Alex Payne tips England, France and Ireland to win on the opening weekend of the Six Nations
Last Updated: 01/02/13 7:10pm
For most rugby fans the levels of anticipation around this year's Six Nations will be pushing new heights. Not only are there four very real contenders for the title but there are also only eight weeks to go until Warren Gatland announces his Lions squad and captain.
Going into the tournament, picking winners and margins is not easy given the inconsistencies of all six nations over the last year. England went from the depths of a World Cup depression a year ago to victory over the All Blacks in December, Wales fell from Grand Slammers to seven consecutive losses and the Irish spluttered in the Six Nations, dominated the Heineken Cup and only saved their season with a big win over Argentina in November.
Scotland collected the Six Nations wooden spoon, won in Australia and then lost at home to Tonga in the autumn. The French had a poor Six Nations but a great autumn while Italy continue to spark and stall in equal measure.
It certainly makes for a fascinating tournament, but also produces some sizeable potholes when it comes to having a bet. Hold on tight!
England v Scotland
On paper this has England all over it. The stunning win over New Zealand has filled the squad with belief, the team is settled with only two enforced changes and the Scots have not won at Twickenham in 30 years. Add to that Scotland's desperate performance in the loss to Tonga, a new coaching set up and half a new team and you can see why England are at 1/5 for the win and have a 15 point start.
My gut feeling is that England will win but that it is going to be a lot closer than many are expecting. The absence of Manu Tuilagi dents England's attacking edge and Scotland certainly have a lot more potential than recent results would suggest. The new head coach Scott Johnson is a master at generating belief and confidence while Dean Ryan, a good friend of ours at Sky, will ensure the visitors box clever and make the most of their talents. And of course, there is the passion play that the Scots can call upon like few others.
For all their individuals the concern around the Scots is the rawness of the halfback combination and England will aim to put real pressure on Greig Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson. The last seven between these two have finished within an average of six points. But with Twickenham behind them and more options on the bench I think England should be able to weather the storm and find a way through to win - though not by many.
Wales v Ireland
For me, this is the game of the weekend - the winners can kick on with confidence, the losers will have mounting problems.
As mentioned, Wales dropped off dramatically in the second half of 2012 and it will be fascinating to see if they have fixed the tactical and psychological issues for Saturday. Warren Gatland's absence may affect the latter more and although they're missing their first choice fly-half Rhys Priestland and a number of second rows, there are still plenty of big name stars to call upon. Several of them will be searching for their best, and quickly, to put the smiles back on Welsh faces and book their places to Australia.
Irish provinces have gone well in the RaboDirect Pro12 this season while Munster and Ulster are also into the Heineken Cup's last eight so there is plenty of form around. The loss of Stephen Ferris and Paul O'Connell will be keenly felt, but the arrival of Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy to the wings adds plenty of fresh 'X factor'. Potential distractions could crop up - we're hearing more and more that this will be Brian O'Driscoll's final Six Nations while key man Jonathan Sexton has been busy sorting his mega deal to Racing for next season. Neither are immediate issues, but will be dragged up if things don't go well for the men in green.
All things considered though, I'm taking Ireland to spoil Wales opening day - but only just. I'd cover Ireland by 1-5 at 9/2 and 6-10 at 5/1.
For all Italy's progress since they joined the tournament France showed in the autumn that they are the ones making real strides at the moment. With only a week together, France's preparation has not been ideal and they did fall at the Stadio Flaminio two years ago. But Philippe Saint-Andre seems to be adding an almost English like practicality to Les Blues and they should have too much for the Azzuri. Sergio Parisse against Louis Picamoles is a superb head to head to keep an eye on but the French should get home comfortably.
Last year we had six away wins in the 15 tournament matches, and I'm opening with two this year with an accumulator of France, Ireland and England which is available at 2/1.
In terms of anytime try scorers, I'm keen to keep it among the forwards and will be backing the No.8s - Ben Morgan, Jamie Heaslip and Louis Picamoles all know their way to the try line and should get their hands on the ball frequently.
And last but not least, to stick my neck on the line with a tournament winner. It does feel a very open tournament this year but Ireland have England and France at home and if they can get up over Wales this weekend then at 7/2 I fancy the men in green to make O'Driscoll's final hurrah a fairy tale. His career certainly deserves it.