Alex Payne previews round four of Six Nations and backs Wales to beat Scotland
Last Updated: March 8, 2013 6:02pm
Will Ashton get on the score sheet against Italy?
Momentum - it is so important in a successful Six Nations campaign, and after a great round 3 in the tipping stakes we're hoping our roll continues too.
England v Italy
England are certainly holding all the cards ahead of the game at Twickenham. They have never lost to Italy and I just cannot see that changing this weekend - a home win at 1/250 indicates Sky Bet feels the same! For all the media's talk of the Grand Slam next week, I don't think complacency will be a factor for Stuart Lancaster's men this weekend, particularly with things to work on after France and preparations to be made for Wales.
For the first time in a decade England are making alterations from a position of strength, not searching for solutions, and the few tweaks this week reward those pushing hardest while developing the options for the 2015 World Cup. The general consensus is that Stuart Lancaster's biggest strength is in selection, and one noteworthy sub-plot to this week's media activities is the way the head coach has gently applied pressure to his back three ahead of the Italy game. It will be interesting to see how they react.
The Italians have their captain back, Sergio Parisse, who will certainly hold things together and the visitors can rely on a powerful pack. However, the force is with England, and in terms of value this weekend I am taking England to beat the 26 points handicap (10/11). In the last five games at Twickenham, England have got home by an average of 30 points against Italy, it was 59-12 a couple of years ago when Chris Ashton scored four. England's number 10 that day was Toby Flood who's back again, if they can bring the best out of each other once again you may be interested in an Ashton double at 5/2, the hat-trick at 15/2.
Searching for value this weekend is not easy with the obvious candidates not offering a lot, but the recalled Danny Care is in the form of his life, and I think is a live contender for first try scorer at 8/1. Mako Vunipola knows his way to the tryline and will be buzzing on adrenaline on his first start and is worth a look at 11/2 anytime.
Scotland v Wales
I was lucky enough to visit the Scotland camp this week to interview the interim forwards coach Dean Ryan, and there is a real buzz around their camp borne of the fact they have won back to back games in this tournament for the first time since 1999. So what hope of beating Wales, who are also back up and running after a couple of wins on the bounce?
Well the stats and the odds (4/9 for a Wales win) side with the visitors, and it's not difficult to see why - Scotland have lost to Wales in nine of the last ten meetings, the last five of which have been by a hefty average of 13.5 points. While their scramble defence and will to win was impressive against Ireland, the number of times their line was punctured must be of concern, and Wales have more game out wide than the men in green.
Scotland will aim to hang in there until the sixty minute mark and then squeeze their way home, much as they did against the Irish. But for me Wales are beginning to get the bit between their teeth again, the mojo is returning and so too is the experience of Alun-Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton. They will be only too aware of the mistakes that Ireland made, and will have those potholes sign-posted. Leigh Halfpenny won't spurn as many chances at goal as Ireland, and I'm tipping Wales to get home by a handful, 6-10 at 4/1 - though don't tell Dean!
In terms of try scorers - Halfpenny has picked up four in his last four games against Scotland and I think is good value at 100/30 anytime. Visser, Maitland and Hogg are the real danger men for Scotland at 3/1, 4/1 and 5/1 respectively.
Ireland v France
When talking of momentum in the Six Nations, the flip side is how quickly things can tailspin when you lose and two sides with heavy shoulders clash in Dublin on Saturday.
Searching through the stats ahead of the game, I was astonished to read that Ireland have only won one of the last thirteen against the French. The last four have finished within an average of 3.5 points, tight games in which Ireland just fail to find a way to take the tape. Given the last two rounds, I just can't see where the men in green are going to get clarity from this week.
Things do seem muddled on the field and in selection and the unrest is growing. Irish supporters are beginning to talk of wanting a change at the top, and head coach Declan Kidney may well be feeling the same way. There are positives - Cian Healey is back having overturned his ban, Luke Marshall looked accomplished on his debut and they did play well in patches against the Scots despite failing to take their chances, but these have the feel of clutching at straws. The confidence and nerves seems frayed.
France are in no great shape either, but there were signs at Twickenham they may just be clambering out of the trough they've fallen into. But instead of looking to build on those foundations, Philippe St.Andre has altered things again, including inexplicably bringing back Freddy Michelak at fly half.
However, I think France have the advantage mentally and in the power stakes, where Louis Picamoles is bound to be prominent again. He is 7/1 to cross the whitewash at some point, while Vincent Clerc (3/1) has been running in French tries for years. Wesley Fofana is the super star though, and is 12/1 to score the first try.
Both are vulnerable but Ireland seem more so. France to come through.
So I'm going for England to beat the handicap, France and Wales this weekend which returns at 7/2, and if you fancy something else to shout about in all three games how about a trio of anytime try scorers -Ashton, Fofana and Halfpenny all to dot down is available at 20/1.