England closing in on Grand Slam glory
‘A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ is how Eddie Jones is reminding his players to stay focused, as England look to become the first side in the Six Nations era to win the Grand Slam in back-to-back years. To follow up last season’s clean sweep with another five-win haul, this year’s title winners must beat Ireland in Dublin. The Irish have been party poopers in the past, denying England the Grand Slam in 2001 and 2011, but odds of 5/9 indicate the market makers believe the visitors to the Irish capital will popping celebratory champagne corks rather than drowning their sorrows.
Ireland, eight points adrift of England in second place in the table, have failed to find any real rhythm over the course of the Six Nations, and will be mindful that any of France, Wales – who meet each other in Paris this weekend – or even Scotland could overtake them for runners-up spot. The permutations are many, but Ireland know a win with a bonus point would all but guarantee Joe Schmidt’s side the tag of second best nation in the northern hemisphere.
That’s a rather dubious distinction, of course, and whenever a team appears to be a dominant as England are, inevitably attention turns to the bigger picture and the World Cup. We’re over two years away from the action in Japan, but Grosvenor Sport have been quick to price up Jones’ side’s chances in the Far East. England have earned a quote of 7/2 to become the best team on the planet, only behind New Zealand, who are the 6/5 favourites. Ahead of that, is the not-so-small matter of the British and Irish Lions tour to face the Kiwis this summer. The hosts trade as 11/50 jollies, with Warren Gatland’s men 13/4.
England are just 1/5 to supply the most players to the Lions squad but, according to the market, the Red Rose nation won’t be providing the captain – that honour looks likely to go either Alun Wyn Jones (6/4) or Sam Warburton (2/1). Either way, the backbone of the team will be English, which will be richly deserved given their authority in this year’s Six Nations Championship.
After their mauling against England last time out, Vern Cotter is charged with the task of lifting his Scotland side as they face Six Nations bottom team Italy in the final fixture of the 2017 championship. The New Zealander is set to stand down as coach after this game but he’ll know that this game is no ‘gimme’, even though the bookmakers have priced his side up as 1/50 favourites – with the Azzurri 17/1.
Italy won at Murrayfield as recently as 2015 and there were signs in their 18-40 loss to France last weekend that Conor O’Shea’s team will not down tools in their final fixture of the Six Nations as they have done in the recent past. Italy’s propensity to lose heavily in the last game has pricked ears of punters who’ve seen them conceded 67, 61 and 52 points in round five matches in the last three years.
Scotland give Italy a 23.5-point start (87/100 your choice) in Edinburgh and, after such a demoralising result south of the border seven days previously and with a raft of injuries to contend with, it’s the visitors that are the value play on the handicap.
Wales have won their last five Six Nations meetings with France, but punters have found that’s where the consistency ends with Rob Howley’s team. They’ve been tremendously difficult to predict in the Six Nations this year, overcoming the odds and the handicap versus Ireland last time out after doing the exact opposite against Scotland in their previous fixture.
In Paris, the layers make Les Bleus 49/100 favourites with the Welsh 8/5. The visitors get a 4.5-point start on the handicap at 81/100; Guy Novès team trade at 23/25. Should England beat Ireland later in the day, this is likely to be the match that decides second place in the standings.
France haven’t finished in the top half of the Championship since 2011, but while the market makers are convinced they’ll grab runners-up spot, I’m not so sure. Handling errors engulfed their play against Italy despite their success, and a mistake ridden performance against the Welsh will see them punished. Take a chance on Wales leading at half-time and at full-time at 5/2.
England go for consecutive win number 19 against Ireland in Dublin, with Eddie Jones warning his side that Ireland are ‘psychologically, in a very strong position’ and that they love ‘spoiling parties’. The 2017 Six Nations winners are 5/9 to win the game with Ireland 11/8. The tightest handicap prices list Joe Schmidt’s men at 81/100 getting a 3.5-point start, with England offered at 94/100.
If the visitors are to surpass the record held jointly by themselves and New Zealand, then they’ll need to start as committed as they were against Scotland last weekend. It was the first time we’ve really seen the ante-post favourites hit their straps, with Jonathan Joseph’s hat-trick and Owen Farrell unerring ability with the boot inspiring the hosts at Twickenham. They easily overcame Vern Cotter’s men and made a mockery of the 12.5-point handicap set by the odds-compilers by running out 61-21 winners. The last time the teams met in Dublin, Ireland were asked to cover the spread (-1.5) and obliged 19-9, but England have managed to win on the handicap twice on their last four trips across the Irish Sea.
England started brilliantly against Scotland, with two converted tries and two penalties on the board before the Scots had registered a point, so as well as siding with England on the handicap it might also pay to back them to be the first team to reach 10 points (28/25).
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