Six Nations 2016 – round 1

France v Italy

Since June 2013, Italy average a halftime deficit of -3 points and 2nd half of -11 points from a range of 29 matches. In their last 10 games in the Six Nations it works out as -7 in 1st half and -17 in 2nd half.

So as with most years, backing their opposition on the 2nd half handicap is going to be the likely angle in this Six Nations.

It is Jacques Brunel’s last tournament in charge with plenty of speculation that Conor O’Shea is going to take over. There were rumours before the World Cup that Brunel only spoke to four or five of the key players in the squad and ignored the rest. Chuck in Treviso’s woeful form and the problems the players had with the Italian Rugby Federation and it can be seen that the Azzurri are rightful favourites to pick up the wooden spoon (best of 1.2).

Injuries mean that around half of the World Cup squad might be missing this tournament. While the experienced core of Parisse, Castrogiovanni, Zanni, Ghiraldini and McLean average 96 caps each, for the rest of the wider squad it is just 11.

For this match, Italy have Lovotti and Gega making debuts in the front row, Bellini on the wing and Odiete at fullback. While Parisse does receive all the attention, Ghiraldini has been a key member of the pack and his absence means someone will have to replace his 55 tackles in the competition last year and 63 in 2014. Looking at the pack, the tight five have only made 10 combined starts and look ideal opponents for Jedrasiak, Chat, Poirot to start their test careers against.

Italy’s away record in the Six Nations is horrendous, with 37/40 losses by an average score of 34-13.

They’ve lost 8/8 away games in France in the tournament by an average score of 34-14 and failed to score a 1st half try on the last 7 of those trips.

At all venues, Italy have scored a 1st half try in only 1/10 games against France since 2007 with those 1st half scores being 3,6,3,3,6,6,13,3,0,3 points.

Based on those stats, time of first Italy try = after 43rd minute (1.83 with PP) or = 2nd half / no try (1.72 with Sporting Bet) might be of interest.

In the last 3 meetings, France have won 30-10, 29-0 and 32-10 against Italy – with 2nd half scores of 21-7, 20-0 and 17-7 in those games. Les Bleus also average an advantage of 12.6 points against Italy 2nd half at home.

Guy Noves is arguably taking over ten years too late but by the simple fact that he isn’t Saint-André, the team and morale should immediately be improved. He has mentioned wanting to bring back exciting play that will inspire the fans and as expect many of the non-French born players have been excluded, to appease the supporters. At the end of his tenure at Toulouse, Noves seemed to rely on an aging, massive pack to grind out results but there were occasional glimpses of the offloading style that won them trophies.

France were top for offloads in last year’s tournament and reasonable enough for most attacking stats. They did concede more turnovers than any other team though and suffered from a lack of game plan so any chances they did create were usually down to individual moments of skill rather than anything constructed as a team.

Noves has dropped the much-maligned Bastareaud from the squad. There was a suggestion that it is because he will be going to Japan for half a season which would make him unavailable for all France games. More likely it is because he was closely associated with PSA’s pragmatic style of play. Fofana has been described as ‘perhaps the major player’ in squad by the new coach but it could be he is shifted to the wing from centre when fit.

With the exception of Pape, Dusautoir (both retired) and le Roux (getting married this weekend) , Noves has selected a familiar French pack for this game. Lock Maestri is underrated by most pundits but has a decent work-rate these days and it was probably close between him and Guirado for the captain’s role. There will be plenty of ‘they’ll miss Dusautoir’ discussion but he was on the decline in last couple of seasons and Lauret / Burban should make for fair replacements this year. A slimmed down Picamoles is a big carrying threat and real upgrade over Chouly at no 8 – who is better suited to 6 if they need his lineout work.

The real changes are in the backline with Fickou the only player to have featured in the World Cup. It looks a team full of attacking potential with a better balance than in the previous four years. Bezy (24 years old), Plisson (24), Danty (23), Fickou (21), Bonneval (25) aren’t going to be scarred by the previous regime while players such as Medard and Mermoz should be energised under a new coach. Fijian-born winger Vakatawa is the real surprise selection as he was picked directly from the 7s team. The real test of his defensive positioning will likely come later in the competition.

After the low point of the World Cup loss against New Zealand, this does represent a great opportunity to win back some support from the fans by annihilating what looks to be a weak Italian side.

For all the many criticisms of France under Saint-Andre, their 4 wins against Italy came by 18,20,29 and 15 points. The named team for the weekend looks more likely to score points than the 2012-2015 vintage and have a coach that has expressed a desire to entertain. Italy on the other hand have been weakened by injuries and have a coach who will be leaving the role soon.

Referee JP Doyle was in charge of the 29-0 French win in Rome last March and their 41-18 win against Canada in the World Cup.

France are -10.5 on 2nd half handicap with PP.

Danty is 23.0 for man of the match, Jedrasiak is 61.0

Fickou has 8 tries in 10 starts this season and is 51.0 for tournament top try scorer

France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Hugo Bonneval, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Sébastien Bezy, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Paul Jedrasiak, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Jefferson Poirot, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Yacouba Camara, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Maxime Mermoz

Italy: 15 David Odiete, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Marco Fuser, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Ornel Gega, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Matteo Zanusso, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Valerio Bernabo, 20 Andries van Schalkwyk, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Kelly Haimona, 23 Luke McLean.


Scotland v England

Since 2000, the usual trend in this fixture has been high scoring at Twickenham with average of 49 points and low scoring at Murrayfield / neutral venues with an average of 29 points.

In the 17 matches against England at all venues since 2000, Scotland have scored a 1st half try in just 4 games.

They’ve also gone 10 home games in a row without a 1st half try against this opposition, with the 1st half scores in those matches being 3,6,9,3,6,3,9,9,6,0 points.

Since 2006, the 1st half scores at Murrayfield (and also Auckland in 2011) have been 3-3, 9-3, 9-6, 9-3, 6-3 and 0-13. So with the exception of 2014, Scotland have usually managed to keep England quiet before the break too. Time of 1st Scottish try = 35 mins and after / no try is 1.85 with Sporting Bet.

It has been 8 matches since the last Scottish win over England and they have lost the 2nd half each time in the 7 losses and 1 draw since 2009 – by 2,3,6,10,10,12,7 and 15 points.
Vern Cotter has stuck with the majority of his RWC team with Barclay for Wilson being the only change from the final pool game against Samoa. Backrow is an area that has seen plenty of tinkering with 17 combos selected in 22 matches.

Since taking charge he has given Hogg 19 starts, Laidlaw 17, Russell 16, Dickinson/Ford/J Gray/Seymour 15, R Gray/Bennett 14, so there is a settled spine to this team.
Looking at Scotland from August 2015 onwards (when Nel, Hardie were picked), then this squad has scored an average of 30 points in 9 games. They’ve beaten Italy twice, Japan, USA, Samoa and lost to Ireland by 6, France by 3, South Africa by 18 and Australia by 1. Scotland also conceded 33 points or more in their last 3 games.

There has been positive talk from the Scottish camp, with the idea that they are better prepared mentally compared to other years and are confident for this game. The attack has certainly improved, as an example they carried for an average of just 256m in 2013 and 273m in 2014 – which jumped up to 403m in 2015.

England finished second in this tournament each year under Lancaster. Despite the criticism of the former coach, he did get England attacking well in the 2014 and 2015 tournaments (top for metres carried, defenders beaten etc) – so there is a strong foundation for Eddie Jones to work with.

Lancaster’s decision to move away from England’s traditional strengths and copy New Zealand backfired – with the accepted view being that the pack lost power and there wasn’t the requisite skill level / creativity to finish off chances. Conservative selection and the Burgess gamble also led to criticism.

Jones has mentioned in almost every interview that he wants to re-establish the set-piece and England’s reputation of having a fearsome pack. The general view is that the team became ‘too nice’ under previous regime. Making Hartley captain can be seen as a signal of intent, though he was also the only likely choice for the job given the new coach was unlikely to keep Robshaw in the role.

Had the previous coaching staff been retained, there would have likely been a negative build-up to this fixture, however that change has altered the focus with players reacting positively in the Premiership and European competition so far.

While there has been plenty of hype about a new era, the team named to face Scotland does resemble a Lancaster side. The front row and back row (allowing for Robshaw and Haskell swapped round) started each match in the 2015 Six Nations and in total 11 of the players started against Scotland last year. Given Eddie Jones was only permitted to make 11 changes to the EPS,that perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise.

It is unlikely that all the issues at scrum, lineout, breakdown and centre can be resolved in just a few weeks however there is also the point that the majority of this England squad have won 16/20 Six Nations games since 2012 compared to 3/20 by the hosts.

England 1-12 winning margin is 2.5

Hartley is 19.0 for man of the match and Hardie 26.0

There has been at least 1 card shown in 15/16 games at Murrayfield since Nov 2012, with the last six there seeing 3,0,2,2,1 and 2 cards. There has only been 1 card given out in the previous 4 games between these teams at this venue though.

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 David Denton, 7 John Hardie, 6 John Barclay, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Willem Nel, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Blair Cowan, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Duncan Taylor.

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Danny Care, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 James Haskell, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 George Kruis, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Paul Hill, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Jack Clifford, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Alex Goode, 23 Ollie Devoto


Ireland v Wales

Ireland were tournament winners in the previous two seasons and have been in the top three in 14/16 seasons in the Six Nations era.

They won the 2014 Six Nations with a settled team of Healy (5 starts), Best (5), Ross (5), Toner (5), O’Connell (4), O’Mahony (4), Henry (5), Heaslip (5), Murray (5), Sexton (5), D Kearney (5), D’Arcy (4), O’Driscoll (5), Trimble (5) and R Kearney (5).

Their 2015 success had main starters of McGrath (4), Best (5), Ross (5), Toner (5), O’Connell (5), O’Mahony (5), O’Brien (4), Heaslip (3), Murray (5), Sexton (4), Zebo (4), Henshaw (5), Payne (5), Bowe (5) and R Kearney (5).

In the 27 previous games under Schmidt, there has been a core of regular starters with Ross 25, Heaslip 22, Best/Toner/Murray/Sexton 21, O’Connell / R Kearney 20, O’Mahony 19 and Bowe 16.

One of the issues raised before Ireland’s World Cup campaign was how they would cope if missing a number of their key players. For the Argentina loss they were without O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Sexton and Payne.

They go into this tournament with O’Connell retired and no Healy, Ross, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Henry, Bowe or R Kearney. That means a start for the impressive Stander at 6, Zebo at 15, with White earning his 3rd start under Schmidt and O’Donnell his 4th. While the Henshaw / Payne centre combo was the preferred choice in last year’s tournament, this will be only their second start together in the last 10 tests.

These teams have won 6 of the previous 8 tournaments between them and it has evolved into a fierce rivalry, assisted by factors such as Gatland being the previous Ireland boss, Lions tour selections etc. As with recent games, expect the losing team to highlight that their opponent ‘didn’t play much rugby’ or a reference to how often they kicked.

Ireland’s success in consecutive seasons was based on keeping the error and penalty count very low – they conceded just 8.6 penalties a game and 10.2 turnovers in the 2015 competition. They also only scored 8 tries last year compared to 18 from England and 13 from Wales.

Going back to 1986, Wales have been ahead at halftime in just 2/19 games v Ireland (away or neutral venue).Ireland HT / Wales FT has landed in 8 of those 19 matches.
In more recent fixtures, Wales have won the 2nd half in 7 of the previous 8 matches with Ireland, having led at HT in just 2 of those games.

Gatland’s team have also been victorious on 2 of their previous 3 trips to Dublin. It is a settled squad that is comfortable with the game-plan and the coaching team have plenty of experience of preparing for and winning big matches.

The core of this squad were around for the 2011 World Cup, got over the disappointment of the semi-final defeat and then won the Grand Slam in the 2012 Six Nations. Two major strengths for Wales have been a strong defence and the ability to finish games strongly thanks to their fitness. They will likely feel they were one bad half away from winning the Six Nations last year (16-8 up at home against a weakened England team at halftime , but lost 16-21).

Looking at the average caps per player in the wider squads that were announced in January, Wales had 29.8, Ireland 25.6, Italy 25.2, Scotland 23.2, England 21.8 and France 14.1.

In the two World Cup warm-up games against Ireland, Tipuric scored 2 tries, assisted another and made 43 tackles, missing none. A lack of game time means Lydiate is on the bench for this contest but it would have likely been a close call even if had been playing recently.

The choice of Garces as an official was provided as a partial reason for the selection of Evans over Jenkins but there is also the need to manage the latter’s eventual replacement. The return of J Davies bring some stability to the midfield as 5 different combinations has been used in his 8 match absence. Biggar’s goal kicking and general form does mitigate Halfpenny missing the tournament while an in-form James has been selected ahead of Cuthbert.

Charteris had made 57 tackles, 0 missed in his previous 3 appearances against Ireland (147 minutes), while his partner at lock is in career best form. The difference between the proven test combos at lock and back row for Wales compared to the less settled Ireland pack could prove crucial.

The away team has won 5/6 games with Garces as referee in this tournament. Wales won at home against Scotland with him in charge in a match in 2014 that saw an early red card, lost at home against England last year and then won at Twickenham in the World Cup. Last year Ireland won at Murrayfield and beat Italy in London with Garces as ref but he was also the official for the Argentina loss.

Wales are +1 on 2nd half handicap

Tipuric is 9.0 anytime scorer, CJ Stander is 7.0

Ireland: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Mike McCarthy, 3 Nathan White, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 James Cronin, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Donnacha Ryan, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Dave Kearney

Wales: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Tom James, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton (c), 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Dan Lydiate, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Alex Cuthbert.