After a week’s break from the rigours of the Six Nations Championship, we have a full suite of games to look forward to this weekend.
Last time out England stole the show once again. After dismantling the defending Six Nations Champions in Dublin, Eddie Jones’ men set their sights on France at Twickenham. A 44-8 victory flattered the French somehow and England are now nearly unbackable (1/6) to claim a third title in four years.
Ireland recovered from their chastening loss to England with a bounce back 22-13 win over Scotland. It was a case of deja vu for the Scots, who seem to always find a way to underperform at vital moments in tournaments.
Wales will be disappointed to have left Rome without the four-try bonus point. A final score of 15-26 underlines Italy’s improving form.
Round three sees two huge games take place on the Saturday. Scotland and France both desperately need a win. They face off in Paris in the early kick off. The stand-out tie is the meeting of England and Wales. If England win this one, then that’s all she wrote for everyone else really.
Ireland close out the weekend’s programme with a trip to Italy on Sunday where five points is a must for Joe Schmidt’s team.
France v Scotland (Virgin One/BBC One 2.15pm, Sat Feb 23rd)
Where to next for France?
A 36 point hammering at the hands of England only adds to recent woeful results. A first ever test-level defeat to Fiji was the low-light in November, however with three games left in this championship, defeats to either Scotland at home or against Italy in Rome would be far more damaging than their loss to England.
A reaction is required for this game against Scotland. The problem for the French is that Scotland need to provide a reaction to their loss against Ireland.
Two teams at a low ebb, I can’t look past Scotland. Their back row troubled Ireland at the breakdown regularly, their back line can open any team (and butcher any try), and in Finn Russell they would have had one of the game’s true flair payers.
Sadly for this encounter and Scotland, he has failed to recover from a knock to the head when playing for his club Racing 92 (why is he playing top-flight club rugby in the middle of the Six Nations?). This will harm their chances for sure, but I still prefer Scottish unity and organisation to France’s congealed blob of uber-talented but confused 15 that will take the field.
If Scotland lose this one they can forget about this years’ Championship and in reality the World Cup later in the year.
Wales v England (Virgin One/BBC One 4:45pm, Sat Feb 23rd)
What an occasion this will be.
In Warren Gatland’s last Six Nations campaign he has the opportunity to topple an England side everyone in world rugby is starting to fear. To boot, it’s in Cardiff, and it would set up a Welsh grand slam bid with just two games to go after this.
You better believe he’s up for it.
The problem for Gatland, and the 23 men he chooses for Saturday, is that England have an almost ominous momentum. The speed and accuracy with which they attacked both France and Ireland would have had Eddie Jones purring.
I have been genuinely surprised and impressed with the quality of England’s rugby so far. They’re head and shoulders clear of everyone based on what we’ve seen.
Countdown to #WALvENG ⏱
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 19, 2019
While I expect Wales and Ireland to be closer to England come tournament’s end, it will surely be too late at that stage. A point of solace for Wales’ fans is the absence of Mako Vunipola.
England’s first choice loosehead prop has been one of their best players. He misses the rest of the tournament due to an ankle injury. He joins Maro Itoje and Chris Ashton in being absent.
Leigh Halfpenny will continue to be absent for Wales.
England are rightly a very short price, so I’ll be applying a small handicap to eke out some value. Regardless of the result, this is the game to watch this weekend.
Italy v Ireland (Virgin One/ITV 3:00pm, Sun Feb 24th)
Since Italy joined the Five Nations to make it a Six Nations tournament they have a 95 per cent loss rate against Ireland with a points differential of -443.
In other words, they won’t win.
That being said, I’ve been taken with Conor O’Shea’s side this year. A late flourish against the Scots could have been written off as their opposition switching off after securing the bonus point win.
It was their obstinate performance against Wales that franked the form. It’s hugely encouraging to see the Azzuri competing with the world’s top sides. At this stage they should be, after nearly 20 years playing in the same league.
Ireland look to be turning the corner after finding a way to win at Murrayfield. Confidence was badly shook by that opening defeat to England, it was plain to see in their inability to off-load the ball in the tackle.
In terms of injuries, Ireland will have to do without CJ Stander once again who continues to recover from a fractured face. There’s also question marks over Gary Ringrose, Ian Henderson, and Tadhg Beirne. Beyond injuries, with a championship nearly out of reach for the defending champions, there’s a likelihood that Joe Schmidt will use this game to look at alternative options to his preferred 15.
So potentially without Sexton, Murray, and maybe more, Italy to avoid a sizeable handicap defeat is worth consideration.
First game on your card this weekend is France v Scotland in Paris.
I’m kind of astounded France are as short as they are at 2/5. Considering we can better than double our investment in Scotland in the match bet, I’m going for Gregor Townsend’s men at 85/40.
Next up is the centrepiece of the week three – Wales at home to England.
England at -3.5, considering their try scoring form, is value in my opinion at 4/5.
Finally, Sunday’s 3pm kick off, Italy v Ireland in Rome.
Ireland will surely win handily, will they stretch beyond 30 points? I think Italy have more about them this year.
Italy to win with a + 29.5 point handicap at 17/20