Simon Mail previews this weekend's Six Nations games featuring Ireland's home clash with Wales and France v Italy...
"Few teams are better at managing a game than this Ireland side and the hosts are fancied to hold off the challenge of Wales. Ireland have won nine consecutive games coming into this contest and their only defeat in the last 12 home matches came against New Zealand."
Ireland v Wales
Live on ITV
Ireland have started their campaign promisingly with two wins firing them into contention for the title. Joe Schmidt's side snatched a dramatic victory on the opening night after Johnny Sexton fired over a long-range drop-goal at the death in their 15-13 win in France. Away wins have been precious in this competition and the victory in Paris got them off to the ideal start which was backed up by their 56-19 win at home to Italy.
The Irish were much more adventurous in their last match and scored eight tries during the win in Dublin. Ireland had a commanding 28-0 lead at the break and were sloppy at times defensively after the break but still won comfortably enough with winger Jacob Stockdale crossing the line twice. With two more home games to come, Ireland have every chance of setting up a title decider in England.
Wales have certainly made an impression during the opening weeks of the tournament with Warren Gatland's side pushing England all the way in the last game. Scotland were easily beaten in the first match as a Scarlets-led backline dominated in Cardiff. Wales, who hand first starts this year to fly-half Dan Biggar and Liam Williams after injury, came close against England but Gareth Anscombe's wrongly disallowed try proved costly as the visitors fell to a narrow 12-6 defeat.
Few teams are better at managing a game than this Ireland side and the hosts, who are [1.38] to win, are fancied to hold off the challenge of Wales. Ireland have won nine consecutive games coming into this contest and their only defeat in the last 12 home matches came against New Zealand. Wales are dangerous opponents and are likely to keep the scoreline close, as they did at Twickenham, but Ireland should be able to claim a win by up to 12 points.
France v Italy
Live on BBC One
It has been a tough start to life for new France boss Jacques Brunel after his side lost their opening two games and some of his players were disciplined after going out in Edinburgh following their defeat in Scotland. France came so close to winning their first match against Ireland but were punished with the last kick of the game. After leading 20-14 at half-time in Scotland, France tired as the match progressed and were beaten 32-26.
Brunel acted swiftly by dropping nine players from the squad for this weekend's game. This includes Six Nations top tryscorer Teddy Thomas, Remi Lamerat and Louis Picamoles leaving the squad weaker than for the opening two games. All the pressure will be on the hosts to produce a performance and victory after losing their first two matches in this year's tournament.
Italy appear on course for another wooden spoon after heavy defeats against England and Ireland although there have still been some encouraging signs from Conor O'Shea's side. Italy scored two tries against England and also crossed the line three times in Ireland which underlines their attacking game has progressed from last year. But their defence is still a concern after conceding 102 points in two games.
The handicap mark is set at 17 points and this is difficult to assess. Italy were beaten by 22 points by their opponents last year but on their last visit to France were edged out 23-21. Instead of betting on the handicap, it could pay off to back France to win by 11 to 20 points. Three of their last five home wins over Italy have been by this margin and France look likely to win without necessarily covering the handicap.
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