Solid England won’t make it easy for hosts in ‘Le Crunch’

FRANCE vs ENGLAND

SUNDAY – 3.00PM BBC ONE

FOR Philippe Saint-Andre, the dream of securing a Grand Slam in his first Six Nations as coach of France may be dead, but the Championship trophy is still well within his grasp. This weekend’s match against England is very much the warm-up to an all important showdown against Wales next week, but it is nevertheless a must-win game.

At the Stade de France it’s no surprise to see the hosts and pre-tournament favourites a best-priced 4/9 with Bet Butler while Coral offer a seven-point start to England. Stuart Lancaster’s men have been defensively sound throughout the tournament and should be expected to stay within the handicap against the French, who have looked under-par in their last two displays.

In their 17-17 draw against Ireland at the same venue last weekend France failed to ignite. Half-backs Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc have been dropped due to their iffy performances and although replacements Julien Dupuy and Lionel Beauxis are capable, chopping and changing players in key positions will not inspire confidence. Remember this is the same group of players that challenged previous coach Marc Lievremont for precisely that reason.

Furthermore, while England have had a fortnight’s rest, France will take to the field for the third consecutive week as a result of their rescheduled match against Ireland. The trials of a modern rugby international should not be underestimated and that will certainly count against Les Bleus. There is little to suggest that France will offer anything more than Wales could in their 19-12 win over England last month so backing England (+7) at 10/11 with Coral is recommended.

Leicester head coach Matt O’Connor has this week criticised England for not going out to win games and just two tries in three matches for the Red Rose suggests he might have a point. This fact, along with solid defences on both sides, makes selling tries at 3.2 with Sporting Index appeal. Three tries haven’t been scored in ‘Le Crunch’ since 2006, while no one crossed the try-line in four of those nine games.

A promise of few tries, improved discipline for the English and Owen Farrell’s excellent form draws the eye to the 15/8 with Bet Butler for an England penalty to open the scoring. Dependable since becoming his side’s main goal-kicker, Farrell must be fancied to convert any penalty conceded within range by the French.

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IRELAND vs SCOTLAND

TOMORROW – 5.00PM BBC ONE

A win margin of 32 points over the Italians a fortnight ago proves the Irish can produce their best rugby at their new home, the Aviva Stadium. The Boys in Green would dearly love to follow that up with a similarly monumental home victory over Scotland tomorrow.

Coral are again offering a 20 per cent bonus if the team you back wins by more than 13 points, but I suspect this match will be much closer than that.

Scotland’s visits to Dublin in the Six Nations era have not generally been pleasant experiences — their first three visits to Lansdowne Road in the expanded version of the Championship ended in defeats by 22, 22 and 21 points. However, this will be their first visit to the Aviva Stadium and it’s a chance for Andy Robinson’s men to build on encouraging recent results against Ireland.

The Scots won the last meeting 10-4 at Murrayfield in August, lost by three points in Edinburgh in February and won by three points at Croke Park in 2010. A 10-point start for Scotland looks generous in light of these three results and I recommend backing them on the handicap at 10/11 with Coral. Only once in the last eight head-to-heads at any venue has more than 10 points separated the sides at the final whistle.

The biggest threat to Scotland’s improved defence is undoubtedly Ireland winger Tommy Bowe. He is in electric form at the moment and with five tries in three matches has one eye on Chris Ashton’s Six Nations record of six tries in last year’s Championship. He will also be thinking about usurping Denis Hickie as second in the list of all-time Irish try-scorers — 30 is the target, Bowe currently has 25 for his country. At 9/1 with Bet Butler, it’s worth a bet.

WALES vs ITALY

TOMORROW – 2.30PM BBC ONE

WALES can take another significant step towards a first Grand Slam since 2008 by beating Italy at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow. Warren Gatland has guided the Welsh to three straight victories, but he’ll be without his captain Sam Warburton against the Azzurri.

Italy and Scotland are locked in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon and the Italians’ record against the Welsh suggests that it will go down to the final game in Rome. Italy have been beaten in the past four internationals against the Red Dragons and have never previously won in Wales.

The Italians generally reserve their best for their fans back home and they’ve not won a Six Nations match on foreign soil for going on four years. That stretch includes 15 games and sums up the extent of the task ahead for the Azzurri.

Wales, who are as short as 1/66, ran out 23-point winners when Italy were last in town and the average winning margin in the Azzurri’s previous two visits stands at 31. In keeping with the Welsh attacking mentality, the hosts have ran in seven tries already — twice scoring three times, against Ireland and Scotland.

With the finishing line in sight, I’m confident enough to predict that Wales will cover Coral’s 20-point handicap to set up a mouthwatering finale in Paris.

In 18 meetings between the sides since 1994, the fewest number of points scored is 35, so there is little downside to buying total points at 46 with Sporting Index. The average total for the last five meetings at the Millennium Stadium is over 50 points.