Simon Mail previews the third round of the Six Nations where champions Ireland host England in a potentially decisive title clash. He is expecting the men in green to win a close encounter...
"Ireland's momentum has shown no signs of slowing with nine consecutive wins coming into this weekend's clash."
Ireland v England
Sunday March 1, 15:00
Live on BBC One
It may only be the third weekend of the Six Nations but Sunday's clash between Ireland and England already has the makings of a title decider. Both teams come into the match with victories in their opening two matches and it would be something of a surprise if the winners did not end up finishing top at the end of the competition.
Defending champions Ireland may not have hit peak form yet but there is a ruthlessness about Joe Schmidt's team which could easily carry them all the way to another triumph. The Irish opened with a reasonably comfortable win in Italy but were tested much more as they had to survive late pressure in an 18-11 victory at home to France.
Ireland's momentum has shown no signs of slowing with nine consecutive wins coming into this weekend's clash. Their exceptional defence has been the foundations of their success which has included notable victories over South Africa and Australia. The return of Jonny Sexton in the last match was another significant boost with the fly-half such a key figure in their side.
England have produced the most entertaining rugby in the competition this season and Stuart Lancaster's side appear to be heading in the right direction with a home World Cup on the horizon. The way his team came back from a losing position at half-time to comprehensively outplay Wales in Cardiff was exceptionally impressive.
But, as eye catching as this victory was, along with the expected win over Italy at Twickenham, Lancaster's side will have to go up another level to beat Ireland in Dublin. England have won the last four meetings between the teams but the Irish look a different proposition under the astute leadership of Schmidt.
The three-point defeat at Twickenham could easily be reversed this time and in a match with such fine margins a narrow home win is worth backing. Ireland have been ahead at half-time and full-time in both of their victories so far this year. Sexton's accuracy with the boot could easily see the hosts edge their way in front on the scoreboard and taking the hosts to lead at the break and full time could pay off.
Back Ireland to win by under 12.5 points at 2.68/5
Back Ireland/Ireland in the HT/FT market at 2.747/4
Scotland v Italy
Saturday March 28, 14:30
Live on BBC One
Both of these teams come into this weekend off the back of successive defeats and this match looks as if it will determine which team finishes bottom of the tournament. There have been promising signs for Scotland and Italy in their opening games but they have been frustratingly unable to translate this into results.
Scotland came into the competition full of optimism under new coach Vern Cotter and there were plenty of positive aspects in their first match despite going down 15-8 in France. The Scots also pushed Wales all the way in their next game but were left disappointed after falling to a 26-23 defeat at Murrayfield.
Cotter's side have certainly proved they are no pushovers but will be desperate to claim some wins to back up their performances. Scotland will have to manage without Finn Russell after the talented back was banned following his challenge on Dan Biggar in the last match. The side are also missing lock Richie Gray after an arm injury ruled him out of the rest of the tournament.
Italy are propping up the table and this is no real surprise as they were favourites for the Wooden Spoon. An opening defeat at home to Ireland was followed by a bright start at Twickenham before England eventually ran out 47-17 winners. The Italians are not helped this weekend by the absence of Toulon prop Martin Castrogiovanni after he was bitten by a dog.
The last three meetings have been won by Scotland but the two most recent ones were settled by just one point which offers the visitors hope. However the last four home victories at Murrayfield have been by a minimum of 11 points and Scotland will be targeting a convincing win. The hosts should be able to make their superiority count and are taken to cover a ten-point handicap.
Stuart Hogg scored against Wales and also in the home win over Italy two years ago so the full-back could provide the attacking spark for the hosts.The Glasgow Warriors star has made a habit of crossing the line for his country and Hogg looks a decent bet to help fire them to victory with another try against the Italians.
Back Scotland -10.5 to beat Italy at 1.84/5
Back Stuart Hogg to score anytime in the Sportsbook at 3.02/1
France v Wales
Saturday March 28, 17:00
Live on BBC One
France host Wales this weekend with both sides looking to build momentum after winning one of their opening two games. The French started with an unconvincing 15-8 home win over Scotland where they failed to score a try. France improved in their second match but were unable to overcome champions Ireland after falling to an 18-11 defeat.
Coach Philippe Saint-Andre is under pressure to deliver a successful team after several years of underachievement. There still looks to be plenty of room for improvement though and it is hard to see them contending for top honours this year. France make five changes to their side with centre Mathieu Bastareaud dropped and Remy Lamerat taking his place.
It is also difficult to know what to expect from Wales after an inconsistent start to their campaign. Warren Gatland's side opened the competition with a hugely disappointing defeat to England after leading at the break. Wales did get a response in their second game though although they were made to work very hard for a 26-23 win in Scotland.
The Welsh have made four changes for this weekend's clash with Alex Cuthbert the notable absentee. His place on the wing has gone to Northampton's George North after he missed the Scotland game with concussion. Luke Charteris and hooker Scott Baldwin come into the pack in place of Jake Ball and Richard Hibbard.
Wales have certainly had the upper hand in recent meetings which could give them the edge in what is expected to be a tight battle. Gatland's side have won the last three matches including a 16-6 victory in the Stade de France two years ago. The game before that resulted in a 9-8 win for France in the World Cup semi-final so backing Wales with a handicap advantage looks worthwhile and would have been a profitable bet in the last four clashes.
There looks little between the sides and it is difficult to trust the home side at odds on because there have been so many recent occasions where they have misfired. Wales have led at the break in their first two matches and the visitors look exceptionally overpriced to take a lead into half-time in France.
Follow Simon's bets on Twitter @watfordtipster
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