Simon Mail previews the opening day of this year's Six Nations and thinks Scotland can cause major problems for Wales in Cardiff...
"Gregor Townsend has already guided his team to two wins over Australia including a record 53-24 victory over the Wallabies in November. Scotland pushed world champions New Zealand all the way at Murrayfield with their 22-17 defeat another sign of the progress being made."
Wales v Scotland
Live on BBC One
Two teams with contrasting expectations heading into the championship clash in the opening game of the competition. Wales have been hindered by a series of injuries to key players such as Sam Warburton, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb in the build-up to the Six Nations. Unconvincing performances during the back end of last year failed to inspire confidence and the team could only manage fifth place in the competition last season.
Scotland come into the tournament with a spring in their step and belief soaring although there have been false dawns in the past. Gregor Townsend has already guided his team to two wins over Australia including a record 53-24 victory over the Wallabies in November. Scotland pushed world champions New Zealand all the way at Murrayfield with their 22-17 defeat another sign of the progress being made.
Wales, who have selected ten players from the in-form Scarlets including fly-half Rhys Patchell, have won nine of their last ten matches between the teams but perhaps significantly Scotland were victorious in the most recent meeting. Their 29-13 victory in last season's competition reflects the way in which Scotland have developed and it should give them the confidence and belief to back it up. This is the tightest of the opening round of fixtures with Wales the slenderest of favourites.
It is tempting to back Scotland but their record of failing to win away in the Six Nations to anyone other than Italy for eight years is a slight concern. Instead of taking the visitors to prevail at [2.46], it could be worth backing Scotland to score a try in both halves at a bigger price. There is so much attacking quality in their backline with the outstanding full-back Stuart Hogg fit again and wing Tommy Seymour a major threat. Even if Scotland come up short in Cardiff, Townsend's side are fancied to cause Wales problems and are capable of scoring at least a couple of times.
France v Ireland
Live on BBC One
Ireland finished second in the tournament last season and are considered to be the closest challengers to England to win the title this year. Joe Schmidt's side ended last year strongly with seven successive victories including a record 38-3 home win over South Africa. The Irish have a wealth of talent coming through, including wing Jacob Stockdale and lock James Ryan, which suggests there is a strong combination of youth and experience.
France have been a disappointment in the competition for years and hardly appear to be in the best of health this season with new coach Jacques Brunel at the helm after Guy Noves was sacked at the end of 2017, following a losing run in the Autumn internationals. France were third last year but still have not been contenders for some time with the team failing to record a top-two finish since 2011.
Ireland have had the better of recent clashes against France beating them in four of the last five matches. The Irish have also lost just once in the last seven games so France's problems on the pitch have been reflected in their meetings. It is no surprise to see Ireland chalked up as favourites to win in at the Stade de France with the home team without a win in six matches stretching back to last March.
The visitors will be confident of continuing their recent success over France although matches have been tight between the teams. Nine of the last ten meetings have been settled by no more than ten points so this could be another close contest. There are however too many question marks over the France side, with 19-year-old Bordeaux fly-half Matthieu Jalibert handed his debut in a big gamble, to fancy them. Ireland are in much better shape and can get their title challenge off to a winning start with a victory by up to 12 points.
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