Wales v Ireland 8.05pm
Wales led at half-time in Scotland but suffered a poor second half, finishing scoreless as Scotland scored 20 unanswered points to win by 16 points as pre-game underdogs.
For Wales their Achilles heel, of lack of creativity in attack, reared its head once again and was accompanied this time by worrying signs of lack of leadership. It’s well known that the team will be approaching an overhaul to a new generation of stars ahead of the next world cup but what looks like it could be a fourth or fifth place finish in this year’s Six Nations isn’t part of the plan.
As the first choice XV contains talent and experience the fault has to lie at the door of sub-optimal coaching.
Ireland beat France by ten points in Dublin, playing their territorial and possession-based style with Murray and Sexton reuniting as a peerless half-back partnership, and will still think the destiny of this year’s title is in their hands with England at home to conclude the championship
The pair played out an absolute thriller in 2016 as they drew 16-16 in Dublin, with Ireland letting a 13-point lead slip. This time round Ireland are 8/11 favourites, Wales 11/8 and three point home underdogs
Against Scotland, Wales were squeezed by a lack of quality possession and when it did arrive Scotland were hugely effective in the contact area. Wales’ problem this weekend is that Ireland’s forwards are likely to be at least as effective at this and in Murray and Sexton can control the game with their possession
I take Ireland to win by more than 3 points and cover at 10/11 with William Hill
Italy v France 1.30pm
This French team offers much more dynamism and verve than recent teams. The likes of Gaël Fickou and scrum-half Baptiste Serin are a joy to watch and whilst overall France are not quite at the level of England and Ireland yet they are certainly in the hunt for third place in the table and to progress from the doldrums of 2013-2015.
They travel to Italy as strong favourites to win before ending up with a close looking game against Wales. With a big strong pack of forwards and creative backs it would be a big surprise if France didn’t win convincingly this weekend
Italy have lost their three games in the competition so far this season though in leading England at half time and only losing by 14 points there were substantial signs of encouragement last time out. Very innovative tactics, albeit primarily designed to contain superior opposition kept Italy in the game in the first half and they showed in spells in the second half how dangerous they can be if they secure sufficient possession
Against France they will hope to match up well up front but that is going to be a challenge for 80 minutes. France, 1/12 outright here, are 18 point handicap favourites at 10/11 generally I am going to suggest they cover, with a bias to superiority in the second half when the hosts wane.
England v Scotland 4pm
England have played poorly at times in all of their three games so far this Championship yet have won all three to take their record to 17 wins in a row under Eddie Jones. Ominously for their remaining opponents Scotland and Ireland they are getting back to full strength too, with the Vunipola brothers now back in the squad
Scotland have played excellently all Championship, have won both their home games and lost by six point in Paris. A win at Twickenham on Saturday gives them an unexpected Triple Crown.
Scotland have a disciplined and accurate set of forwards and a back line with more creativity and flair than any of their teams for a long time. Some lack of power in the forwards (without so far a huge penalty count against them when under pressure) is compensated for with dogged defence and huge work-rate and when they secure good possession watch out, the backs can put up points.
So it is claimed that teams have been raising their game to play England who have been inconsistently and sloppy in their games. England need to step up and not give away unnecessary penalties, make unforced handling errors and turn over the ball.
England have been second best in the back-row scrap in all three games so far and because of this have suffered at the breakdown. In essence playing a second row at blind-side and a blind-side at open-side alongside a back up number 8 they have been outplayed. For Scotland Hamish Watson changed the game against Wales and dominated the feted Warburton and Tipuric at the contact area, denying Wales quality possession. Wales were then devoid of ideas.
I expect here England will opt for power, against which Scotland struggled at times in Paris, running at Finn Russell at fly half and making him tackle and trying to tie in the Scottish back row. They’ll hope to offload as the French did, work field position and keep the scoreboard ticking over and put the game away with their strong bench when Scotland are tackled out late in the game
I think England will win and the game might not be as close as many pundits suggest
In every match England have finished far stronger than the opposition, which suggests both a powerful bench and excellent conditioning. If England finally manage to avoid the sloppy starts that have characterised their Championship then a double digit win is a decent probability
England are 1/5 outright, Scotland 4/1 and England -11 on the handicap. I prefer England to win by 11-20 (12/5) than 1-12 (7/4) in the winning margin markets with Coral Sportsbook.
If I was playing points spreads England -5 on the second half handicap at 10/11 would be where I was looking.