Alex Payne previews the final round of Six Nations and backs England for the Grand Slam
Last Updated: 15/03/13 7:55pm
So we're already at the final weekend of a Six Nations tournament that has thrown up so many more questions than it has answers. How did Italy thump France, crumble to the Scots and come close to defeating England?
Who put money on France to be Wooden Spoon contenders after the autumn they enjoyed? Are Ireland the side that fired in Cardiff or flopped in Edinburgh? Have Wales timed their recovery well enough to derail yet another English Grand Slam attempt?
Wales v England
It is not easy to know where to lay your money on events in Cardiff this weekend, as Pat Sanderson said on this week's Rugby Club this one is a flip of the coin. You can find stats to back up almost any scenario, and to be honest I'm a little dizzy from trying to find an angle.
In terms of the game, Wales will look to take advantage at scrum time while England, with Croft back on the blindside, will hope to shade the line out. Wales will fancy their chances at the breakdown with two open sides on the pitch, England will look to move the point of contact so Warburton and Tipuric don't get an opportunity. Both sides have reliable goal kickers in Halfpenny and Farrell. Both pride themselves on their defence - Wales have not conceded since the 42nd minute of round 1, England have only coughed up four in four. Both sides are confident.
The game is set out to be tight, edgy and low on tries. Neither side has really fired in attack in the last few weeks (with rain forecast 16/1 for no try scorer has to be considered if the roof remains open) - in fact England have only one try in three games and that came from a lucky ricochet. It was Manu Tuilagi on that occasion and he does remain the major weapon - 3/1 to cross the whitewash. We may not have seen the Ash-splash that much in this campaign, but Chris Ashton did take flight for a double at the Millennium two years ago as England won 26-19, and he is 10/1 to repeat the feat. I do also like the price boost of 7/1 for Tom Croft to score at any point. As he showed in Paris last season he can run them in from distance.
However, I do think Wales possess more game breakers in North (12/1 first try scorer), Cuthbert (3/1 a/t), Halfpenny (7/2 a/t) and Phillips (6/1 a/t) but we haven't seen the best of them yet, and the biggest question is whether they can suddenly discover it when they need it most.
I'm aware we've been going round the roundabout for a while here, and I'm still not wholly convinced that I'm taking the right exit but I am going with England to do it. Last week's amble against Italy feels like an aberration, in fact after the win in Dublin I think England have expected to beat France and Italy at home, and so have had one eye on Cardiff for a while. They were so impressive in the way they poured water on the heated atmosphere of Dublin and will be set up to stand strong in the first ten minutes and get into the game quickly. Wales have had a few discipline issues, and I think Robshaw and his men will put the squeeze on and earn the penalties which will allow Farrell to take them home. England for me - just, 1-5 is at 9/2.
Italy v Ireland
It's not just Wales v England that has tired the grey matter this week, the form of Italy and Ireland has fluctuated wildly too - but all things considered I'm going to put my green on green.
Round 4 finished with Italy upbeat after pushing England, and Ireland on their knees after the stalemate with France. And it is a familiar tale for Ireland this season - since their brilliant first half in Cardiff, Declan Kidney's side have made a habit of falling short, losing to England by six, Scotland by four and drawing with France. They have not been great, but they've not been as bad as things might seem. On paper it is still a strong outfit, if a little weary after last weekend, but they are a side who should expect to beat Italy.
The Azzuri certainly ran England closer than most expected, but it was more through Red Rose ambivalence rather than Italian brilliance. They do pose dangers with the likes of Giovanbattista Venditti (100/30 a/t), Andrea Masi (7/2 a/t) and obviously Sergio Parisse (7/2 a/t) all capable of troubling Ireland's defence.
But Declan Kidney has stuck the lively Craig Gilroy straight back in on the wing (17/2 first try scorer) and I also like the heavy duty ball carrying of Sean O'Brien (7/2 a/t) and Cian Healy (11/2 a/t) - both Lions candidates who are after big last rounds. However, if you do believe in fairy tales, how about Brian O'Driscoll to round off this campaign and possibly his Ireland career with the last try at 10/1? Smiles all round if that is to be the case, and I'm going with Ireland by 6-10 at a boosted 5/1.
France v Scotland
There is less doubt for me with last game of the Six Nations, and having backed France in every game bar England I am going with them again, believing they simply have to play to their potential at some point. Valiant though Scotland have been, I think the French forwards will lay the foundations that will allow Freddy Michelak to show the kind of form Philippe St.Andre keeps picking him for.
When you look at the French teamsheet it is almost inconceivable that they're in the position they are - so much talent in the back line and I would sprinkle my chips across Clerc, Medard and Huget as anytime try scorers. For me though, the real excitement lies around the flair of Fofana (15/8 a/t) and the bosh of Bastareaud (12/1 to score first.)
So after much deliberation I am going with France to beat the 12 point handicap, Ireland and England which is available at 100/30 and that does of course bring England home in the Six Nations winner, Grand Slam and Triple Crown outrights. If you're looking for some flair how about a punt on North, O'Driscoll and Basteraud to all score at 41/1.
Such has been the nature of this season's Six Nations that there has been a fair amount of heads or tails in making the calls this weekend, but either way lets hope the coins come in in the final round.