Simon Mail previews the opening round of the Six Nations with Ireland hosting Scotland and defending champions Wales facing Italy...
"Ireland should hit the ground running and have been handed a favourable start to the Six Nations at home to Scotland."
Ireland v Scotland
Live on ITV
Ireland strong favourites for opener
Ireland produced a disappointing Six Nations title defence last season but the team, led by new head coach Andy Farrell, should be considered strong contenders to triumph this year. It was a campaign to forget for the team in 2019 after finishing third in the tournament and failing to impress at the World Cup as they were hammered by New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
Farrell succeeds Joe Schmidt and Ireland's former defence coach has handed the captaincy to fly-half Johnny Sexton. The no-nonsense character will be well respected by the squad and his previous coaching experience with the players could be an advantage going into this tournament. Ireland should hit the ground running and have been handed a favourable start to the Six Nations at home to Scotland.
Farrell has selected ten of the players picked in Ireland's chastening defeat to the All Blacks in October. Despite the impressive form of Ulster scrum-half John Cooney, Conor Murray holds onto his place in the team. Leinster number eight Caelan Doris makes his debut which means CJ Stander moves across to blindside flanker.
Scotland must cope without influential Russell
Scotland finished fifth in last season's Six Nations and their preparation for this year's tournament has gone disastrously with the loss of their best player. Finn Russell will play no part in this weekend's game and the Racing 92 fly-half's involvement in the competition remains in doubt after being disciplined for an extended drinking session last week.
Gregor Townsend has made ten changes from the team beaten by hosts Japan at the World Cup. Adam Hastings is handed the chance to fill the void left by Russell with Ali Price selected at scrum-half. Edinburgh number eight Nick Haining makes his debut for Scotland while Glasgow Warriors lock Scott Cummings starts his first Six Nations match.
Ireland have won seven of the last eight games against Scotland and the hosts should prove far too strong again this weekend. The most recent meeting came in September at the World Cup, with Ireland easing to a 27-3 victory. Two of their last three wins have been by at least 20 points and Ireland are fancied to cover a 13-point handicap at the Aviva Stadium.
Wales should ease to winning start under Pivac
Wales v Italy
Live on BBC One
Wales launch their title defence with Wayne Pivac taking charge of his first Six Nations game with the Grand Slam champions. Warren Gatland's exceptional success with Wales will be difficult to match but Pivac has been handed a gentle opener against Italy. The former Scarlets coach hopes to introduce more width and attacking flair into their team but this could take time to implement.
Uncapped wing Johnny McNicholl gets his first opportunity in the competition with prolific finisher Josh Adams lining up on the other side. George North switches to outside centre for this match with Jonathan Davies ruled out of the tournament due to a knee injury. Tomos Williams starts at scrum-half with Rhys Webb set for his first appearance since the end of 2017 from off the bench.
Franco Smith is in temporary charge of Italy, following the departure of Conor O'Shea, with the South African facing a huge challenge to improve their recent record. Italy have not won a Six Nations match since 2015, which was the last time they avoided finishing bottom. Much will rest on exciting full-back Matteo Minozzi, with the Wasps back fit to feature after missing last season's tournament with a serious knee injury.
Wales have won their last 13 matches against Italy and the hosts are fancied to start the competition with a convincing victory in Cardiff. The last two home wins have been by at least 24 points and the handicap mark is set just below this. Wales should claim a bonus point win comfortably enough but the best bet looks to take them to cover an 11-point second-half handicap. Italy are likely to feel the pace as the match progresses and Wales can rack up the points after the break.
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P/L 2019-20 season