Simon Mail previews this year's Six Nations and thinks Ireland are a worthwhile alternative to favourites England for the title...
"Joe Schmidt has already won the competition twice and the way in which the side finished last year, boosted by the emergence of young talents such as wing Jacob Stockdale, suggests his Ireland team are worth backing to reclaim the title and end England's recent dominance."
Defending champions England come into this year's competition as favourites after winning the title for the last two seasons. Eddie Jones' side have an exceptional record over the last two years, losing just one game in his tenure, but there are reasons to believe they could face a difficult challenge winning the Six Nations for a third successive time. No country has managed this feat and it could be that this proves a step beyond England.
Jones' team are worthy favourites although there were a few signs during the Autumn internationals that the side were short of peak form. England also have to cope with some significant absentees such as the injured Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Elliot Daly along with the suspended Joe Marler. There is still plenty of world-class talent within the squad but there is no doubt England are some way from full strength.
A gentle opener for England in Italy should get them off to a comfortable start and a home clash against Wales will hold no fears. But a third round trip to much-improved Scotland could be the first major hurdle to overcome. The way in which Scotland thrashed Australia 53-24 at the end of last year and pushed New Zealand all the way was hugely impressive. Gregor Townsend's side are capable of threatening all the teams in the competition and may have a major say in the destination of the title.
Ireland are [2.84] second favourites and the challengers look well equipped to push England all the way. Joe Schmidt's side are the only team to beat England since Jones took charge - winning last season's final game in the competition. Leinster have been the outstanding Champions Cup side this season and their nucleus of Irish players, led by fly-half Johnny Sexton, look in excellent shape for this tournament. Ireland come into the competition on a seven-match winning run including their record 38-3 victory over South Africa.
It could come down to the final match with Ireland at Twickenham although with three home games prior to this, the Irish could be in the ascendancy. Schmidt has already won the competition twice and the way in which the side finished last year, boosted by the emergence of young talents such as wing Jacob Stockdale, suggests his Ireland team are worth backing to reclaim the title and end England's recent dominance.
Scotland should have an impact in the competition although the team probably lack the consistency to win the title. Wales have been hindered by significant injuries to players such as Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and Dan Biggar which are likely to hinder their chances. Warren Gatland's team were not convincing during last year's tournament and do not appear to be in better shape after a lacklustre series of Autumn internationals. France also cannot be trusted to contend and are likely to be in transition under new coach Jacques Brunel.
This looks increasingly competitive, with the exception of rank outsiders Italy, especially as Scotland look a greater threat than in recent years so it will be difficult for a country to win every match. In four of the last five seasons, no team has won all five matches and this implies the odds of [2.14] on no Grand Slam are worth taking.
The top tryscorer market looks wide open but there could be value in supporting Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg in the tournament. Hogg has suffered a series of injury setbacks but appeared to be approaching peak form after scoring in Glasgow's win over Exeter recently. Having missed much of the season, Hogg could benefit from being fresher than his rivals and has a strong track record in the competition.
Hogg has been voted Six Nations player of the championship for the last two seasons and he will benefit from playing under Townsend again. The full-back's blistering pace and footwork is a huge threat to opponents and Hogg finished joint top scorer 12 months ago with three tries. Playing in a Scotland team, which has increased belief and confidence, Hogg looks each-way value at 18/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook paying four places.
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