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Sunday, 16 December, 2018

England can ride injury crisis but lack leaders for a slam

France can finish above Wales in final standings

Bookmakers expect England and Ireland to be the main contenders for the Six Nations title
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With a record of just one defeat in two years and aiming for an unprecedented title hat-trick, England are odds-on to come out on top in a Six Nations betting heat that is shrouded with uncertainty.

Injuries have piled up on all sides, the autumn internationals showed sides moving to a more expansive, attacking style, Scotland finished in the top half last year for the first time in over a decade and are being talked up as contenders, while France have jettisoned their coach after a disappointing autumn.

The fixture list is set up for a grand slam decider between England and Ireland in the final round, but while the title looks set to come down to these two, there are sure to be some twists and turns along the way.

Best bet
England to win the title but no grand slam 13-5
Defending champions England opened up at short odds to win a third successive title but as the tournament has drawn nearer they have drifted to prices that are starting to appear attractive.

What England have going for them is clear to see – the depth of their squad is unrivalled, they have lost just once in the last two years, their set-piece and defence are notably strong and even the long list of absentees is starting to abate, and many of those sidelined are not first-choice picks.

Billy Vunipola is the key absentee, a situation compounded by back-up Nathan Hughes, a similarly powerful ball-carrier also being crocked. The front row is also depleted and there will be some less familiar faces in the line-up for their opener, but England are fortunate to be facing Italy and the shortest-priced favourites to get that all-important first win in round one.

The drift in England’s tournament odds has also been driven by backing for Ireland and Scotland, the teams punters see as most likely to deny the favourites.

Ireland certainly have a lot going for them as they are not so hard hit by injuries while their frontlne players, particularly their British & Irish Lions contingent, have been well managed by their provinces and those provinces have hit the heights in Europe.

But the big obstacle in Ireland’s path is that they face both France and England away, and while they have won in Paris and at Twickenham, they have never done the double in a single campaign and the schedule makes it tougher still.

First up they face a France team who frankly could be anything this year with a new coach parachuted in just a month ago and an overhauled squad.

Jacques Brunel at 64 is a year older than the sacked Guy Noves, who was felt to be out of touch with the modern game, but he has put his faith in young talent and also appears prepared to let the players take the lead. Les Bleus have always had the players, what has been missing is direction, and it may be that the squad are pulling together.

Ireland will know what to expect at Twickenham but England ought to be more cohesive and effective by round five and no amount of dressing the fixture up as a grand slam decider on St Patrick’s Day can take away from the fact that Ireland face a huge task.

Scotland hit so many heights last year with three wins and 14 tries in the Six Nations, a victory in Australia followed by an impressive autumn series when they ran New Zealand close and stuck 50 points on the Wallabies.

But it may be too soon to consider the Scots as title challengers. Those three wins last year were all at home but they face three away matches this time and their road record is not good. Every team have played 45 away matches since the Five Nations became Six in 2000, but while England, France, Ireland and Wales all have win tallies in the 20s, Scotland have won just six and contrast in their form is brought right up to date by last year’s showing at Twickenham, where they shipped seven tries in a 61-21 defeat.

They are an exciting attacking unit and want to play with pace and ambition but the Six Nations doesn’t always lend itself to that style of play. Scotland’s injuries have hit them hardest in the front row so there is every incentive for opposing teams to take them on in the forward exchanges and deny them a platform.

So England look the front-runners and at a more acceptable price but that’s not to say it will be plain sailing.

Injuries aside, there’s something else missing from Eddie Jones’s roster as the England coach has maintained repeatedly that he needs more leaders on the pitch and constant changes in line-up due to players sidelined do nothing to improve a lack of direction.

Last year they needed late tries to overcome deficits against France and Wales, were all at sea when faced with Italy’s novel approach at Twickenham, and it carried on in the autumn, when Jones was caught on camera shouting “How f***ing stupid are we?” as his players laboured to victory over Argentina.

With every opposing team gunning for them there are sure to be more close calls and England can’t keep relying on late scores to turn it around, It’s a big step from doing enough to win the title to a grand slam and at the prices backing England to top the table but fall short of five wins appears to offer most value.

Other selection
France to finish above Wales 11-10
Five-time winners France have been dismissed as 25-1 shots for their first title since 2010 but despite the shake-up in their squad there are grounds for believing Les Bleus could produce a little more than is expected of them.

They were 16-1 shots last year but only points difference separated them from Ireland in second and losing Noves may prove to be a positive.

They take on Ireland and England at home, and Brunel’s Top14 record suggests he sets a great deal of store by home performances, while switching the Italy fixture to the cauldron of Marseille should ensure a passionate showing from the French players.

Wales are probably overpriced too at 18-1 but they are so hard hit by injuries and face a huge test in their opening clash against Scotland.

If their inexperienced line-up fail to overcome the Scots then the schedule suddenly becomes brutal with away trips to England and Ireland.

England to win Six Nations but no grand slam
2pts 13-5 Paddy Power
France to finish above Wales
3pts 11-10 Sky Bet

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Billy Vunipola is the key absentee, a situation compounded by back-up Nathan Hughes, a similarly powerful ball-carrier also being crocked
E.W. Terms
Sky bet