Alex Payne looks at the odds ahead of round two of the Six Nations
Last Updated: February 8, 2013 4:46pm
The opening weekend of the Six Nations has certainly grown expectation levels, not only for the rest of this year's competition but also for the Lions tour this summer.
The biggest winner from the opening weekend was surely Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, and you would imagine he'll have a very close eye on events in Dublin this weekend...
Ireland v England
Since England's Grand Slam win in Dublin a decade ago, Ireland have been the Red Rose's bogey team with seven wins in nine Six Nations games. This does feel like a very different England, though, one that isn't burdened with talk of the 2003 World Cup triumph and isn't saddled with the weight of past failures in the Irish capital. Such has been the high turnover of players that from the last Six Nations trip to Dublin, for the 2011 Grand Slam, only five of the side remain.
For Ireland, rather like England, things seem to be coming together pretty quickly. Prior to their win over Argentina in November, the Irish had only won two of their previous 10 games, beating Italy and Scotland. However, in Cardiff their work at the breakdown was as frenzied as in the Grand Slam season of '09, while Brian O'Driscoll's form is back where he wants it and the defence in the second half to stifle the Welsh comeback was nothing short of heroic. It is a win that will have lit Ireland's fires of ambition and belief and England will need to be ready to handle the passion on Sunday.
In terms of the game, England must bring everything that was so impressive at Twickenham - huge intensity at the breakdown, the subtlety of the offloading game which caused Scotland so much uncertainty, the threat of Ben Youngs and the authority of Owen Farrell. However, given the ferocity of Ireland's defence England won't have anything like the time on the ball that they enjoyed in round one, and they'll have to be tighter to deny Ireland the same opportunities that brought Scotland two long-range strikes.
England have a very exciting momentum with them at the moment but I can't escape Ireland's air of desperation - driven by O'Driscoll's pending departure from centre stage. For so long he has been the danger man in this fixture, having not lost to England since 2003, and in the last four match ups in Dublin he's come away with three tries and a drop goal. It's going to be close, but I think Ireland will come through - just. The home side by 1-5 points is available at 9/2.
France v Wales
To Paris, and the two sides with most of the disappointment to shift from the shoulders after round one. Wales seem to be carrying the weight of the world at the moment, and their first 40 minutes in Cardiff were symptomatic of a side that has lost its mojo. They did save face with the second half fight back, but even the coaching staff have been admitting this week that there are no quick fixes. One boost is the enforced selection of Justin Tipuric who made a big impact after the break, the open-side was about the only Welsh player to enhance his Lions claims.
And what of France? After their autumn they were my one banker last weekend, but like so many great French sides before them they managed to serve up a performance of such staggering apathy that you wonder why they bother. 'Beware the backlash' is a phrase that has been used so many times before with the French, and judging by the performances in November and the volatility of their coach Phillipe St. Andre, expect them to have blood pouring from their noses and black eyes before they even emerge from the tunnel.
I think the French will look to play a bit more this weekend - the likes of Wesley Fofana (pictured) and Yoann Huget will be hungry to get the ball in their hands and the Stade de France jumping. For me, the real interest lies around Mathieu Basteraud who comes back in to the centre to partner his Toulon team mate Maxime Mermoz. On a club level their defence has been shredded recently in the Heineken Cup, and while Basteraud is dangerous going forward (15/2 to score a brace is interesting), I would keep a keen eye on his opposite number Jonathan Davies who will hope to exploit their uncertainty - Wales' 13 is 20/1 as first try scorer and 7/2 anytime.
However, I'm afraid I'm going for France in this one - apologies to all my friends over the Severn bridge, but France to win and win quite comfortably. They have to wake up at some point, and I think Les Blues will make it nine loses on the bounce for Wales. 11-15 is 6/1, 16-20 on offer at 15/2.
Scotland v Italy
And finally to Murrayfield - Italy with the result of round one and probably of their Six Nations history, and Scotland with bits to build on from their trip to Twickenham. This is such an important game for these two - for the Italians to prove that they're building consistency alongside their new adventurous style, for Scotland to prove that they're not getting cut adrift from the rest of the pack.
A 20-point defeat against England is bad reading on paper, but there were signs to admire in Scotland's losing cause - Johnnie Beattie, Stuart Hogg and Matt Scott all had fine matches and the attacking intent looked sharper than in recent seasons.
But their inability to stop England on the gain line meant that they were always chasing attackers, and with it the game. The control at half back also remains an issue, something that has long been an Achilles heel for the Italians. However, Luciano Orquera (pictured) showed on Saturday that the debate around 10 may die down for a while.
One concern as far as Italy are concerned is how much the win over France has taken out of them emotionally, but with the weather set to be dry on Saturday I'm going with the visitors - the set piece and power game has always been there but the new found attacking intent makes them so much more dangerous than the old sides which just used to stifle. In terms of anytime try scorers, I'm sticking with the outside centre theme and will be keeping an eye on Thomas Benvenuti who has been very strong in the Heineken Cup this season.
Two 8s over the line last weekend, let's hope it is lucky 13 for the anytime tryscorers - O'Driscoll, Basteraud, Davies and Benvenuti all worth investigating.
Here's hoping round two delivers on the entertainment front again, and brings you a few winning bets!