Dragons will struggle against the Red Rose with weak front row

ENGLAND vs WALES

TOMORROW – 7.45PM BBC1

THE FIXTURE list committee have got it spot on this year. What better way to start the 2011 RBS 6 Nations than by sending England to Cardiff on a Friday night? Seventy-odd-thousand well-oiled Welshmen are capable of producing quite an atmosphere under the closed roof of the magnificent Millennium Stadium; we can only hope the quality of the rugby is deserving of the occasion.

For Wales, it’s not too dramatic to say that their whole tournament relies on the outcome of this match. After a disappointing 2010 in which Warren Gatland’s men have won just twice in 12 Tests – against Scotland and Italy – a victory would prove to their hard-to-please supporters that they are still a match for the top sides in an all-important World Cup year. A first defeat at the Millennium Stadium to England since 2003, however, would put Stephen Jones et al on the back foot for potentially tricky trips to Murrayfield and Rome.

Injuries are a concern for both coaches, but more so for Gatland. Whereas England coach Martin Johnson is able to replace the quality of Lewis Moody and Tom Croft with the equally adept James Haskell, right, and Tom Wood in the back row, the Welsh backs have required a full reshuffle, while replacement props Paul James and Craig Mitchell are quite a way short of the standard of the sidelined Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones.

The lack of a fearsome front row, normally Wales’ not-so-secret weapon, is the biggest negative for Gatland, reason perhaps for his petulant barb directed at England hooker Dylan Hartley last week. This may see England’s own front row trio of Andy Sheridan, Hartley and the impressive Dan Cole apply early pressure, possibly leading to a cheap penalty, to be duly converted by the increasingly dependable Toby Flood. The first scoring play to be an England penalty is worth a bet at 7/4 on Betdaq.

England are given a three-point handicap by Paddy Power and the Red Rose certainly have reason to believe, like I do, that they can overcome this narrow margin. A largely successful autumn series showed the heights that Martin Johnson’s brand of rugby can reach and a dilapidated Wales team have little chance of stopping it in full flow.

POINTERS...
England to win with 3pt handicap at 10/11 with Paddy Power
England penalty to be first scoring play at 7/4 on Betdaq

FRANCE vs SCOTLAND

SATURDAY – 5.00PM BBC1

NOT since 1998 has any side won back-to-back grand slams, and if France are to do so again, victories at the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham will be required.

Before the French look too far ahead, they must first beat Scotland at the Stade de France. Since Les Bleus’ flawless 2010 tournament, results have taken a turn for the worse. Most recently, they were hammered by Australia in the autumn internationals, as the Wallabies put 59 points on the board after Marc Lievremont’s men had previously conceded 41 points against Argentina and 42 points against South Africa in the summer.

Andy Robinson is gradually making his mark on Scotland and they are particularly strong defensively. Armed with a strong kicking game led by Dan Parks they can be a match for anyone, as South Africa found in their 21-17 defeat.

France’s home record against the Scottish is formidable, as they have won the last five meetings on home soil. Even with improvements and encouraging signs in November, victory in Paris looks a step too far for Scotland. Back France to lead at both half-time and full-time at 2/5 with Paddy Power.

Selling total tries at 3.7 with Sporting Index looks the call for this match. Other than for a penalty try, France have not managed to cross the try-line in either of their last two contests, while Scotland limited South Africa to just a single, late touchdown in November.

POINTERS...
France to lead HT/FT at 2/5 with Paddy Power
Sell total match tries at 3.7 with Sporting Index

ITALY vs IRELAND

SATURDAY – 2.30PM BBC1

WITH only two wins in seven games, Ireland’s form has been patchy of late. An opening trip to Rome is not what Declan Kidney would have wished for knowing that the Azzurri’s worst result at the Stadio Flaminio in the 2010 RBS 6 Nations was a five-point defeat to England.

In Italy in November, Nick Mallett’s side managed to beat Fiji and get within eight points of Argentina.

Even so, Ireland have lost just two RBS?6 Nations matches in two years and while the trip is an inconvenience, victory should still be the visitors’. Italy are 4/11 to finish bottom of the table this year, a position they have occupied in each of the last three years.

Italy’s only truly world class player, Sergio Parisse, is back at No8, which is a boon for the hosts after his absence last year. However, coaches are wise to his abilities by now, and Ireland’s back-row will have little difficulty neutralising his threat. Other than from Parisse, Italy’s attacking prowess is negligible and the Irish should be free to concentrate on their own attacking game.

The 2011 Ireland is not quite the team of 2009, but a number of the side that beat Italy 38-9 in Rome then remain and I expect a similarly sizable victory. Back Ireland with a 12.5 point handicap at evens on Betdaq and buy their supremacy at 14 with Sporting Index.

POINTERS...
Ireland to win with 12.5pt handicap at EVS on Betdaq
Buy Ireland Supremacy at 14 with Sporting Index