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 the Six Nations.
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Wales vs Ireland
Wales began 2012 with wins by 2, 14, 7 and 21 point margins and ended it with defeats by 14, 7, 23 and 2 points. Rather than going from a great team to a poor team in the space of a year, it was perhaps the crucial small margins that proved key. Wade through enough sporting clichÃ©s and eventually you'll run across a variant of the idea that defending a championship is harder than winning it. A look back over Six Nations history shows that only England and France have won successive tournaments, but even with that in mind, the way Wales react to a title win is noticeable. They lost 7/9 matches in this competition after the 2005 triumph and 6/11 games after the 2008 win. Going further back, they finished last the season after winning Five Nations silverware in 1989 and 1995. Since beating France last March, the Welsh have been defeated in seven of eight games (seven in a row) and conceded over 20 points in seven of the games, which suggests the 'curse' may be due to continue. The absence of Warren Gatland and fact that in this cycle of fixtures (three away/two home), Wales average a 47 percent win rate, which means the 4.33 for them to finish fourth looks decent value. They scored under 8.5 tries in 2011, 2009 and 2007 and I've backed them to repeat.
Ireland have not won consecutive Six Nations games since Rounds 3/4 of 2010 nor have they lost back-to-back, since Rounds 4/5 of 2008. This recent inconsistency and belief that they are a side in transition has meant they aren't really being considered as contenders, but it's worth remembering that they've won 15/18 games away to Scotland, Italy and Wales and 9/13 at home to England and France (including four of the last five). I like the 4.5 price for them to come second and over 9.5 Irish tries would have covered in 12/13 tournaments.
In last year's Six Nations, Wales scored 76 of their 106 points in the second half and eight of 10 tries then. They have trailed at half-time in six of their last eight games and in 10/13 matches against Ireland in the Six Nations. The Irish have also led at half-time in nine of their last 10 games in the Six Nations so I will have a play on Ireland to lead at the break at 2.2. No team chose to kick the ball back into play more than Wales in 2012, suggesting a lack in confidence at the line-out. I make it much closer than the bookies have said though and am taking Ireland to win at 2.3.
England vs Scotland
If it were true that a team is only as good as its last game, then inflicting New Zealand's first defeat since August 2011 puts them in good health. A team with three home games has won nine of thirteen Six Nations and I like the look of them to win over 3.5 games at 2.2. There have been eight Grand Slams in the last 11 years, but I prefer to back against that occurring at 1.7. There is always the danger of a team sliding into complacency or believing the hype though. It is also the case that they went into the game against the All Blacks as 10.0 underdogs, with captain Chris Robshaw under fire and against a team at the end of their season and suffering from illness. That isn't to detract from the win, but those conditions are unlikely to be replicated and instead performances must be delivered from the position of being favourites.
Scotland are in a similar situation to England last year, with an interim head coach and an air of unpredictability about them. I see an improvement from the Scots from last year and have backed a fifth-placed finish at 2.5. Scotland to score over 5.5 tries would have been successful in 5/6 tournaments where they have had three home games on the schedule, but the warning would be they've only managed that amount once in the last five years.
The bookies have it down as a routine win and have given the visitors a 16-point head-start, which looks too big. That amount would have been covered in 36/40 Scotland games (19/22 matches since 2011) and 5/7 meetings between the sides in this competition have been decided by seven points or less. There have only been seven tries scored in the last six meetings so under 3.5 tries or both teams to score = 'no' at 2.62 may be tempting at Twickenham.
Giving England's opposition a seven-point lead at half-time would have covered in their last eight games in this competition and in five of their last seven games overall. Scotland +7 at the break would have also proved successful in 7/8 Six Nations matches. In the last three seasons, England have scored over 60 per cent of their tries in the second half and of their last 12 matches, six games have seen the first try scored after the break. There have also only been 3/12 games where a try is scored in the opening 20 minutes, so I'll be looking to back the time of first try to occur after that opening quarter. More speculative, U would be looking at the fact that three of the last four Scotland games in the tournament have been tied at half-time which is 15.0, while a draw at half-time and England to win at full-time is up at 29.0 on Saturday.
Italy vs France