With the World Cup just over a month away, Simon Mail previews the start of the warm-up games including England's clash against Wales at Twickenham....
"Wales are the form team in world rugby and their results over the last year suggest they have to be taken seriously as contenders for the World Cup. Warren Gatland has guided Wales to a record 14 consecutive wins which saw them win the Six Nations Grand Slam."
England v Wales
Live on Sky Sports Action
England with work to do heading towards Japan
With just over a month until the start of the Rugby World Cup, England begin the countdown with a warm-up game against Wales at Twickenham. Eddie Jones names his squad for Japan one day after this match so the significance of this weekend's game carries even more weight - bad news for the likes of fly-half Danny Cipriani and Ben Spencer after being left out this weekend. There have been plenty of highs and lows during Jones' tenure but the Australian will ultimately be judged on England's performance at the World Cup.
England's form in the Six Nations was again hit and miss as a promising start, which saw them win in Ireland, was undone by defeat to Wales and an extraordinary 38-38 draw at home to Scotland. Jones' side have lacked consistency over the last couple of years but he will be hoping their intense training camp in the humidity of Treviso will help the team peak in tough conditions in Japan next month.
Wales aiming to maintain momentum
Wales are the form team in world rugby and their results over the last year suggest they have to be taken seriously as contenders for the World Cup. Warren Gatland has guided Wales to a record 14 consecutive wins which saw them win the Six Nations Grand Slam. His side were not the most pleasing team on the eye but their exceptional defence and outstanding fitness levels helped them overcome the opposition.
Gatland will know it will be extremely difficult to keep their winning run going, all the way through to the end of the World Cup, so he will not be afraid to tinker during the warm-up matches. But their confidence and effectiveness as a team will still carry them a long way even without some of their first choice players, including forward Taulupe Faletau after he was ruled out of the tournament with a collarbone injury.
England will feel they let their match against Wales in Cardiff slip in February after losing 21-13. Gatland's side were clinical and exposed the mistakes in Jones' team. England looked one dimensional at times and this recent defeat will put the pressure on them. This match is arguably more important for the hosts because losing at Twickenham would be a major setback going into the World Cup.
Home advantage could give England the edge but there has not been enough evidence to trust them at short odds this weekend. Wales have been in stunning form, having gone unbeaten since defeat to Ireland in February 2018. The dangerous visitors are given a six-point handicap advantage and this looks worth taking. This was a winning bet in their last three matches against England and Wales should keep it close, even if they fall short of 15th successive victory.
Ireland bidding to peak for World Cup
Ireland v Italy
Live on Channel 4
Ireland were seen as the most likely challengers to New Zealand after beating the All Blacks at the end of last year but it has been a different story this season. An opening defeat at home to England in the Six Nations was a worrying start to their title defence, with their closing 25-7 loss to Wales emphasising the work departing coach Joe Schmidt faces to help them return to peak form in time for the World Cup.
Italy again propped up the Six Nations this year with Conor O'Shea's side still outclassed. But there were some encouraging aspects in some of their games, with England the only team to blow them away. Victories continue to be elusive for Italy although the team were at least competitive as they search for a first win since last November.
Ireland have won their last eight matches against Italy and the result this weekend should not be in doubt. That said, Schmidt's side have been well short of their best this season and there is no guarantee they will cover the 26-point handicap. Ireland only defeated Italy by ten points in February and their last five matches have seen the team win by no more than 12 points. Four of Italy's last five games have seen them lose by less than 14 points and the outsiders look worth siding with given a hefty head start.
Follow Simon's bets on Twitter @watfordtipster
Back Wales +6.5 at [1.87]
Back Italy +26.5 at [1.87]