Round three of the Six Nations is make or break for England and Ireland, both favourites for their trips to Wales and Italy.
England put right some of the damage from their opening defeat to Scotland with a 41-18 victory over Italy in round two, but it was still a far from convincing performance and defeat in Cardiff will leave the ante-post favourites pretty much out of the title reckoning.
Ireland are without a win after two rounds and while they would be expected to put that right in Rome, they still have a way to go to rediscover their attacking game.
Italy v Ireland
Ireland famously hit a low point in 2013 when losing 22-15 in Italy, but that remains their only Six Nations defeat to the Azzurri and they are 22-point favourites for this weekend’s encounter.
The Irish have passed that mark on five of their 10 trips to Rome in the tournament and they have also run in at least 50 points in five of their last seven meetings in all competitions.
This will be a huge opportunity for the Irish to try to cut loose after their attack has faltered this year. They are bottom of the stats pile for offloads and linebreaks over the first two rounds and are again without scrum-half Conor Murray, although Johnny Sexton is at least fit to return at fly-half.
Italy, though, are taking a different approach under coach Franco Smith, who has placed his faith in a young squad. He wants to focus on what his team do rather than take the tin-hat approach and look to keep the score down, and that came to the fore as the Azzurri opened the scoring against England.
The betting focus in the match is likely to be how much Ireland win by, and the home side’s scoring threat has to be taken into account, although they scored under 20 points in each of the last seven meetings.
Only one of the Six Nations meetings in Rome has seen a margin of more than 30 points, while 21 to 30 points was the range in four of Ireland’s nine victories. Five of the last seven meetings at all venues have produced more than 50 points.
Wales v England
Wales may feel they are lucky to be going into this fixture with two wins under their belts – victories over Ireland and Scotland, both of whom had a man sent off.
But they won’t dwell on it and a team who thrive on confidence and traditionally get stronger as the Six Nations wears on will surely be up for the fight in Cardiff.
No Wales fan will forget their 30-3 mauling of the old enemy in 2013 that sealed the Six Nations title, but what’s often forgotten is that they kicked off that campaign with a home defeat to Ireland followed by an ugly win over France that was sealed only in the dying minutes.
Six players who started that match nearly eight years ago are in the Wales line-up on Saturday as coach Wayne Pivac names the most cap-laden side in history.
Opposite number Eddie Jones has gone for the heaviest team he has ever picked, and a split of six forwards and two backs on the bench tells you he’s looking to outmuscle the Welsh.
So expect a hard-fought clash, and history says it will be close – nine of the last ten meetings in the tournament have been won by a margin of one to 12 points. Backing Wales with a seven-point start would have been a winning bet in all the last six meetings.
Six of the last nine matches between the two have fallen under the 40-point mark, and there have been no more than three tries in eight of the last 10.
All eyes will be on Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit, who has bagged three tries in the first two rounds and he is
11/4 to get on the scoresheet again, while England may look to their powerful pack – it’s
11/8 that a forward grabs the first try.
*All odds correct at time of writing