Strong squad keeps injury-hit England in pole position

RUGBY TRADER DAVID WILD, CITY AM’S RUGBY TRADER, LOOKS AHEAD TO THE RBS SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP

RATHER than those winning rucks, scoring tries and kicking goals, absent players could come to decide where the RBS 6 Nations Champion-ship trophy resides in six weeks’ time.

A sizeable collective injury list has dominated the build-up to the 2011 tournament. Whether or not this is due to the ever-increasing physicality and professional pressures of the domestic game is a debate for another time, but the impact on the plans of the national coaches is plain to see.

After their impressive destruction of Australia in the autumn internationals, many considered England nailed-on to win the RBS 6 Nations for the first time in eight years. Even a sobering defeat to world champions South Africa did little to deflate expectations. But that was before coach Martin Johnson’s plans were hit by injuries to his captain, Lewis Moody, and key attacking forwards Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft.

Yet, England are blessed with strength in depth – replacement blindside flanker James Haskell is no slouch and second-row Louis Deacon is keeping the experienced Simon Shaw consigned to the bench. The same cannot be said for Wales, England’s opponents in tomorrow night’s opening fixture, who have just added winger Leigh Halfpenny to their treatment list, while Ireland will be without Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip among others.

The Red Rose, still 15/8 favourites with Hills, deserve to be backed but last year’s grand slam winners France are the obvious threat. An excellent back-row, lead by their outstanding No8 Imanol Harinordoquy, is the key to Les Bleus’ success, however, two enormous away fixtures at Lansdowne Road and Twickenham suggests they might even struggle to finish in the top two ahead of Ireland and England. Although France look a good sell at 33 in Sporting Index’s outright market, there is better value still in buying England at 38. The RFU have set Johnson a realistic target of a top two finish – second or higher would pay a profit.

Italy aside, the gap between the teams appears closer than ever this year, with even Scotland showing promise in their tactical victory over the Springboks in November. This would suggest that a grand slam is unlikely and the fixtures back this up. Wales could spring a surprise at the Millennium Stadium against England, the Irish could be undone at Murrayfield and France will feel the heat at Twickenham. While I’m tempted by the 4/6 available on Betdaq for no grand slam, I am inclined to leave it, partly in hope of a grand slam decider between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium on 19 March.

Italy remain the poor relations of European rugby union, 11 years after they joined the annual competition, and despite the added experience afforded to some of their squad with the inclusion of Aironi and Treviso in the Magners League, the Azzurri are likely to earn another wooden spoon. Buying opposition/Italy total supremacy at 72 with Sporting Index is risky but appealing nonetheless. In 11 tournaments, they have conceded an average of 91 points more than they have scored. They will miss injured fly-half Craig Gower, and it is difficult to see where their points will come from.

POINTERS...
England to win the championship at 15/8 with William Hill
Buy England’s outright index at 38 with Sporting Index
Buy opposition/Italy total supremacy at 72 with Sporting Index

PLAYERS TO

LENDING stability to England’s backline, Leicester Tigers’ Toby Flood has cemented his position as England’s first choice fly-half, despite the return to fitness of his former Newcastle team-mate Jonny Wilkinson.

Flood has been outstanding at times for his club this season and he kicked 17 points in his most recent Premiership game against Northampton Saints. He is favourite to be top scorer in the tournament at 5/2 with Paddy Power and although he will come under pressure from French scrum-half and place kicker Morgan Parra (10/3), who frequently scores tries as well, Flood should be backed.

England and Northampton winger Chris Ashton ensured that his image will live long in the memories of rugby union fans, and even longer in the archives, with that try against Australia in November. Revealing he was close to reverting back to rugby league a short time ago, he has since become one of the most dangerous players in his chosen sport.

A recent Try of the Year award should boost his confidence going into the RBS 6 Nations, but it is his speed, power and directness that make him impossible to overlook for top try-scorer at 7/1 with Paddy Power, particularly if England’s plans for fluent, expansive rugby come to fruition.