By Aidan Elder | Chief Sports Writer
It’s more open than a paternity test on the Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s rare we go into a Six Nations that’s quite so wide open. With the possible exception of a competition to see which Tour De France cyclist can take the most drugs, it’s rare you get 66 per cent of the field in with a genuine chance of winning.
It’s anyone’s for the taking. Providing you’re not Scottish or Italian. The ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘hmmm, is he really that good’s’ mean we’ve got little to go on when it comes to form and pretty much everyone has the potential to exceed or fall miserably short of expectations. The Paddy Power Blog has run the rule of week 1’s matches.
Wales v Ireland
Yes, they are the defending Grand Slam champions, but Wales have had such a bad few months that even Jim Davidson feels sorry for them. The defeat to New Zealand came enough with enough dignity to feel like a win, but the defeats to Argentina, Samoa and Australia were definitely just defeats. With Warren Gatland back to deliver his pre-match bollockings to the team in person, there’s a chance they’ll get it together in time to mount a meaningful defence of their title.
In contrast, Ireland enjoyed a decent November. They were left kicking themselves after letting their lead slip against South Africa. They showed promise against Argentina last time out, but there’s a concern they’ll flop faster than Hugh Hefner without his Viagra supply. They’ve got enough talent to win not only on Saturday, but the entire Championship, but it’ll require consistency they’ve rarely managed since winning the Grand Slam in Cardiff back in 2009.
It’s going to be a close one. Home advantage and Wales’ run of three victories on the bounce against Ireland makes a compelling case for Gatland’s men, but watching even a few minutes of their Autumn internationals doesn’t. They’re talented but vulnerable little flowers. You could say the same about Ireland, but that’s not much of a conclusion.
With the result in the balance, something skillful fence-sitting is the order of the day. The total points in six of their last eight meetings has been below the 37.5 ceiling it’s at for Saturday. Plumping for the Under 37.5 points option at 5/6 could be wise choice.
England v Scotland
When Jim Telfer called England “too arrogant, too pretentious and too condescending”, Stuart Lancaster with the indignation of a man who had just found out someone peed in his cappuccino. The rest of the world just shrugged and said ‘fair enough’. Despite encouraging progress and that possibly over-rated victory against the All Blacks, England need to prove there’s some trousers to their plentiful supply of mouth.
In that respect, the game against Scotland is something a hiding to nothing. Win convincingly and it earns you the kudos of out-smarting Joey Essex. Win less than convincingly – or even lose – and it suddenly becomes more disturbing than suddenly realising you’ve sexted your mum rather than your current friend with benefits.
Scott Johnson takes charge of his first Six Nations game as Scotland head coach. Much like his predecessor, Andy Robinson his biggest task will be reminding Scottish fans that it’s no longer the 1990s and the team haven’t been a force for at least a decade now. The public constantly expect results beyond realistic levels for a group with a scarcity of world class players.
The vague benefit that comes from a new boss and the motivation of beating England means Scotland can’t be completely discounted. If they catch the Sweet Chariot on an off day or admiring themselves in a metaphorical mirror, they’ve got a chance, but form and recent history suggests England will start with a win and quite possibly some overly confident proclamations. A -15 point handicap is a decent one to beat however (England haven’t beaten Scotland by more than 15 points in their last six attempts) so it could be worth siding with the Scots on the handicap at Evens.
Italy v France
As ever, France are genuine contenders for the Championship, but taking the leap of faith to back them depends heavily on which side of the fashionable futon you think they’ll get out of. Phillipe Saint-Andre’s first Six Nations campaign in charge saw Les Bleus notch up their worst finish in 11 years. Given the mass of Gallic moodiness and hissy fits that was the aftermath of France’s World Cup campaign, he’ll be cut some slack for that, but he needs to bring about some improvement this year.
Italy are continuing to make progress under Jacques Brunel and last year even managed an actual win to accompany the moral victories they’ve become accustomed to settling for. They managed to avoid another wooden spoon by beating Scotland and were a pain in blindside for large parts of their matches with the other five teams. That was reinforced with some good showings in the autumn internationals. Avoiding another kitchen utensil is the main target for this year, but the underdogs are capable of slightly more than that.
The last time Les Bleus visited Rome, they suffered a shock defeat. It was especially surprising as normally they’d just rock up and swagger their way to an easy win. Prior to that defeat, France had won five out of five Six Nations games in Rome at an aggregate score of 228-70 for an average winning margin of 31.6 points. Another shock is a big ask, but if you view 2011’s result as some point of watershed moment in the relationship, then Italy +12 points at Evens could be the pick of the bets.
Freddie Michalak stars his first Six Nations match in nearly six years and simply because he likes to show off a bit and France will want to get the scoreboard ticking early on, it’s worth getting on a Drop Goal to be Scored in the match at 11/10.