France hitting their peak at perfect time to land Six Nations

WILLIAM CHRIMES AND BEN CLEMINSON PREVIEW THE SIX NATIONS AND PREMIER LEAGUE

THIS YEAR’S Six Nations promises to be another thrilling northern hemisphere battle with England and France jostling for favouritism. Wales are the defending Grand Slam champions, yet have had a disastrous run of it with an almost record-breaking losing run of seven games.

England face Les Bleus at Twickenham on Saturday 23 February in a pivotal contest that should decide where the trophy will end up. A lot was made of the Red Rose’s win over New Zealand, but the world champions were not at their best after an exhausting season.

France are the more complete outfit and they excelled in the autumn with wins over Australia, Argentina and Samoa. Successive trips to Twickenham and Dublin makes a Grand Slam tough, but Philippe Saint-Andre has the squad to justify backing them to win the tournament at 2/1 with Blue Square Bet.

The Irish have suffered with injuries and are awaiting news on Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney. Declan Kidney’s side are available at 7/2 with Blue Square Bet and look outsiders despite facing France and England at home.

Italy and Scotland are the main contenders for the wooden spoon, a title the Azzurri have won nine times since 2000. Italy have three home games, so backing the Scots to finish bottom, in a repeat of last year, at 11/4 with Star Sports Bet is recommended.

England can throw down the gauntlet when they take on Scotland in the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham in their opening game tomorrow. Scotland have only won this battle on three occasions since 2000 – the Red Rose have prevailed nine times – including the past two years.

Stuart Lancaster hasn’t been afraid to bring youngsters into his side and Gloucester’s Billy Twelvetrees is set to line-up against Scotland for his debut after impressing the coaches.

The Scots ran England close in the 2012 competition opener, yet new head coach Scott Johnson has it all to do as they ultimately lost all their matches in 2012 and haven’t won at Twickenham since 1983.

Impressive wins over Australia, Samoa and Fiji meant a promising autumn before a shock loss to Tonga reminded everyone of Scotland’s limitations.

Their last five defeats against England in London have been by an average of 19 points, so I’m happy to tip up Lancaster’s side with the -14 handicap at 10/11 with Coral. I’d also have a small buy of England’s supremacy at 17 with Sporting Index.

Before the action at Twickenham, Ireland and Wales meet at the Millennium Stadium for a cracking match-up.

Wales edged a brilliant contest in Ireland last year, as Leigh Halfpenny held his nerve to slot a late penalty to take the game 22-21.

Warren Gatland has been a big loss for the hosts as he prepares for his new role as head coach of the Lions tour later this year and Rob Howley’s run of four straight defeats gives Ireland the edge.

Even without the captain’s armband, Brian O'Driscoll’s return provides essential leadership in midfield and I would take the 5/4 available with Blue Square Bet for Ireland to open with a victory.

■ Pointers…
France to win the Six Nations at 2/1 Blue Square Bet
England to beat Scotland (-14 points) at 10/11 with Coral
Buy England supremacy at 17 with Sporting Index

MANCHESTER CITY vs LIVERPOOL
SUNDAY 4:00pm

BOTH Manchester City and Liverpool head into their meeting on Sunday after drawing midweek and neither will be happy with the point they took.

City dominated Queens Park Rangers in west London but an exceptional display from the home goalkeeper Julio Cesar ensured the game ended goalless.

Liverpool were equally frustrated but had themselves to blame for letting a two-goal lead slip at Arsenal on Wednesday.

Hosts City are comfortable favourites for Liverpool’s visit, but I think that the 5/6 with Star Sports for the home win is a very reasonable price, given the form of Roberto Mancini’s men at the Etihad.

They’ve won three on the bounce there without conceding. And, after collecting 29 points from a possible 36 have the second best home record in the top flight, behind leaders Manchester United, the only side to beat them in front of their own fans.

It’s been a stop-start campaign for Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool and their away record typifies this, as illustrated by three wins, five draws, four defeats and a neutral goal difference on the road. Their stalemate at Arsenal followed the shock 3-2 loss to Oldham in the FA Cup.

The nightmare at Boundary Park may turn out to be a blessing in disguise in the long run, with the Reds now free to concentrate on this season’s Europa League and their attempts to return to European competition in 2013-14 through a strong league finish.

But they haven’t beaten any side currently in the top half of the table and I simply don’t see them getting anything from this clash.

Mario Balotelli had gone from being City’s talisman to a burden for Mancini and his departure this week should give City the focus they need as we get to the business end of the season.

City’s home fixtures have averaged exactly three goals-per-game – 2.25 for and 0.75 against – and I’d be happy to back the 2-1 correct score with Blue Square Bet at 15/2.

■ Pointers…
Man City at 5/6 Star Sports
Man City to win 2-1 at 15/2 with Blue Square Bet