It is that time of the week again when 'Orrible Punt sits down in the Planet Rugby hot-seat to give you his calls. Brace yourself for more Six Nations.
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Scotland vs Italy
Last week Italy confirmed what has been known for a while, that the days of them being an easy touch at home are long gone. From 2000-2007, they won 4/20 home games in this competition by an average score of 17-35 but from 2008 onwards that rate has dropped to 16-22 and they've won 3 of their last 4 there. The improvement hasn't translated to away matches though, with 31/33 losses by an average score of 13-34 and 27 of those defeats coming by more than 10 points.
The visitors have won 4 of the last 6 meetings with Scotland and are coming off that great win over the French so I am expecting their 2.88 price to be popular. However, the last time they beat Les Bleus, in 2011, they were beaten away by Scotland in the next round and I do see history repeating on Saturday.
Scotland have won 5/6 matches at home to Italy by an average score of 23-18 with the last few victories coming by 20 and 13 point margins. The blip occurred in the 2007 clash when Italy raced to a 0-21 lead after 7 minutes, pouncing on errors by Phil Godman and Chris Cusiter. Since that 2007 defeat, Scotland have only won 4/28 Six Nations games and only once in the last 11. But they do now have 3 home games in a row and whilst losing away at an in-form England will have hurt, Scott Johnson knows his credibility and chances of securing a long-term appointment will be judged on what happens at Murrayfield.
Italy should likely expect a fiercer approach at the contact area from the hosts than shown at HQ last week and more of the same from that dangerous back 3. Both 4/11 meetings between these sides and 4/8 Scottish Six Nations matches overall have seen tied scores at halftime, which is a chunky 13.0 to occur again, while a combination of half-time draw / full-time Scotland is 21.0. When being forced to choose between backing Italy to break their awful away record or Scotland to win a match when they are short odds favourites, you know it's not a game to be throwing too much money at. I will take the hosts by a margin of 1-12 points at 2.62, on the perhaps flimsy basis of home advantage and as they now need the win more. Keep tabs on an Italian drop at 3.75 and Stuart Hogg anytime scorer at 4.33.
France vs Wales
France have now gone 4 matches without a Six Nations win, their worst run in the modern format. They can at least point to 3 consecutive home wins in November while in contrast, since securing a Grand Slam last year, Wales have now lost 8 in a row and given away an average of 25 points per match. That unwanted record of 10 straight defeats is in sight and they have lost 9/13 games against France by an average 20-26 and 4/6 in Paris by 20-28.
Last week saw both teams reveal weaknesses that have plagued them for a while. Take your pick from that old clichÃ© of French teams not turning up on the day, fatigue and lack of preparation from Top 14 duty, or players being used in unfamiliar positions. For Wales, the gulf in quality between their first and second-half performances was evident.
Injury has meant the interim coach Rob Howley has again been spared making a tough selection call, with Justin Tipuric now in for Sam Warburton. Warburton was the 1.33 favourite for Lions captain back in September and available at 9.0 now which shows perhaps how his stock has perceived to have fallen. The returning Ryan Jones will be hoping for a better outing than his last captaincy stint which saw him penalised 5 times against Samoa, while Pascal Pape's absence means they'll be led by Thierry Dusautoir.
I do see that Welsh opening half malaise continuing, they have trailed at half-time in 7 of their last 9 games and in 5/6 matches in France. The hosts have led at the break in their last 6 games. The 1.8 for France to lead at half-time and win has been sadly reduced to 1.67 but still looks an option, as does backing the home side -4 at the interval. I don't think it's time to rush out and back France at 8.0 to win the tournament, but they are surely going to be provoked into a reaction on Saturday and their fired-up, monster pack may prove too strong.
Ireland vs England
The bookies are unable to split these teams and in fairness, they aren't alone there. The head-to-head record greatly favours the Irish, having won 7/9 meetings by an average of 21-18 and 5/6 home games by 21-17. Putting together a string of wins has proved a problem for the hosts though and you have to go back to rounds 3 and 4 of 2010 for consecutive wins (to balance that, the last time they lost back to back matches was even longer ago - rounds 4 and 5 of 2008). England have won 9 of their previous 11 games in this tournament.
Much of the pre-match focus will be on how the Irish scrum creaked without tighthead Mike Ross last season at Twickenham and how a potential 2011 English Grand Slam was prevented by an intense, dominating Irish performance and sloppy indiscipline from the visitors. There is also the issue of whether the English back-row will be unbalanced, who is selected in the centres, whether the famed choke tackle will prevent the visitors' new found offloading game. The angle I have settled on though, revolves around the halves. England have trailed at half-time in 4/6 away games under Stuart Lancaster. Over 60% of their tries in the last 3 tournaments have come in second-half and just 3/27 tries scored under the new regime have occurred in the opening 20 minutes. Ireland led at half-time in 9 of their last 10 games but been outscored second-half in 7 of them. They also had to make 200 tackles against Wales, with 6 players making a combined amount of 109 and at least 15 each. In contrast, England made 82 tackles in total with only 5 players making more than 5 tackles and looked to have plenty left in the tank at the final whistle. Ireland to lead at half-time is 2.0 and it's the same price for England to score the most points after the break in Dublin.
As for the winner, well the warrior Brian O'Driscoll has won his last 7 games against this opposition, scoring 3 tries along the way. The visitors are improving rapidly and