Simon Mail previews the opening weekend of the Six Nations with Wales fancied to see off a depleted England side...
"England have been hit by injuries and the Welsh will fancy their chances of getting off to a winning start in front of their fans."
Wales v England
Friday February 6, 20:05
Live on BBC One
The 6 Nations is set for an explosive start in Cardiff as Wales meet England in a dress rehearsal for their pivotal World Cup pool match in September. The significance of the clash later in the year is far greater but Friday's opener could go a long way to determining which, if any, of these teams will win this title. Whether it leads to a psychological advantage for the World Cup showdown remains to be seen.
Wales start out this match as the favourites with a near full strength team backed by the raucous support at the Millennium Stadium. Warren Gatland's side will come into this match full of optimism after their 12-6 win over South Africa at the end of last year. This confidence booster has to help the side with George North and Richard Hibbard the only two changes to the team which defeated the Springboks.
Expectations are high for England to deliver both in this competition and in the World Cup as hosts later this year. Having finished runners-up for the last three years, it is time for the team to go one better. But Stuart Lancaster has not been dealt much luck with up to a dozen players absent through injury. Prop Dan Cole makes his first international start for a year while there is a new look centre partnership featuring Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph.
Although England won last year's meeting, the most recent match in Wales resulted in a crushing 30-3 home win which handed Gatland's side the 6 Nations title and ruined the visitors' Grand Slam hopes. A lot has changed since then but Wales certainly have the advantage in terms of team selection.
England have been hit by injuries and the Welsh will fancy their chances of getting off to a winning start in front of their fans. The hosts can cover a five-point handicap and, with a fast start expected, are also worth backing to be in front both at half-time and full-time.
Back Wales -4.5 to beat England at 2.0621/20
Back Wales/Wales in the Half Time/Full Time market at 2.166/5
Italy v Ireland
Saturday February 7, 14:30
Live on BBC One
Defending champions Ireland are fancied by many to retain their title and Joe Schmidt's side are short priced favourites to begin with a victory at the Stadio Olimpico. The Irish were deserved winners last season and they successfully built on their triumph with a strong run in the Autumn internationals which featured wins over South Africa and Australia.
Ireland will have to manage without influential fly-half Jonny Sexton because he is still recovering from concussion. But the visitors are boosted by the availability of Conor Murray after being out for a month with a neck injury. Ian Keatley will form the half-back partnership alongside Murray after being picked ahead of Ian Madigan while flanker Sean O'Brien is fit to start.
Italy finished bottom of the competition last year and the side appear to have their work cut out to avoid a repeat this season. Jacques Brunel's side were beaten ten times last year with their only victory over Samoa so few people will expect them to enjoy success in the tournament especially in this difficult opener.
The Irish will be expected to make a confident start to their title defence although haven't found it easy in Italy in recent years. The hosts pulled off a shock win two years ago and Italy only lost by two points in 2011.
But this Ireland team, which is ranked third in the world, appears to be getting better all the time and should have too much for the Italians so the visitors can cover a ten-point handicap. Simon Zebo has scored three tries in as many games for Munster and the winger, who crossed the line against Australia in November, is worth backing to get a try in Italy.
Back Ireland -10.5 to beat Italy at 1.981/1
Back Simon Zebo to score a try in the Sportsbook at 2.56/4
France v Scotland
Saturday February 7, 17:00
Live on BBC One
France have plenty to prove after a very disappointing run in recent years. In many ways, Philippe Saint-Andre is fortunate to still be in charge and supporters must be running out of patience with him. France finished bottom two years ago and a lowly fourth 12 months ago so more is expected from them. Promising winger Teddy Thomas makes his maiden 6 Nations appearance while South African born scrum-half Rory Kockott makes his first start.
Scotland come into this season full of optimism after an extremely encouraging start under new coach Vern Cotter. His side produced some potent attacking rugby to defeat Argentina in November and also ran world champions New Zealand close before losing 24-16. Avoiding the Wooden Spoon no longer seems the target and there is genuine belief the Scots can achieve something.
Five wins from their last seven Tests has sparked confidence in Scotland and their captain Greg Laidlaw has spoken of their ambition to compete for the title. This may be a bridge too far, considering the side have averaged one win per tournament since 2007, but Scotland will certainly not be intimidated and will cause problems for all their opponents.
France are short priced favourites for this opener but in recent seasons they have flattered to deceive which makes it hard to trust them. Scotland appear to have momentum on their side and look a more enticing betting proposition especially with a ten-point handicap advantage.
This appeals even more considering the last three clashes have been decided by seven points or less. France may well get off to a winning start but the visitors can certainly keep the scoreline close. Thomas has huge potential and the 21-year-old, who has four tries in two Test appearances, can keep up this form by scoring against Scotland.
Back Scotland +10 in the Sportsbook at 2.01/1
Back Teddy Thomas to score a try at 2.245/4
Follow Simon's bets on Twitter @watfordtipster
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