This famous tournament never fails to surprise. After a thrilling opening weekend that brought victories for Wales, Scotland and most strikingly England, the Six Nations is wide open.
The gauntlet has been thrown down to pre-tournament favourites Ireland ahead of a pivotal trip to Murrayfield that could reignite or utterly extinguish their title hopes.
Elsewhere Wales coach Warren Gatland is entrusting his second string to claim victory in Rome while on Sunday all eyes will be on Twickenham to discover if the mauling England inflicted on Ireland in Dublin can be repeated for Le Crunch with a predictably unpredictable France.
Here we run the rule over each side’s chances and cherry pick the best bets to back.
At 12/25 with Unibet, the bookies are backing Ireland to bounce back and return to winning ways. Proving popular is the handicap of Ireland -5 at 1/1 with 888Sport, meaning the men in green would need to win by more than five points for your bet to come good.
It’s a bold call, given head coach Joe Schmidt has been forced through form and injury to make five changes to what was a settled side, most notably restoring full-back Rob Kearney to the starting lineup.
However, blockbuster wing Jacob Stockdale is due a big game, having been shut out by England. Last season the Ulsterman plundered seven tries in five matches and has 12 in 15 starts for his country. He’s at 7/1 with William Hill to score first.
A big reaction from Ireland is inevitable, but Scotland – 9/4 with William Hill – are a different beast at fortress Murrayfield.
They have the blueprint to beat Ireland following England’s demolition job, and they also have the edge on recent head-to-heads, having clinched a 27-22 victory last time these two met at Murrayfield two years ago.
A similar winning margin of Scotland by 1-5 is best priced at 13/2 with Betfair. To achieve that, full-back Stuart Hogg (9/1 for man of the match with Ladbrokes) will need to maintain his blistering start to the championship – but he’ll have to set up someone other than last weekend’s hattrick hero Blair Kinghorn who has dropped to the bench for the more experienced Sean Maitland.
This might be a dress rehearsal for autumn’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, which pits these two together in the same pool, but nobody in blue or green is looking past Saturday afternoon. It’s now or never for Scotland.
Best Bet: Scotland to win 9/4 with William Hill
If winning ugly is the hallmark of title contenders, Wales’ chances of Grand Slam success should be taken very seriously. Somehow they clawed their way back from 16-0 at half-time in Paris to win 24-19 and extend their winning streak to ten matches.
Italy (11/1 with Betway) aren’t expected to threaten that record, having only beaten the Welsh twice in 26 attempts, most recently 12 years ago.
But Wales (1/12 with Bet365) will have to start fast, especially given head coach Warren Gatland has made ten changes to his starting lineup.
One to keep an eye on is flanker Thomas Young. With 23 tries in 60 starts for his club Wasps, he’s prolific for a forward. Making his first start in the Six Nations, he’s priced at 13/5 with Bet365 to score anytime.
If Wales do repeat last week’s great escape and let Italy take a half-time lead before rescuing the win, you can find William Hill offering a punchy 11/2 for Italy HT/Wales FT.
Can England repeat their near-perfect performance at home? Do they even need to? France are more than capable of beating themselves, but as is their Gallic charm, with the French, you never know.
One thing that is relatively certain, is that the French get homesick. The last time they won away in the Six Nations anywhere other than Italy was March 2014. Their last success at Twickenham was in 2005 and England have won nine of their past 12 Six Nations meetings.
To avoid English complacency, head coach Eddie Jones has tinkered with his match day squad, notably swapping out wing Jack Nowell for serial poacher Chris Ashton – who makes his first Six Nations start since 2013.
Standing in England’s way will be the sizeable frame of 123kg (19.4 stone) Mathieu Bastareaud, who is recalled to France’s meaty midfield to negate the rampaging and resurgent Manu Tuilagi. When – rather than if – those two collide, the tremors will be felt as far afield as Paris but the Englishman is more likely to trouble the scoreboard, best priced at 7/2 with Betfair for a try anytime.
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