SIX NATIONS PREVIEW The Six Nations returns this weekend and with a Lion’s tour on the horizon it adds an extra dimension to the Northern Hemisphere’s premier competition. For the first time this year there are bonus points to play for in each game in line with the existing format in European club competition. Here is a look ahead to the opening weekend’s fixtures.

Scotland v Ireland

2.25pm Saturday
A really interesting clash to kick off this year’s tournament between a Scotland team on the rise and an Irish outfit on a high after the autumn series of tests. Ireland come into the competition without their talisman Johnny Sexton, who has again been bit by the injury bug. He is eyeing a comeback for a clash with France in round 3 but for now, Ireland will have to rely on Paddy Jackson to pull the strings.

The Scots will take confidence from Sexton’s absence and also from the performance of the Glasgow Warriors in the Champions Cup so far this season. This Scottish team is built around that Glasgow spine and can be expected to play an expansive brand of rugby. Finn Russell has been in tremendous form this season and holds the keys to an explosive looking backline that includes a red-hot back three of Seymour, Maitland and Hogg who will be ready to expose any aimless kicking from Ireland. The Gray brothers form a dynamic duo in the second row that can match any pairing in the world but it is the three men in front and behind them that will decide how far Scotland can go. The back-row of Wilson, Watson and Strauss will need to link effectively with their backline in attack and will need to be able to slow Irish ball in defence.

It is at the breakdown that Ireland will look to dominate this game. O’Brien, Heaslip and Stander are all very effective in this area in either attack or defence and along with Henderson, Furlong and McGrath provide Ireland with a glut of strong ball carriers. They will fancy their chances against the Scottish maul and can be expected to try and keep this game focused around the set piece where they look to have a clear advantage. If they get the strong platform they expect from this they will then look to launch their midfield pairing of Henshaw and Ringrose to pick apart the Scottish defence.
Another interesting layer to this game is how Scotland will play Irish scrum half Conor Murray. When Glasgow and Munster met recently there was a clear emphasis to try and disrupt Murray for which they drew some criticism after the game. Expect the Scots to again make sure Murray doesn’t have an armchair ride.

Scotland will be a force in this year’s Championship and look certain to be an entertaining watch whoever they play but Ireland’s forwards should be winning of this game with ball-carrying and breakdown work that will eventually break the Scots resolve. BETDAQ currently has Ireland as 1.5 favourites in the match betting with Scotland available at 3.2 but the bet looks to be Ireland and their dominant pack (-6.5) available at 2.02 on BETDAQ now.

Back Ireland (-6.5) Handicap Betting at 2.02.

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England v France

4.50pm Saturday
England come into this Championship with the world’s longest active win streak which includes a Grand Slam win in this competition last year. However they start this year with some injury concerns; neither of the Vunipola brothers are available for selection as well as Robshaw, Watson and Kruis. Despite these Eddie Jones has been able to select a team full of talent and experience. The Ford/Farrell axis will look to control the game with a blend of territorial kicking and sharp passing to release the speed of May, Daly, Joseph and Brown in the outside channels. Many eyes will be on the performance of captain Dylan Hartley after his well-publicised disciplinary issues ahead of this summer’s Lions tour as he is seemingly on his last chance.

The phenomenal Mario Itoje shows his versatility by switching to the back row where he will be joined by Tom Wood and Nathen Hughes who will try to fill the ball carrying void left by the absence of Vunipola. Along with Launchbury and Lawes England will have a massive arsenal of lineout talent on the field which is sure to make things difficult for France in that area.

France coach Guy Noves has rung the changes in this France side with only six of the team remaining from last season’s clash with England. Baptiste Serin will make his much awaited Six Nations debut at scrum-half and it is hoped that the immensely talented 22 year old can breathe some life into this French team. Wesley Fofana misses the competition with an Achilles injury and is replaced by the mercurial Gael Fickou in the centre. The French pack is muscular and will look to overpower the lighter English unit but their ability to cover ground is a concern.

It is impossible to ever rule out a French team but this looks a very tough assignment for them. At this point England are a much more cohesive unit and should be able to extend their unbeaten run comfortably. BETDAQ is offering 1.86 about England (-12.5) and that looks close to a banker bet.

Back England (-12.5) Handicap Betting at 1.85.

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Italy v Wales

2.00pm Sunday
A new era in Italian rugby started brightly under Conor O’Shea with a victory over South Africa for the first time in their history but they still remain an inconsistent outfit. This was never going to be a quick fix for O’Shea and the performance of Italian club sides recently suggest that this could be a difficult championship for the Azzuri. However, they are capable of big one off performances and are sure to have targeted this fixture against a stale looking Welsh team.

Wales never really got going in the autumn internationals and many of their star players from recent years seem to be nearing their sell by date. Warburton and Tipuric are shadows of the players they were five seasons ago and you have to question how many more big performances the old warrior Alun Wyn Jones has left. Smith, Owens and Lee provide a solid if unspectacular front row and Ball and Moriarty add some extra grunt to a pack that lacks any real physical edge.

Behind the scrum Wales have some big name players that should be capable of picking the Italians apart on a good day. If their forwards can even gain parity this is where they will see their advantage. Scott Williams, Liam Willams and George North give Wales the ability to score from anywhere on the pitch and given front-foot-ball Dan Biggar should be able to attack the gain line and cause Italy a lot of problems.

Italy will look to keep this game as scrappy as possible and will hope that they can gain some dominance in the scrum, eek out some penalties and keep the scoreboard ticking over. Sergio Parisse is as always central to their chances and his back row’s battle with their Welsh counterparts is key to Italy’s success in this game.

This should probably be a Welsh win but at the prices against a highly motivated Italian side a chance can be taken at 6.2 on Italy to win the game.

Back Italy at 6.2.

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