time as the 1-7 favourites to secure the win.

But a couple of shockers handed Wales 14 points, and France somehow contrived to lose 24-19.

Their huge pack didn’t manage to steamroller the Welsh forwards into submission, or punch consistent holes for their relatively dainty three-quarter line to exploit, though Damian Penaud looked a handful on the wing.

Quite what that will have done to their mind set for this game is anyone’s guess – Olivier Magne, their superb back-rower of yesteryear reckons “at the first hitch, they collapse psychologically” but I can’t have that - and they lost 32-26 in Murrayfield a week after agonisingly going down 15-13 to Ireland in last year’s opener.

But France have a decent, recent record against England, winning two of their last five games

Those successes both came in the Stade de France (22-16 and 25-20) but their Twickenham losses only came in at 10, five and three points (it was 19-16 in the corresponding fixture in 2017), so this may not be the runaway win most seem to be forecasting.

And I like the six changes the French management have made.

They have gone for a bit more mobility in the pack, and transferred some of the lost weight to the centres with the inclusion of Mathieu Bastareaud, brilliant in this tournament last season, and Geoffrey Doumayrou, while youngster Antoine Dupont gives them options off the bench.

Mathieu Bastareau - back for France
Mathieu Bastareau - back for France

This French side has a lot more balance to it, and I think they are a very decent bet getting a 14-point start at evens (general), especially with rain forecast at Twickenham on Sunday afternoon.

Ireland have come away from the England game battered and bruised, and not just mentally.

They have lost CJ Stander and Devin Toner in the forwards – and they were already without their third and fourth-choice locks – plus Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw in the backs, and their famed strength in depth will need to come to the fore against Scotland in Murrayfield on Saturday. It still looks a tasty enough starting XV, though.

Maybe they did go into the England game a bit too over-confident – though that would have soon been knocked out of them in the opening minutes at Dublin – but it was also another slow start for them in a tournament-opener. That was their fourth below-par opening game on the trot.

And maybe the players that had been carrying knocks going into the game – the likes of a Sexton and O’Mahony - still weren’t 100 percent and just couldn’t live with the overwhelmingly ferocity ranged against them.

We shouldn’t get carried away with just their fourth loss since 2016, but one of those reverses came in a 27-22 defeat away to Scotland in 2017, and the cloak of invincibility that seemingly surrounded them after New Zealand is now in danger of losing a button or two.

And Scotland also won this Murrayfield fixture in a low-scoring encounter in 2013, as well as prevailing in a World Cup warm-up game in the summer of 2011.

In normal circumstances, you would be tempted to side with Scotland with a seven-point start here, but I was not impressed by their 33-20 defeat of Italy.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved the fact that they conceded three tries in the last 10 minutes when they had a man in the bin – I had well and truly written off that Italian +25 handicap bet when the Scots led 33-3 – but I wasn’t particularly taken by them in the previous 70.

The Italians were absolutely woeful before their late show, and at least two of Scotland’s five tries were marginal.

Only the class of Finn Russell at fly-half put a shine on the scoreline and, other than Stuart Hogg, I don’t think Ireland will have seen much in the video to scare them.

Finn Russell - class act at fly-half
Finn Russell - class act at fly-half

Blair Kinghorn may have got a hat-trick, but he didn’t have to do a great deal to achieve it against a porous defence, and I am not in the least bit surprised that he is replaced by Sean Maitland.

This is a match that Scotland can certainly win – they can raise their games when some of the big boys roll into town, as England found out last year and the 2017 autumn internationals showed them in a very good light (they hammered Australia 53-24 and were unlucky to lose 22-17 to New Zealand ) – but I didn’t take too many positives out of that Italy game.

I suppose it all boils down how much substance you hang on one performance and both sides have clearly made changes, though Scotland will rue the loss of WP Nel at prop.

I couldn’t find a bet in the game, though I expect a close encounter and the 14-1 about a half-time draw was the closest I came. The rain is set to clear by kick-off, mind you.

I expected a lot more from Italy last week, and maybe the loss of scrum-half Tito Tebaldi with a back injury in the warm-up against Scotland affected their gameplan.

That would be a very charitable assessment though, as I have rarely seen a Six Nations side offer so little for such a large swathe of a game. They were rank.

They could get no field position, no continuity, and could simply never get on the front foot and offer any element of danger. And the great Sergio Parisse’s time is nearly up.

They undoubtedly looked a lot better (against 14 men, admittedly) when giving it a spin for those last 10 minutes, but I would be sceptical about how much you would read into that late show.

We all know that they can bounce back from hammerings, particularly at home – they lost 38-14 at the Millennium last year and were a minute away from beating Scotland in Rome six days later - and their recent games against Wales have been a bit of a mixed bag.

In fact, two of their better efforts against Wales have come at the Millennium in the shape of 23-19 and 23-15 defeats in 2015 and 2014.

But they invariably hold their own in Rome for at least for 40 minutes, and the fact that Wales have made so many changes for Saturday’s game – resulting in the handicap line fall from 21 to 18 - makes that an avenue well worth exploring.

Italy are a team who you always look to get with on the first-half handicap anyway, and that would have paid dividends in this fixture in 2017, when they went in 7-3 up at the interval before finally succumbing in the final quarter to lose 33-7.

And Wales only led 14-13 at half-time in this fixture in 2015, a match they eventually won 61-20, and just 9-6 in 2013, too.

With a bit of belief from the off – and the switch of Michele Campagnaro from wing to centre will help their attack no end - you suspect that Italy can make a much better much fist of it than they did at Murrayfield.

Michele Campagnaro - switch to centre a big plus
Michele Campagnaro - switch to centre a big plus

Warren Gatland said after the French match that his side had “forgotten how to lose” but that won’t be the case if they play like they did there again.

I appreciate that conditions were worse than it looked on the television, but rarely would you see them make so make so many errors, and generally have no direction or accuracy.

As I feared may happen, their goal-kicking was below-par until Dan Biggar came on at half-time, with Gareth Anscombe going to 15 instead of Liam Williams, but it could have been all over by then anyway had Morgan Parra not left his kicking boots in the changing rooms, too.

Basically, they swerved a very big one and they know it, and they probably won’t have the right balance until Leigh Halfpenny returns from concussion at full-back, hopefully against England on February 23 for our Triple Crown wager.

However, winning games you should have lost is a massive positive in any walk of sport, and Italy could well be the unfortunate recipients of a backlash here, especially with the weather expected to be fine and dry.

If Wales get their off-load game going and Dan Biggar kicks his goals, then they could put eventually put up a big number on the home side.

The issue is when that kicks in, especially given their starting XV – they really have rolled the dice here with double-digit changes from Paris - and their strength from the bench.

I think Italy +9 at 10-11 with bet 365 on the half-time handicap market is worth a bet – there was some 11 available before the Welsh team was named, but that soon went – and Betway’s 5-1 about Italy leading at half-time is also worth taking.

If you can’t access the latter price the 13-2 Italy-Wales HT-FT bet is a decent alternative.


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