Simon Mail previews Ireland's trip to Scotland and Wales' game in Italy on the opening weekend of this year's Six Nations...
"The recent clashes have been dominated by Ireland with victories in the last four meetings. But the last two games have been fiercely contested and have seen Scotland push them all the way. The Irish have been limited to wins by no more than ten points suggesting the margins between the sides are narrowing."
Scotland v Ireland
Live on BBC One
Scotland head into their final campaign under Vern Cotter before the coach moves on and is replaced by Gregor Townsend. The side have certainly made progress under the New Zealander but the challenge for Scotland is to claim the scalp of one of the leading nations in the competition. Home advantage gives them a chance although their opening opponents will present a tough examination.
Ireland disappointed in the Six Nations last season but there is a feeling Joe Schmidt's side could push England all the way for the title this year. The Irish were exceptional in their historic 40-29 win over world champions New Zealand in November and this underlined the quality in their squad. Having won the competition in two of the last three years Ireland have to be taken seriously as genuine contenders.
The recent clashes have been dominated by Ireland with victories in the last four meetings. But the last two games have been fiercely contested and have seen Scotland push them all the way. The Irish have been limited to wins by no more than ten points suggesting the margins between the sides are narrowing. This will give the hosts belief heading into their opener.
Scotland will sense this is a big opportunity to get off to a winning start with Ireland missing several key players such as Johnny Sexton and Peter O'Mahony due to injury. The visitors will believe they have the experience to cope with the atmosphere at Murrayfield and this could prove the difference. Scotland should push them all the way but Ireland are backed to grind out a narrow win by no more than ten points.
Back Ireland to win by 1-10 points @ 17/10 (Sportsbook)
Italy v Wales
Live on ITV
Italy are overwhelming favourites to finish bottom of the table this year but new coach Conor O'Shea will hope to inspire the underdogs. Italy may not be the pushovers many think though after their shock 20-18 win over South Africa in November. This result is bound to give them confidence and the hosts could prove difficult opponents at the Stadio Olimpico.
Wales come into the competition with something to prove but the team may be well suited to playing without huge expectations. The side are under the radar after a series of unconvincing performances at the end of last year. With Warren Gatland focusing on the Lions, Rob Howley is in charge temporarily and Wales have a new captaincy after Alun Wyn Jones replaced Sam Warburton.
History is on Wales' side with the visitors winning their last ten clashes against Italy. The Italians have not beaten Wales since a memorable home win in Rome ten years ago and their record against them certainly does not inspire confidence. It is easy to see why Howley's side are strong favourites to get off to a winning start.
But O'Shea is a shrewd tactician and the former Harlequins coach could provide the motivation and leadership required. Italy are never easy to beat at home and their recent win over the Springboks is a warning sign to Wales. The hosts can be expected to make a fast start and even if Wales eventually make their quality count it could be worth supporting the Italians with an 11-point handicap advantage.
Back Italy +11 to win @ 21/20 (Sportsbook)
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2016/17 Rugby P/L