The Six Nations begins this weekend and Simon Mail previews Ireland's trip to Wales and Italy's home clash against France...
"Ireland have had the edge in recent meetings with the side defeating Wales in their last four clashes. This includes a 24-14 Six Nations win last season and a 32-9 victory in the Autumn Nations Cup."
Wales v Ireland
Live on BBC One
Wales target improvement after poor campaign
Wales were one of the major disappointments last season with Wayne Pivac's first year in charge resulting in fifth place, with just one win, in the Six Nations. The pressure is on to improve their fortunes but their opening clash at home to Ireland has been disrupted by prolific finisher Josh Adams being suspended for a Covid-19 breach.
Wing Louis Rees-Zammit makes his Six Nations debut for Wales this weekend with George North again lining up at centre. Alun Wyn Jones has recovered from his knee injury and the captain leads Wales out at the Principality Stadium. Tomos Williams has been given the nod at scrum-half, ahead of Gareth Davies, as he starts alongside fly-half Dan Biggar.
Farrell needs to find winning touch away
Andy Farrell's first season in charge of Ireland failed to produce fireworks with the team finishing third in the Six Nations.
Ireland won all of their home games but were beaten in all three away matches last year to leave plenty of room for improvement.
Farrell has bolstered his team with the addition of Paul O'Connell as forwards coach but Ireland need to find a way to turn their possession and territorial advantage into more cutting edge.
Johnny Sexton captains Ireland and the fly-half lines up alongside scrum-half Conor Murray. Wing James Lowe makes his third Ireland start with no room for Jordan Larmour in the backline. Tadhg Beirne and Josh van der Flier both start in the pack while Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose have been selected as the centre partnership.
Ireland have had the edge in recent meetings with the side defeating Wales in their last four clashes. This includes a 24-14 Six Nations win last season and a 32-9 victory in the Autumn Nations Cup. The lack of fans is unlikely to aid Wales this weekend with their typically fervent support missing from Cardiff.
The betting is very tight for this match but Ireland deserve to be slight favourites for this opener. Wales appear vulnerable hosts and Ireland should make a winning start but it is likely to be tight. Four of their last five wins over Wales were by no more than ten points and Ireland can grind out another narrow victory at appealing odds of 2.829/5.
Italy v France
Live on ITV
France look to continue progress
France were pipped to the Six Nations title by England last season and Fabien Galthie's side are expected to go close again this year. Their performances, with an understrength team in the harsh Autumn Nations Cup final defeat to England at Twickenham, underlined their progress.
Shaun Edwards has made a big impact as defence coach and France deserve to be taken seriously as a major force after years of underachievement.
The visitors are missing several influential players with fly-half Romain Ntamack and centre Virimi Vakatawa ruled out through injury. Gabin Villiere makes his Six Nations debut for France with Brice Dulin starting at full-back. Charles Ollivon captains the side with the forward finishing as the surprise top tryscorer in last season's competition.
Italy desperate to end losing run
Italy are searching for their first win in the competition since 2015 but it looks set to be another challenging campaign. Franco Smith has put his faith in youth with 20-year-old fly-half Paolo Garbisi lining up alongside 19-year-old scrum-half Stephen Varney. It is an ambitious move but Smith has shown confidence in their emerging talent to challenge France.
France are overwhelming favourites to win this game and the visitors should win comfortably in Rome. But it is hard to be confident on the margin of victory which is enough to swerve siding with them to cover a 23-point handicap. Instead, wing Teddy Thomas is worth backing to score for France. Thomas has crossed the line in both of his two matches against Italy and the potent finisher can score another try in an opening win for France.