The first round of fixtures in this years tournament have taken place, and England, Ireland and France are the only teams left who now have a chance at securing that Grand Slam. With team selections for all nations now announced we can have a look towards this weekends second round of fixtures, and have a look at what may provide good betting opportunities.
England v Italy - Saturday 14th February @ 14:30
It's difficult to look past anything but a comfortable English win in this one. They go into this one with the same starting 15 that felled Wales last week, and justifiably so as Lancaster aims to build some momentum and consistency with a side who deservedly won that match. Players like Watson, Joseph and Haskell really impressed, and I'm looking forward to watching them play this weekend. Italy have made 4 changes, as they attempt to atone for their 26-3 loss to reigning champions Ireland in Rome. Coming in are 110-cap lock Bortolami, experienced flanker Mauro Bergamasco, prop Alberto De Marchi and wing Giovanbattista Venditti who will be replacing the injured Campagnaro, who, very disappointingly for Italy, will miss the rest of the tournament.
All 20 meetings between these two sides have ended in a win for England, and I don't see any reason to expect this to change this weekend.
England are 1.004 to win and 1.05 for double result (bet365). As such, it would be much better to look potential markets for added value. I fancy the chances of the second half being the highest scoring, and the odds on offer of 1.66 (bet365) look tempting. Italy managed to keep it tight in the first half against Ireland last week, getting to the break only 9-3 down, before tiredness and a yellow card for Ghiraldini let Ireland in for 2 tries in the 2nd half. As for England, they were much more impressive against Wales in the second half last week, scoring 13 of their 21 points in this period, whilst barely allowing Wales a sniff. I fancy a similar pattern here, with England running in points in the second half after a tighter first period.
Ireland v France - Saturday 14th February @ 17:00
Ireland go into this match on the back of a comfortable, if not entirely convincing, 26-3 win against Italy in Rome last Saturday. However, Ireland will go into this match with 3 extra Lions taking their place in the starting 15, with 3 of the world's best in their respective positions returning. Number 8 Jamie Heaslip replaces Jordi Murphy, flanker Sean O'Brian makes his first appearance for Ireland in 16 months in place of Tommy O'Donnell, whereas the talismanic Fly-Half Jonny Sexton replaces Ian Keatley. They will also be buoyed by Rory Best coming through concussion tests to take his place in the side. The three changes made will undoubtedly see Ireland field a much stronger side than last week, and a team on paper which could challenge almost any.
France have only made one change, with prop Eddy Ben Arous coming into replace the injured Alexandre Menini. In all honesty, I do not know a great deal about Arous, and therefore can't really comment on what affect this may have on the French scrum. The last 4 matches between these two sides have interestingly seen 2 draws, with a narrow 4 point away win for France and 2 point away win for Ireland either side of these.
Ireland have won their last 6 home games with wins against Australia, South Africa and Wales in that sequence. France haven't been great away from home in the past year, losing all 3 tests on tour in Australia last summer (2 by 20+), while also losing to Wales by 21 points and narrowly beating Scotland by 2 points. I am therefore going to back this strong Ireland team to win this match, and I like the look of a -6.5 handicap at @ 1.90 (bet365), or possibly Ireland by 6-10 @ 4.33 (bet365) as a longer option.
Scotland v Wales - Sunday 15th February @ 15:00
Scotland suffered a tightly contested 15-8 defeat to France in Paris last weekend. Scotland scored the only try, and could well have sprung somewhat of a surprise if they did not concede so many penalties and where a slight bit more ruthless when they got near the French try line. Scotland conceded 12 penalties in total, which ultimately cost them the game, with Lopez slotting over 5 of them for their 15 points. In response to that result and performance, coach Vern Cotter has not made any changes that have not been forced upon him. Tommy Seymour, a player who looked exciting in the Autumn, has not recovered in time and is replaced by the experienced Sean Lamont on the wing (at the expense of try scoring Dougie Fife, who replaced Seymour last weekend). There is also one change in the forwards, with Geoff Cross coming into the front row in place of Euan Murray, who is unavailable on the Sabbath due to religious beliefs. Albeit disappointing to lose two first team players, Lamont and Cross bring in some added experience and do not weaken the side to that great an extent.
Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly considering Gatland's past insistence on backing a losing side to bounce back the following week) Wales have only made one change to the side that lost disappointingly against England last Friday. George North has been removed in a move described as a 'precaution' by Gatland following the controversy surrounding his double concussion during the last game. Replacing him is the in-form Liam Williams, who many in Wales (including myself), wanted to see in the starting 15 last week. As such, I don't see this as weakening the side at all, and may well add more attacking impetus with Williams' desire to get outside his man.
Overall, this is a very tough match to call. The score will be nothing near the 51-3 victory for Wales in Cardiff last year, a game in which Scotland lost Hogg to a 20th minute red card, a player who looked very dangerous last weekend and will definitely have an impact this coming Sunday. In reaction to that heartbreaking defeat, Scottish captain Laidlaw and flanker Strokosch (on the bench) have really laid down a marker to rally the players and avenge that defeat at Murrayfield this time around. On the flip side, Wales do not enjoy losing to England and will really want to go and win this one convincingly to prove that they are still a side to be considered, both for this Championship and the World Cup.
I therefore predict that a fierce and closely fought encounter will be contested here, but ultimately Wales will just about edge it, with their extra experience and familiarity, as well as Leigh Halfpenny's kicking boot proving telling (that may just be my heart speaking there though!). Wales by 1-12 @ 2.40 (bet365) looks like a good option here.
England v Italy: Highest Scoring half - Second @ 1.66 (bet365)
Ireland v France: Handicap - Ireland -6.5 @ 1.90 (bet365)
Scotland v Wales: Winning Margin - Wales by 1-12 @ 2.40 (bet365)
Please do reply with your thoughts, and any interesting insights you may have!