The Six Nations campaign for 2018 kicked off last week without much fanfare, but the all-action rugby on display suggested we are in for a cracking tournament.
There was thrilling rugby on show from England, a typically organised display from Wales and a heart-stopping injury time drop goal winner for Ireland….and that was just in the first week!
Let’s take a look at the fixtures for Week 2:
Ireland vs Italy (Saturday, 2:15pm)
Arise Sir Sexton! That was the cry last week as Ireland’s fly half landed an injury time drop goal to secure his team a 15-13 victory over France at the Stade de France.
It’s not the first time that the right boot of the number ten has dug his side out of a hole, but in a hard-fought contest with the French it is those small margins that often prove so decisive.
The Irish should enjoy a much more relaxed afternoon in Dublin against Italy, whose regression in the Six Nations has been quite startling. Competitive for a couple of years, the Italians were routinely thrashed last year – they ended up with a points difference of -151 – and their heavy defeat to England in week one does not hint at a reversal of fortunes.
Every time that Italy take to the field their opponents will be thinking of securing a bonus point with a heavy win, and Ireland will be no different. Their powerful forwards will secure plenty of cheap ball to lay a foundation for the backs to break the fragile Italian line, and if the hosts can cross the whitewash early doors this could be a thrashing similar to that which England doled out on the Italians last time out.
The handicap line has been set at +/-33 points, and there really is no value in exploring either side of that equation. But how about this for a punt: CJ Stander as Anytime Tryscorer at 5/4. The flanker has scored four tries in just two starts against the Italians thus far.
England vs Wales (Saturday, 4:45pm)
England got the defence of their Six Nations crown off to the best possible start with a routine 46-15 win over Italy in Rome. A brace of tries in the opening ten minutes from Anthony Watson and Sam Simmonds set the tone, and five further tries ensured Eddie Jones’ men got an all-important bonus point – how crucial could that be come the end of the tournament?
Wales endured a tough time in last year’s Six Nations, losing to Scotland and France which would have been unthinkable for the all-conquering Welsh sides of not that many moons ago.
But they have started their 2018 campaign in fine fashion, demolishing the Scots 35-7 in Cardiff in an act of immediate revenge. As ever, Leigh Halfpenny was at the heart of the action and bagged himself 24 points with hand and boot, and if Wales are to get anything from this tough trip to Twickenham they will need him to be firing on all cylinders.
Indeed, England have won 15 of their last 18 meetings with Wales at the home of rugby union, and five out of six anywhere, and so for now at least it is clear that Dylan Hartley and co have the wood over their Welsh rivals.
Backing England is hard at the available odds of 2/9, but there are plenty of ways to massage these rugby betting markets and the even money quoted about the English with a -11-point handicap seems fair. Remember, that is just a margin of four penalties or one converted and one unconverted try.
Scotland vs France (Sunday, 3:00pm)
Scotland took a bit of a shellacking in Cardiff last week, and that was surprising from a side that has progressed so much in the past 18 months or so.
A back-to-basics approach should serve them well at Murrayfield; a stadium which has proven to be rather good to them in recent times.
The Scots defeated Wales, Ireland and Italy on home soil in the 2017 Six Nations, and the 70,000 supporters in the arena will be looking to cheer their side home after a weekend to forget in Wales.
You wonder how badly the French will be demoralised by their defeat to Ireland last week. Last gasp doesn’t cover it; Jonny Sexton’s drop goal was the last action of the match other than the referee’s whistle. Four points were lost in the blink of an eye, so it will be interesting to see if the Gallic visitors are up for the fight north of the border.
That said, we’re not overly tempted by the 4/9 odds on offer for a Scotland win, and instead the +8 France handicap at 4/6 looks to be the play. The Scots aren’t a compelling ‘running rugby’ kind of side, and they tend to grind points out rather than achieve them in rip-roaring fashion. Expect the hosts to win, but the visitors can get close to them.