MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) gives us an extensive preview of the 2016 Six Nations tournament and shares his stable of best bets.
Six Nations | 6th February – 19th March 2016 | BBC/ITV
World Cup? What World Cup? The Northern hemisphere hopes to banish the ghastly autumn blues that embarrassed European rugby just a matter of months ago as the Six Nations rolls into a capital city near you.
There was plenty of soul-searching, brow-beating and bruised egos as the continent failed to produce a team in the final four of the World Cup but rugby’s oldest tournament has a chance to bite back at critics over the course of the next six weeks or so.
Perhaps the most open competition in years, devoid of an outstanding front-runner, there’s little margin for error in a five-match tournament. The last three Six Nations championships have been settled on points difference and I’m expecting it to be closely fought once more with a smattering of grudge, spite and hype thrown in for good measure.
The Important Of The Schedule
When trying to pick an outright winner, it makes sense to start with a look at the schedule. A team with the advantage of having three home games has won 11 of the 16 previous tournaments.
In four of the other five years, the winner had two of their three away trips against Scotland and Italy, the teams with the worst records since 2000, such as Ireland in an epic 2015 finale.
In 2016, Wales, Ireland and France have the home fixture(s) advantage. And the Irish welcome Wales to Dublin in the opening round of fixtures in a match that – based on the past four years – should be significant in terms of the title. However, both nations must travel to Twickenham, in consecutive rounds, after England open up the Eddie Jones era with games against Scotland and Italy.
Between the 2002-2010 seasons, seven of the nine championships produced Grand Slam winners with eight featuring a Triple Crown triumph. Since 2010 however, only one Grand Slam’s been achieved in five campaigns with just two Triple Crowns claimed.
So already, the likelihood of seeing a Grand Slam winner for the first time since 2012 looks unlikely. Before we even start scanning through the teams and form, we’ll have a hunky wager on No Grand Slam at 4/6 (Bet365) and stick No Triple Crown in the book at 13/8 (Betfred)
England (7/4 BetVictor)
The bookies have made England favourites but can we trust the Red Rose to deliver so soon after Jones’ appointment?
The Australian will be aware of the expectations and the quirk of the fixture list – hosting Wales and Ireland – has ensured patriotic money and confidence makes anything but top spot a disappointment.
Jones is England’s first ever foreign head coach so immediately the spotlight is on. But the former Japan number one has suggested changes won’t happen overnight as the Red Rose chase only a second tournament win since 2003.
Last season’s second-place finish, as in 2013, was hardly without merit, given that England played Wales and Ireland away in those years. And there’s certainly talent and depth in the ranks.
Serial offender Dylan Hartley’s appointment as captain – he’s accumulated 54 weeks worth of bans in his career – should galvanise the troops but also gives the team a world class lineout chucker plus scrummaging ability of the highest order.
Question marks remain at centre – Stuart Lancaster used 15 combinations in his stint and they still reckon they can get by without a specialist openside. Nevertheless, the Red Rose racked up 18 tries in last season’s competition and have four quality kickers in tow so the tools are certainly on offer.
England have finished in the top-two in seven of the past eight seasons but I’m unconvinced the World Cup nightmares can be shaken off so easily in a fiercely competitive environment. Jones and his new coaching posse have had just a fortnight to prepare and even with the RFU riches, that looks too tall a hurdle to pass.
Arguably England’s toughest hurdle comes in the Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland on the opening weekend. Momentum is the buzzword in Six Nations parlance and an Edinburgh defeat puts the Red Rose on the back foot – victory will only intensify their claims to finish top of the tree.
Wales (16/5 Boylesports)
Wales are proof that the performances of sides in Europe is no barometer when it comes to the Six Nations. They have not produced a European Cup finalist since 2010 but in that time have won the Six Nations twice and reached a World Cup semi-final.
Warren Gatland’s side progressed from England’s fierce World Cup pool alongside Australia and overcome a series of injuries before and during the tournament to come within five minutes of the semi-finals in a gruelling encounter South Africa. It’s fair to say they exceeded expectations despite the obvious selection hitches.
Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb aside, the squad is at full strength and unlike England or Ireland, there’s no feeling that the Dragons are beginning a new four-year cycle. There’s low player turnover, vast experience, consistency, depth, form and talent across the board plus a wonderful defence – Wales only leaked three tries in the World Cup.
Gatland’s the master of the post-World Cup Six Nations too having claimed top honours in 2008 and 2012 under his tutelage. Overcome Ireland in Dublin on Saturday and the momentum train is rolling – Wales are serious contenders and confident, and that makes them the most dangerous of all the six nations.
Ireland (7/2 William Hill)
Reigning champions, Ireland are bidding to become the first team to win the tournament for three years in a row but there is an air of despondency in the country after the failure to produce a European Champions Cup quarter-finalist for the first time this century.
As well as a dramatic drop-off in continental club form, the Greens have seen an injury crisis rob the canny Joe Schmidt of a collection of stars. Momentous lock Paul O’Connell has departed and the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Cian Healy and Mike Ross, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and Iain Henderson are all missing for the entirety of large chunks of the championship.
The World Cup quarter-final exit to Argentina hurt the Shamrocks but again, injury and suspensions played their part and optimistic supporters will expect Ireland to feature in the shake-up.
But for the first time since arriving on Irish shores in 2010, there are question marks over Schmidt’s position to push Ireland on. The Kiwi remains one of the planet’s most meticulous planners, capable of crafting a game plan for any occasions but suggestions his side are too predictable and too low-risk reached fever pitch after the World Cup exit.
Schmidt has admitted the Greens are rebuilding confidence and approach and so a record-breaking hat-trick of titles looks beyond Ireland, especially with the durability of the front-five set for a mammoth test and no defensive coach for the first time in seven seasons since Les Kiss left.
The Shamrocks conceded the fewest tries in each of their two titles in 2014 and 2015 but only notched eight themselves in last year’s tournament, compared to 18 for England and 13 for Wales.
So without their go-to men at the set-piece – Ireland’s launchpad for successful power plays under the Kiwi – how will they cope? I'm fearful.
Ireland haven’t been helped by the scheduling either. Facing Wales first up, the Greens must then travel to Paris for a date with France with just a six-day turnaround. From there it’s Twickenham and Shamrock supporters must accept there’s a real chance they could be pointless after three fixtures, such is the gloom surrounding the nation’s rugby.
France (6/1 Betway)
Guy Novès, one of European rugby’s greats, is the new man in charge of France and is the only ‘home’ head coach to lead his nation into battle.
The principal driving force behind the wondrous Toulouse sides of the 90s and the Noughties, there’s a strong argument to say this gig has come a decade too late. At their peak, his team played a brilliant offload and counter-attacking game but the revolutionary soon became a relic.
The magic had gone, Toulouse became more and more conservative and as his time in charge came to an end, they were at the pedestrian end of the panache scale. So is he the right man at the right time to restore the national team to something like its former glory after a traumatic World Cup exit at the hands of the All Blacks? Probably not.
The new number one has inherited Philippe Saint-Andre's crazy selection policies – choosing just one specialist fly-half in his squad. And a big question mark remains over the fitness and condition of the players with Top 14 clubs flogging their well-paid stars from pillar to post.
Novès hinted Les Blues would play differently with an eye on reaching the peaks of their former glory years before the next World Cup. But the grim autonomy that prevents him from having optimal access his likely to see world rugby’s biggest underachievers in recent years continue in a state of flux.
Under Saint-Andre, Les Blues scored just 80 tries across 45 matches, winning just 20. They’ve not featured in the top-half of the Six Nations final standings since 2011 and have won just twice in 15 games outside of France since 2013 (excluding the World Cup). It’s grim.
However, with an opening weekend walkover against Italy followed by a weary Ireland in Paris, France and Novès will know they stand a better chance than their pre-tournament price suggests.
Never finishing higher than fourth under Saint-André, it’ll be baby steps for Les Blues but it’s hard to totally rule them out of the reckoning.
Scotland (18/1 Boylesports)
Wooden Spoon winners in 2015, are Scotland serious dark horses and to be taken seriously in 2016? An empathic, yes!
The natives reckon it’s daft but nobody can deny the upward surge in form and performance levels that culminated in a referring blunder against Australia denying the Bravehearts a place in the World Cup semi-finals.
Sure, just 10 wins in 21 outings under Vern Cotter, including only four against Tier 1 nations, doesn’t exactly fill opposition sides with fear. Nor does Scotland’s record of four Six Nations wins in five campaigns – three of which came against Italy.
But the slow and unspectacular Scotland has given way to a brave and expressive side that’s keen to build upon their autumn exploits. Cotter’s employed a high tempo, off-loading game based around their attacking strengths (scoring 16 tries at the World Cup).
However, their enthusiastic defence requires tweaking for Scotland to seriously consider punching above their weight and landing a top-two finish – 13 tries conceded at the World Cup wasn’t what the doctor ordered.
The set-piece has improved – Ross Ford and Alasdair Dickinson have enjoyed a new lease of life alongside the rock solid tighthead WP Nel – there’s brawn, bulk and bluster from the giant Gray brothers at lock plus a harder and faster back row in John Hardie, Blair Cowan and David Denton.
In the backs, crowd-pleasers Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Finn Russell and Mark Bennett are complemented by the intelligent skipper and kicking king Greig Laidlaw at nine.
There’s been many a false dawn for Scottish rugby but Cotter has the ability to extract the talent and cause a major tremor in this year’s tournament.
The Bravehearts tend to start slowly – not since 2006 have the Scots opened their campaign with a victory – but old rivals England visit Murrayfield and the passionate home support believe they can inflict just a fourth win in 28 meetings this weekend.
Deliver the goods on Saturday and Scotland can thrive with four winnable fixtures following a trip to Cardiff.
Italy (1000/1 Boylesports)
A late penalty try secured a triumph at Murrayfield last year, allowing Italy to avoid the dreaded Wooden Spoon last year but it was a rare highlight in another troubled year for the Azzurri.
An unsurprising World Cup group exit and now a gruesome injury crisis has led Jacques Brunel to call upon 10 uncapped players, including six forwards, for the 2016 edition of Six Nations rugby. Alarmingly, Italy have had to dip into the semi-pro domestic Eccellenze division for talent.
Sergio Parisse continues his role as leader, standout star and galvanising motivator but little is expected with 13 World Cup players missing and little experience to call upon.
Brunel, serving for his fifth championship, leaves his post in the spring but another championship with the Azzurri as likely whipping boys will just intensify calls for a promotion and relegation system.
Italy were the lowest points scorers, scored the fewest tries and made less line breaks than any of their Six Nations rivals at the World Cup despite featuring in a group that didn’t involve a southern hemisphere fish.
The Azzurri have won just 12 of 80 games in the championship, won the Wooden Spoon in 10 of the 16 campaigns and it’s three years since their last major scalp against Ireland. What’s more, Italy have lost 23 of 28 games since June 2013 and have an away record of 37 defeats in 40 away matches in this tournament.
Treviso and Zebre are propping up the Pro 12 table again and Brunel’s boys will almost certainly lose all five outings. Their front-row power is on the wane and there’s a horrid lack of direction behind the scrum. Things could really get ugly.
Winner & Specials
Wales are my Six Nations selection at 16/5 with Boylesports. As already mentioned, they offer the best value with the quite simply, the best, biggest and most experienced squad, continuity on and off the park as well as a manageable schedule.
It’s a tried and tested formula with the Dragons making them a much more attractive punting proposition than the undercooked English, confidence-sapped Irish and fallible French. If you’re looking for a rock solid wager, the 10/11 (Betway) on a top-two finish for Wales looks very handy.
I’m also going to stick Scotland in the ring for that top-two market at a bulbous 9/1 (Betway). Victory for the Bravehearts over England this coming weekend will cement the growing belief amongst the squad that Cotter’s charges can do damage in 2016 and they look well overpriced.
And there’s no harm at all in taking the England/Wales option in the Duel Forecast at 7/2 (Betway) as well as the humungous 100/1 on Wales/Scotland. The trio of teams look the best equipped for a top-half finish.
Elsewhere, the 9/1 (Paddy Power) on Ireland looks a little lumpy considering the Shamrocks’ opening schedule. Lose at home to Wales before a six-day turnaround and a trip to Paris could leave Schmidt’s side pointless after two rounds before heading to Twickenham.
Finally, Italy’s to win no games at even-money with BetVictor is the most straightforward easy winners in the competition. The Azzurri will target their Round 3 fixture with the Scots but I can’t see history repeating itself this year and the Wooden Spoon beckons for the rank outsiders.
Always an interesting market, the Top Tryscorer field sees four places paid out at ¼ odds, so each-way selections really come to the fore. Across the past 10 tournaments, there’s been an even split between two and three tries being required to break the top-four places.
Two has been enough in three of the past five campaigns but we should be looking for a player capable of crossing the whitewash three times to net a pay-out.
Again the nations with three home fixtures deserve precedence, especially so if they’re due to host Italy – preferably towards the end of the competition.
Wales once again fit the bill in this department with George North a 12/1 shot the most obvious selection. His haul of 23 tries in 55 Tests commands huge respect but failure to net a five-pointer in 12 of his past 15 for the Red Dragons and only two tries for Northampton this term is reason enough to leave the giant wing alone.
I’m not a fan of opposite winger Alex Cuthbert and full-back Liam Williams is only just back from injury. So take a chance on Jonathan Davies at 40/1 (BetVictor).
The bustling centre missed the World Cup through injury but forms an outstanding combination with Jamie Roberts in the midfield. His partner is an outstanding battering ram, allowing Davies to use his fine range of skills to unlock opposition defences.
No stranger to the scoresheet, the Clermont star has a strike-rate of 10 tries in 48 outings for his country including four in 21 in this competition. Should he stay fit, he may well be a key benefactor in the final day rout of the Italians.
Elsewhere, the aforementioned flair and offensive approach from the Scots could easily open up a number of candidates to place. The best value option appears to be Glasgow Warriors’ wing Tommy Seymour at an eye-catching 40/1 (Boylesports).
Seymour racked up four tries in the World Cup including five-pointers against Australia and South Africa, taking his tally to 11 tries in 22 international matches.
You’ll have to go a long way to find a better value each-way option in the 2016 renewal but the 5/1 (BetVictor) play on Seymour stealing Top Scottish Tryscorer shouldn’t be ignored either.
No Grand Slam winner (4/6 Bet365)
No Triple Crown winner (13/8 Betfred)
Wales to win outright (16/5 Boylesports)
Scotland to finish in the top-two (9/1 Betway)
Wales/Scotland duel forecast (100/1 Betway)
Ireland to finish in the bottom-two (9/1 Paddy Power)
Italy not to win a game (1/1 BetVictor)
Jonathan Davies top tryscorer (40/1 each-way BetVictor)
Tommy Seymour top tryscorer (40/1 each-way Boylesports)
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