STAR PREVIEW: Weekend Six Nations

Ireland v Wales – Kick Off: 2.15, Aviva Stadium, ITV One HD

Both new coaches made winning starts with Ireland and Wales last week and are now thrown into what could arguably be called the blockbuster encounter of the second weekend in what could be a very close encounter.

Andy Farrell’s stint as Ireland coach started with a hard fought win against Scotland last week, when the visitors’ pack managed to front up far better than they had in previous meetings between the pair, and new captain Johnny Sexton scored all of Ireland’s points, including a first-half try, as the hosts profited from Scotland’s inability to take chances.

The win was secured by a superb late turnover from the Man of the match CJ Stander, but there’s much for Farrell and his side to ponder ahead of this week. The breakdown work of the pack was immense – in the first half they won five turnovers, all inside their own 22, to prevent Scotland on a number of occasions – but they once again struggled in attack, with the off-colour performance of Conor Murray a cause for concern.

Murray’s torrid 60 minutes set Ireland’s kick chase off counter and on this occasion he was lucky that the exceptional defensive work of the pack, and the virtuoso performance of Johnny Sexton, came to pull Ireland thought but there will need to be improvements against Wales, who are unlucky to be as wasteful as Scotland were.

The Welsh arrive here after making short work of Italy on the opening weekend, allowing Wayne Pivac to give his side a good tune up to start the Championship. Josh Adams’ hat-trick of tries hoisted his tally to 14 in 22 Tests, half-backs Dan Biggar and Tomos Williams enjoyed themselves, Leigh Halfpenny looked as if he’d never been away, and Nick Tompkins looked brilliant from the bench, but this is a very different task.

Tompkins fully deserves his promotion into the side this weekend, Talupe Faletau should strip a lot fitter for and George North ought to be much more effective back on the wing, leaving Pivac with his side in A1 condition to face the Irish.

Ireland are the narrow favourites here, which is understandable with home advantage, but on the balance of play Scotland should really have left Dublin with a victory last week and they might well have if Stuart Hogg had held onto a certain try midway through the second half and it is extremely unlikely that Wales will fail to be as clinical. This is obviously a completely different test for Wales compared to Italy last weekend – and the scrum will be a worry for the visitors – but they are hardly lacking for a pack that can play 10-man rugby, nor a fly-half that can steer them around the pitch, and at this stage of the Championship they make more appeal as slight outsiders in this game. The 9/4 on them winning by 1-12 points could be value in what Star sees as a three point game.

A note for those playing on this game: Storm Ciara is set to hit the UK and Ireland this weekend, and Dublin is set to get winds of between 23mph and 28mph between 1pm and 4pm, although the risk of rain is low.

(Maximum 10 matches, since 2010)
2019: Ireland won 19-10 in Dublin
2019: Ireland won 22-17 in Cardiff
2019: Wales won 25-7 in Cardiff
2018: Ireland won 37-27 in Dublin
2017: Wales won 22-9 in Cardiff
2016: 16-16 draw in Dublin
2015: Wales won 16-10 in Dublin
2015: Ireland won 35-21 in Cardiff

Scotland v England – Kick Off: 4.45, Murrayfield, BBC One & iPlayer

Scotland and England had tremendously frustrating starts to their Six Nations campaigns and already this edition of the Cook Cup has become a must-win for both sides. The hosts, who really should be coming here having taken victory from Ireland, face an England side that was given a nasty shock by France in Le Crunch last week.

The pressure is on, although that hasn’t discouraged Eddie Jones from wading into a war of words and making some more big calls ahead of his starting XV. Ben Youngs has been dropped in favour of Willi Heinz, loosehead prop Joe Marler has been dropped from the 23 completely (Mako Vunipola replacing him in the starting XV, Ellis Genge taking his place on the bench), along with moving Charlie Ewels out to put George Kruis in at lock and putting Lewis Ludlam in ahead of Courtney Lawes.

It remains to be seen how the changes work – nobody could blame Jones for dropping some of the aforementioned players on last week’s evidence – but getting back on track here could be just as tricky even with new faces.

It’s also notable that Jones has persisted with Tom Curry at eight, given that he struggled terribly in Paris and given his brilliance at six or seven during the World Cup. With Billy Vunipola out England do miss a key carrier, but that was exaggerated as Curry struggled at the base of the scrum and surely Lewis Ludlam, or Ben Earl, would be a better option.

That lack of bulk was one of the reasons behind England’s defeat in Paris, but another was England’s wastefulness – they entered the opposition 22 on 11 occasions, and only Jonny May’s brilliant pair of tries saw them get any sort of result for that effort.

Scotland also suffered from the same problem – indeed it cost them victory against Ireland. Gregor Townsend’s pack fronted up very well to the Irish forwards, but suffered five turnovers inside the opposition 22 in just the first 40 minutes, killing crucial momentum they’d built up.

Scotland aren’t generally considered to have the most powerful pack – more attention is put upon their brilliant backline – but that was not the case last week and whilst Nick Haining is unlucky to lose his spot in the starting XI, Magnus Bradbury has carried brilliantly for Edinburgh and he should make for an effective pair of ball carriers along with Hamish Watson in the backrow.

Carrying is going to be vitally important here because of the likely weather, with Storm Ciara set to bring winds of upto 50mph along with a 96% chance of rain. That’s likely to make this a proper slog between the two sides, and Scotland might be better prepared than the bookmakers think to slug it out here. Defeat in France meant that England have lost 5 of their last 7 away games in the Six Nations, including to Scotland in 2018, and in a game when every point is likely to be a struggle, a nine point start for the hosts on the draw no bet handicap looks far too big.

(Maximum 10 matches, since 2010)
2019: England and Scotland drew 38-38 in London
2018: Scotland won 25-13 in Edinburgh
2017: England won 61-21 in London
2016: England won 15-9 in Edinburgh
2015: England won 25-13 in London
2014: England won 20-0 in Edinburgh
2013: England won 38-18 in London
2012: England won 13-6 in Edinburgh
2011: England won 19-12 in Auckland
2011: England won 22-16 in London

France v Italy – Kick Off 2.30, Stade de France, BBC One HD & iPlayer

The Six Nations is a long championship but France made a perfect start with their victory over England and most onlookers expect them to make it two from two against Italy at the Stade de France on Sunday.

Fabien Galthie’s young and inexperienced squad faced a big test in England on the first weekend but they rose to the challenge magnificently as they scythed through England in an incredible first half when they built up a deserved 17-0 lead. Each and every player stepped upto the plate, with Antoine Dupont exceptional as his partnership with Romain Ntamack caused havoc, whilst Charles Ollivon ran 67 metres, made 14 tackles and scored two tries in a titanic display as captain.

He was ably backed up by Gregory Alldritt, whose carrying at the base far outmatched that of Tom Curry, and Galthie must have been delighted by the performance of his backline – Opening try-scorer Vincent Rattez worked extremely hard all game, Teddy Thomas was always a threat, Gaël Fickou performed excellently in defence, and Anthony Bouthier did not look out of step at the top level.

France were not perfect in every aspect. Cyrille Baille, Julien Marchand, and Mohamed Haouas all struggled at the scrum whilst Marchand and Bernard Le Roux had many lineout troubles – and England entered the French 22 on 11 occasions through the game. But it was a performance of huge promise and they face an Italy side that didn’t fire a single shot against Wales last weekend.

About the only good thing that can be said about Italy’s 42-0 defeat last weekend was that Giosuè Zilocchi, Luca Bigi, and Andrea Lovotti all managed to hold up well in the scrum, but aside from that the Azzuri were as directionless as we’ve seen and without a shapr improvement this will be a miserable spring for Italy.

What’s all the more frustrating for the Azzuri is that players like Matteo Minozzi, Leonardo Sarto, 10 Tommaso Allan, Abraham Steyn, Jake Polledri, and Sebastian Negri, are genuine Tier-1 talents, but without the cohesions of their five rivals, their losing streak looks sure to continue.

France’s home winning margins against Italy this century read 11-21-25-25-12-26-18-20-2-17-18, but if Italy don’t match their standards from last week this could be a more comprehensive victory. A small bet on France winning by 31-40 points could be the best way.

(Maximum 10 matches, since 2010)
2019: France won 47-19 in Paris
2019: France won 25-14 in Rome
2018: France won 34-17 in Paris
2017: France won 40-18 in Rome
2016: France won 23-21 in Paris
2015: France won 29-0 in Rome
2014: France won 31-10 in Paris
2013: Italy won 23-13 in Rome
2012: France won 30-12 in Paris
2011: Italy won 22-21 in Rome

RECOMMENDED BETS (scale of 1-100 points)
BACK Wales to win by 1-12 points 2 pts at 9/4 with
BACK Scotland +8.5 No 2-way Handicap 10 pts at 4/5 with
BACK France to win by 31-40 points inclusive 2 pts at 3/1 with

PROFIT/LOSS SINCE JAN 1 2017: PROFIT 228.98 points
(Excluding Premier League ante-post, Six Nations Outright, Six Nations Specials, Labour Leadership Contest, Cameron Brown Football Bets)