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The Six Nations kicks off this weekend, three months to the day from when we witnessed England humbled and humiliated at the hands of South Africa in the Rugby World Cup Final. Some might say this foreshadowed a series of events that have made us all question humanity and indeed the world we live in.
Terrible bush fires in Australia, a WWIII crisis, Coronavirus, the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi, and even closer to home, Saracens’ salary cap scandal! I’m by no means attempting to trivialise these events, but it’s safe to say the world needs a bit more love and happiness in these dark times.
As we start to crawl out of the darkness, I will attempt to shed some much-needed light on the opening weekend fixtures, arming you, the punter, with some hard-hitting betting ammo.
Wales v Italy (14:15 Saturday)
Clive’s play: Italy +25 @ 4/5
The least interesting of the opening fixtures unless you were either born or indeed conceived across the Severn Bridge (guilty!). Legend has it the water in the small seaside town of Llanbedr, has powerful libido properties… I digress, but you only have to ask my father, Geoff!
It’s a time of rebuilding for both these nations. Both Wales and Italy starting this campaign with new head coaches, Wayne Pivac and Franco Smith respectively. It’s going to be a serious test of Wales’ capabilities to match their efforts from last year, with the draw less kind to them and the introduction of a new coaching team potentially disrupting their campaign.
The balance of the squad, however, and the return of Faletau will give the team extra ball-carrying prowess, which is something they lacked last year, despite their outstanding Grand Slam success. Pivac, who likes to play an expansive game, could make them a more aesthetically pleasing outfit to watch, but they may have to take one step backwards over the next season before they go forwards.
The Azzurri head into this year’s tournament, once again, as overwhelming underdogs and favourites to finish at the bottom of the standings. Don’t be surprised if they fail to register a victory during the competition. Italy are currently on a 22-match losing streak in the Six Nations with their last victory registered way back in Round Three of the 2015 tournament, beating Scotland 22-19 at Murrayfield.
Although they were in fine form during the early stages of last year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, registering impressive bonus-point wins over Namibia and Canada, they were out of their depth against eventual tournament winners South Africa and suffered a heavy defeat in that encounter. However, you can expect them to come out all guns blazing again in this campaign, posting some respectable score lines in the early weeks.
Ireland v Scotland (16:45 Saturday)
Clive’s play: Scotland +16 @ 3/4
News that both Finn Russell and Darcy Graham are going to miss the opening fixture has meant this potential max bet on Scotland on the handicap is now a little more cautious play at a slightly shorter price.
Both teams by their own omission had pretty dreadful World Cup campaigns. Japan topping the group, beating both teams in the process meant we saw a slight changing of the rugby guard. Further to this, the battering that Ireland took in the quarter-finals at the hands of a not so impressive New Zealand did rub more salt into those Gaelic wounds.
The word ‘rebuilding’ seems to be a common thread amongst this year’s competitors, but you realise that this rings even truer for an ageing Irish team. This transition also sees a change at the helm, with Andy Farrell replacing Joe Schmidt as head coach, something that may see a tightening in-game style with an emphasis on a more structured approach. It could be a long campaign for Ireland if they fail to beat both Scotland and Wales over the first two weekends of the Six Nations.
Scotland are in a slightly better position, even after failing to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup. Along with England, the Scots are the only Six Nations side who have retained their Head Coach and although their opening match is against Ireland in Dublin, they will fancy their chances of causing an upset against their hosts whose coach, Andy Farrell, is a novice in his new role at Test level.
As mentioned above, Finn Russell is an issue. However, when on song, Scotland are an exciting team to watch and they have a good balance of powerful forwards and brilliant backs. I would expect them to keep this game within the handicap.
France v England (15:00 Sunday)
Clive’s play: England -3 @ 4/5
The standout fixture of the weekend! Putting their obvious quality to one side, it will be fascinating to see not only how England perform after the hammer blow of not winning the Rugby World Cup, but also how team morale is after the Saracens scandal?
It is another season of change for Les Bleus, who have a new Head Coach, an exciting backroom staff, which includes defence guru Shaun Edwards, and a squad full of young talent. In terms of physicality and matchups across the park, the French team excites me but just needs more structure to their play.
As ever with France, it is difficult to say, but it is hard to make a case for them winning two of their opening three matches. A victory over Italy in the second round should be guaranteed, but they face England and Wales over that period. Patience may be the order of the day, however, given their inexperience and the inevitable lack of cohesiveness that happens following an overhaul. That said, with players like Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, they will forever be the neutral’s favourite.
England’s fixture list is full of banana skins and it’s really hard to predict how much change will disrupt the World Cup silver medallists. England possess the strongest squad by a country mile, as well as at the best set-piece. They will be hungry to avenge what happened three months ago, and even more desperate to claim their first title since 2017.
In the fixture, England will have too much for France on Sunday where you can expect the scores to be close up to the 60-minute mark when Jones’s famous ‘bolters’ are unleashed. England will win this by over a score.