Six Nations Preview

Written by Square in the Air

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Italy and Ireland

Since Italy joined the existing Five Nations to make the Six Nations in 2000, the competition has been characterised by its competitiveness. Granted, Italy and Scotland have yet to win it, but no side has ever been able to dominate and there have been four different winners in the last five years.  Perhaps 2014’s biggest surprise was that Ireland’s triumph was only their second in the new format, despite consistently being one of the strongest teams. In fact, England (103), France (102) and Ireland (100) are only separated by three points in the overall Six Nations table.

The Irish couldn’t complete the Grand Slam last year and only took the championship on points difference, but they were worthy winners, running in 16 tries and slamming Wales and Italy, before a famous win in Paris – just their second there in 42 years. They head into the 2015 edition as the joint favourites with England on Sporting Index’s 60 Outright Index, trading at 34-37.

Their fixture list looks kind with home games against England and France. The away trips to Italy and Scotland won’t hold too many fears. Not only are Ireland the Six Nations champions, they are third in the world behind only New Zealand and South Africa.

Wales and England

The Millennium Stadium plays host to the Six Nations’ curtain raiser tonight, as Wales spar with England, a fixture that is arguably both sides’ biggest rivalry in international rugby. The feuding nations will also meet again in the Rugby World Cup group stages in just over seven months’ time, so this is an opportunity to lay down a significant marker. Stuart Lancaster’s England squad arrive in the Welsh capital in a bedraggled state. A particularly gruelling round of European Champions Cup fixtures saw the Three Lions’ casualty list increase to 12 players, including David Wilson, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes. Meanwhile Wales have 11 of the side which humbled England 30-3 two years ago in their squad. Home advantage, and the fact that no fewer than eight England starters will be making their debut tonight means the Welsh should be favoured here, with a supremacy available to buy at 5.5.

Italy and England

It’s hardly surprising that Stuart Lancaster has named an unchanged side to the one which famously beat Wales in Cardiff a week ago. Wales, who went 10 points up in as many minutes, were stunned in Cardiff as England silenced the Millennium Stadium crowd through tries from Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph. It was only England’s second win in seven attempts across the bridge.  The much desired winning momentum will certainly stand England in good stead when they host Italy at Twickenham tomorrow. Lancaster has finished second in every Six Nations Championship since taking the reins in 2012. His men were denied last year’s title on points difference as Ireland triumphed in Paris, but are clear favourites on Sporting Index’s Outright 60 Index to make amends this time around, trading at 45-48. Italy have never beaten England, with their largest defeat the 80-23 reverse in 2001 at Twickenham. Jacques Brunel has made four changes to the Italian side which lost to Ireland 26-3 last Saturday, partly due to Michele Campagnaro’s and Alessandro Zanni’s injuries. They weren’t disgraced in that loss and have steadily improved since making their debut as the tournament’s sixth side in 2000. The Italians boast a total of 542 caps in their starting pack, with Martin Castrogiovanni and captain Sergio Parisse set to win their 109th and 110th cap, respectively. The Italians will do their upmost to pull the England pack into an arm wrestle to ensure England’s lightning fast backs do not run the visitors ragged. 

Ireland and France

Italy put up a better fight than the 26-3 scoreline suggests against Ireland last weekend and it would have been much closer had Leonardo Ghiraldini not been sin-binned in the second half . Without him on the field, Ireland could finally penetrate an impressive home defence. A late second try put some shine on what was an unconvincing Irish win but Joe Schmidt’s side have now won their last eight and go into tomorrow’s clash at home to France in buoyant mood. With England winning in Cardiff last Friday, despite being under-strength, it’s likely that the defining game of the championship will be Ireland versus England on 1st March in Dublin. 

Sporting Index traders now make the Red Rose clear favourites on the Six Nations Outright 60 Index, at 45-48, way ahead of Ireland at 36-39. Les Bleus were poor in beating a Scotland side that shot themselves in the foot by conceding 11 penalties. Five were converted in the 15-8 defeat and the Scots will reflect on a wasted opportunity to end a miserable run of what is now nine consecutive opening Six Nations defeats. France have a good recent record away to Ireland, losing only one of the last six matches, but are notoriously hard to predict in this tournament, capable of brilliant and shambolic displays in equal measure. The sides met in Paris last year with Ireland clinching the title on points difference with a narrow win – only their second there in 42 years. With memories of how impressively the Irish beat Australia and South Africa in the autumn also still fresh, it’s hard to oppose the hosts tomorrow. Schmidt’s men should improve on the Italy display with classy trio Jonathan Sexton, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip back in the side after missing that opener.

England And Ireland

This is Stuart Lancaster’s fourth Six Nations and although his England side have come close to winning the tournament on several occasions under his tenure, the Red Rose haven’t come out on top since 2011. They’ve only won the Championship once in their last 11 attempts. However, overcoming Ireland this weekend in Dublin would be a significant step to achieving top status once again as well as to complete the Grand Slam. Sunday’s competitors are the only two sides left in the competition who are undefeated after round two. The English triumphed over a fancied Wales in Cardiff in the opening game of this years’ Championship, despite their substantial injury list. Their tournament chances grew stronger still having battered wooden-spoon favourites Italy 47-17 eight days later. England are now favourites, trading at 49-52 on the Outright 60 Index. There were question marks as to how the Ireland camp would cope when talisman Brian O’Driscoll hung up his boots last year. But New Zealand born Joe Schmidt has coached the men in green to their ninth straight win when they triumphed over France 13 days ago and a win on Sunday would equal Ireland’s longest ever winning streak. This clash promises to be a tight affair. England ended Ireland’s Triple Crown hopes last year having won 13-10 and Saracens outside-half Owen Farrell kicked the Red Rose to glory (12-6) in 2013. Both sides are expected to put boot to ball, be it for penalty opportunities or for territory based tactics. Although Irish No 8 Jamie Heaslip is sidelined, the experience of Rory Best, Sean O’Brien, Mike Ross and Paul O’Connell, with a combined total of over 250 caps, is set to provide the hosts with an important advantage in the set piece. This will give them penalty opportunities which Jonny Sexton will look to capitalise on. Ireland kicked six versus France.

Ireland and Wales

When Craig Joubert blew the final whistle at the Aviva Stadium 12 days ago Ireland had beaten England for the first time in four years. It also meant that they were the only team still on course for a Grand Slam and with just two games left to play, Sporting Index have priced Ireland at 47-50 on the Six Nations 60 Outright Index. Paul O’Connell, who is set to win his 100th cap, will be under no illusions about the ferocity and intensity of tomorrow’s fixture at the Millennium Stadium against Wales. As a triumph over the visitors would give the Welsh a realistic opportunity of winning the title having lost their opening game. Sam Warburton, who leads Wales for a record 34th time, will be confident having guided his side to back-to-back victories in Edinburgh and Paris.

However, Ireland are marginal favourites and it’s worth pointing out that the men in green have lost just twice in Cardiff since 1983. A simple yet effective game plan, built around a solid set piece and world-class kicking half-backs in Conor Murray and Johnathan Sexton, helped Ireland beat England and equal the record of 10 consecutive wins. The Irish fly-half has organised his troops superbly, putting a lot of boot to ball for the likes of Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, and Rob Kearney to challenge. Scrum-half Rhys Webb, who has already scored twice in this Championship, continues to build an impressive partnership with Dan Biggar. The Ospreys outside-half will keep feeding the likes of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, whose additional experience of 101 more caps than their counterparts, may just give them the upper hand in the midfield. A remarkable winning record in the Welsh capital and recent head-to-head dominance favours O’Connell’s outfit. Ireland have scored 56 points (to 25) in their last two meetings against Warren Gatland’s side. In addition, Ireland have conceded an average of just eight points a game this Championship. 

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