It is that most fantastic of sporting clichés in the Six Nations this weekend: crunch time. With two games down and three to play, this looks to be the defining gameweek of the competition given that the top four teams in the contest are set to go head to head.
Wales host France tonight with one thing on the mind: victory, of course, as it will keep them in the hunt for their first Six Nations crown since the 2013 vintage. France, who have already upset the odds once in this tournament – if the bookmakers are to be believed – in their 10-9 win over Ireland, will be hoping that lightning strikes twice.
And then there’s the double header on Saturday, with England hoping to eliminate Ireland from contention at Twickenham and Scotland and Italy battling it out in the perennial wooden spoon fixture.
So come Saturday evening we will be a lot nearer to knowing who is poised for glory in this competition; and looks set to be consigned to also-ran status. How are the betting markets shaping up?
Wales vs France
Wales head the market at a rather unbackable 1/3, with France back at 7/2. Is that disparity a surprise? Perhaps not. The Welsh have won their last four meetings with the French, with an average points difference of ten, so there is a clear guide as to how they tend to dominate. On home soil they lead 28/17 in the head-to-head stakes too, and having overcome two stern tests thus far they do wear the tag of favourites well in this one.
Despite their well-disciplined display against the Irish, it is hard to put France’s debacle against Italy in their Six Nations opener out of our minds. Sure they won, but having trailed with 20 minutes to go it is clear that a well-organised pack can put huge pressure on the French resistance. Wales will not be found wanting in this area.
We expect Wales to earn plenty of penalties, so a handicap of -7 points at 4/6 is not beyond the realms of possibility at all.
With five tries at the World Cup and that fine solo effort against Scotland last time out, Welsh scrum half Gareth Davies is back in form at the moment. Back him to cross the whitewash again in the Anytime Tryscorer market at 7/2.
England vs Ireland
While most would have predicted England to be sitting pretty at the top of the table with two wins from two thus far, few would have believed that Ireland would be the owners of a solitary point at this stage. But that is the case after they were outfought and outgunned by the French last time out.
England are as short as 1/3 to win this one, and that is due perhaps in part to their 43-17 head-to-head record lead over the Irish in matches played at Twickenham; that is rather compelling evidence. They’ve also not tasted defeat to Ireland at the home of rugby since 2010, and have triumphed in five of their last six meetings anywhere in the world. If this was a detective show, the main character would be saying ‘case closed’ any time now.
None of the handicap markets look appetising given that this *could* be a close game, so make sure you swerve those. Instead, back an England Penalty to be the first scoring play at 7/5. That looks an odds-on chance really when you consider the facts.
Italy v Scotland
The bookmakers have installed Scotland as the favourites for this one, but punters are advised caution given that Italy lead Scotland 5-4 in the head-to-head for matches played on Italian soil.
The Scots are improving all the time and were one try away from beating both England and Wales, so their favouritism at 4/9 is to be expected. But they were heavy favourites when Italy turned them over at Murrayfield last year as well.
It’s been a strange Six Nations campaign from the Italians thus far; they were fantastic against France and then embarrassing against England. It’s hard for punters to support such unpredictability, but with a +9 point handicap in their favour available at 8/13, many will be sorely tempted.