Rugby Union,

Reasons for English optimism?

ENGLAND vs FRANCESaturday March 11th, 4:45pm

Best bets
Ellis Genge first try scorer @ 28/1
France to win by 1-5 points @ 17/4
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Ellis Genge is a leader by example. He has the acceleration to run around defenders and the pace to run through them. In the absence of Owen Farrell he will lead England against France. For those who remember his inspirational brand of leadership in Leicester colours last season, it will come as no surprise that I suggest a small wager as first try scorer at the tantalising price of 28-1.

He’s up against France’s 3rd choice tight head in Aldegheri so he might warm up for a charge to the line with a confidence inducing scrum or two. I can see him blasting across the line, leading from the front to give England the ideal start. Obviously minimal stakes but he really is at least double the price he should be.

As for the game, here are a few reasons for English optimism. France have been finding it difficult to reach their 2022 peaks in terms of performance. Their best performance in 2023 was the defeat against the in form Irish. There was no disgrace losing that one in Dublin but Fabien Galthie seemed to take the wrong lesson out of that afternoon.

He thought Romain Ntamack played too much attacking rugby. The Toulouse style is seen as too loose for the Six Nations, even though this side is half the Toulouse team. They are too structured and too dependent on the world’s best player, Antoine Dupont. He is taking too much responsibility. France have to release the hand breaks.

If my memory serves me well, France have not won here in the Six Nations since 2007. France, not quite as confident as of late, could just be vulnerable. This side of the channel, all the noise has been about Marcus Smith. In France the return of Jonathan Danty has been the rugby news.

He is a massive selection at inside centre. The La Rochelle centre is fit after 3 weeks rugby. Arguably the best orthodox inside centre in the game. He gives France the gain line as well as a subtle variety of skills – despite his bowling ball physique – that his replacement, Moefana has failed to do. The change in personnel could make an immense difference to France.

He’ll target Smith (a better tackler than he is given credit for) but England defence coach, Kevin Sinfield, will have worked out ways to protect England’s defensive shape. It will be tested if Danty dominates the gain line. England are hoping France can be stretched by Smith’s speedy feet and mind.

I think the match will be close and that France has an edge of class that might just be ignited by the centre’s return. France are 3-4 on which appeals only slightly more than England to prevail at 10-11 with a 2 point start. If the game is to be as tight as both myself and the bookmakers think, the smart bet is France to win by the narrowest of margins, 1-5 at 17/4. It’s not a game on which to pile the bets on. Save that for Constitution Hill on Tuesday.

ITALY vs WALESSaturday March 11th, 2:15pm

Best bets
Italy to win @ 21/20
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he weekend kicks off in Rome with Italy fancied by many good judges to win a Six Nations game. It is a long time, if ever, since they have been expected to win, perhaps dating back to those days when Scotland were the other Wooden Spoon contenders. For Scotland then, read Wales now. The Welsh not so Merry go round sees another significant set of changes. Alun Wyn Jones is in-out-in and now out. The much touted Louis Rees Zammit has been dropped and with the Welsh offensive so blunt so far, they travel to Rome without two proven test goal kickers in Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny.

Owain Williams is not a top quality ten. Italy’s Garbisi would win the vote between the two every time. It is heresy to say – until recent times – but Warren Gatland seems to be clueless as Welsh rugby swirls in a vortex of despair.

Italy have an outstanding and established back row, a back line that has real penetration and a full back in Ange Capuozzo who can turn any game as Wales recall from Cardiff last season. Man for man and as a collective Italy appear superior. Throw in home advantage as well and Italy look great value to win at 21-20.

SCOTLAND vs IRELANDSunday March 12th, 3pm

Best bets
Ireland to win by 11-15 points @ 5/1
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Hopefully you took advice before the Six Nations started and backed Ireland to win the Grand Slam at 3-1. the odds of 4-11 are way too short against a Scotland team that is the tournament’s most improving squad. Gregor Townsend’s team are arguably the biggest obstacle between Ireland and the Slam. Edinburgh appears a sterner test than England in Dublin.

The hosts played some superb running rugby against France in Paris. They were excellent against Wales and beat England at Twickenham. They are a fine side. The highlight of their campaign has been a marvellous midfield in which Finn Russell has pulled the strings and Huw Jones carved defences to pieces in the outside centre channel.

Italy had similar success against Ireland in that wide channel in Rome. But the return from injury of Gary Ringrose is a major boost (along with several other key additions to the squad.) Russell is a class act but Ireland might just put a squeeze on him if that 13 channel is cut off.

It’s the best organised defence Russell has encountered and it will have a plan to nullify Russell. Say that works; the possibility of overambitious rugby grows and with it Ireland’s deadly turnover game. Scotland can dazzle but do too much and Ireland will rack up the points.

You could have a Scottish saver (for the Grand Slam bet) at 12-5 to win but a small bet on Ireland to win by 11-15 at 5-1 is a small recommendation before all eyes turn to the Festival.

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