Wales lost their first match in the 2013 Six Nations but still won the title and the bookmakers believe this is something England can achieve this season. With three of the five groups of fixtures completed England are favourites to be champions of Europe though only narrowly over Ireland who they beat at Twickenham in their most recent fixture.
Four teams have now won two and lost one match so any of those sides can end the season with most points or with equal points and the best overall scoring and conceding record. It would take a bizarre series of results for Scotland to win this year’s Six Nations but it is still possible which means only Italy are now out of contention. Odds of 5000/1 reflect Scotland’s chances so one of England, Ireland, Wales and France will win the title this time.
Last year Wales beat England in what turned out to the championship decider. That match was in Cardiff so England have home advantage on this occasion. Playing at home is generally worth six points so the handicap of five indicates how closely matched these two sides are ahead of this huge match, being played on March 9th.
Wales won that match 30-3 which suggests they are a good bet to lose by four points or less to cover the spread. However, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for England last March and these two sides are not 27 points apart in terms of ability. Wales led by six points at half time but outscored their opponents by 21 points in the second half.
Ahead of last season’s fixture there were several potential scenarios. If England had beaten Wales they would have won the Six Nations and Wales had to win by eight points or more to do likewise. The least likely outcome was for Wales to win by seven points and maintain their superior try count. The actual margin of victory meant Wales lifted the silverware.
In the match at Twickenham against Ireland England spoiled Brian O’Drsicoll’s last match at the headquarters of English rugby, created a four way race for the title and prevented Ireland from winning the Grand Slam. In each Six Nations three honours are played for, namely the championship, the Triple Crown, that is by beating three British sides, and the Grand Slam which is awarded to any team that wins all five matches.
It’s rare that after each side has played three matches none are unbeaten but in this year’s renewal the top four sides have each lost one match. Ireland have the best point’s difference so are at the top of the table while France are fourth but with the same number of points. England are ahead of Wales but only due to a superior scoring record of 13 points.
The wooden spoon given to the side that finishes bottom of the six is now between Scotland and Italy but the latter have lost all three of their matches including by just one point at home to Scotland in the most recent group of fixtures. Italy have conceded the most points to date but Scotland have scored fewest, just 27 in three matches.
The key incident of a close match between England and Ireland came in the 57th minute when an England try turned the score around from 6-10 to 13-10. There were no more points during the rest of the match which meant England won the match despite a deficit of 7 points during the second half. England led 3-0 at half time which was an indication of the dominance of defences for much of the match.
England will be without Billy Vunipola for the match against Wales but that may not be too significant. He has been ruled out of the remaining two rounds of the Six Nations because of an ankle ligament injury. Vuniploa earned his place in the side through his form for Saracens but Ben Morgan (pictured below) is an able deputy. He has impressed from the bench in three internationals to date so the side will be not weakened by Vunipola’s absence.
England’s coach, Stuart Lancaster, believes his side are better experienced to cope with the key match against Wales compared to the side that lost in Cardiff last year. They have played eight Tests since and despite losses to New Zealand and France the coach thinks they now have the confidence and composure to maintain their best form when the score goes against them.
The nature of defeat and margin of loss in Cardiff last year will not be easily forgotten and only in beating Wales in the reverse fixture this season will England totally recover from such a mauling. Neither team can afford to lose the match if are still able to win the title before the final group of fixtures. In a tight match home advantage can be key in determining the outcome.
Ireland are 22 point favourites to beat Italy at home in their penultimate match of this year’s Six Nations. A home win is a banker and the margin of victory will be decided by how much Italy are motivated in for them what could be a meaningless fixture. However, they will not want to win the wooden spoon which means Ireland may struggle to win by 22 points or more.
Scotland are given an 8 point start for their home match with France. Away wins are always hard at this level but France can cover that handicap but win the match in any case and head into the final week of matches with a chance of winning the title. However, the key match is at Twickenham which England can win and become stronger favourites to win the Six Nations of 2014.