Scotland vs Ireland
Scotland are coming off of a good Autumn series and their club sides have also been performing well, with Glasgow and Edinburgh both through to the knock out stages of the European Champions and Challenge Cups respectively. Although they have the home advantage, most will still consider themselves the underdogs in the opening match of the tournament. Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg will need to be in top form and provide some magic to unlock the Irish defence, whilst captain Greig Laidlaw will need to slot over any kicking opportunities if there is any chance of victory.
Ireland has to be considered the in-form team going into the tournament, with three out of their four clubs still in the European Championship. Their autumn tests were also a huge success, winning against the Southern Hemisphere big three, with a historic win against New Zealand, with their only loss coming in the rematch. The injuries to Jonny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Andrew Trimble are certainly blows, but there should be enough squad depth for them to cope.
England vs France
The reigning Grand Slam Champions come into the event still undefeated under Eddie Jones’ new management, but face a host of injuries to their first team players. This will be a real test of the squad depth at Jones’ disposal, and it will allow him to see if these second string players are ready for the international stage. Captain Dylan Hartley will need to make sure he stays disciplined, as England will need him in the set piece.
France seem rejuvenated under their new coach, Guy Novès, with good performances in autumn; losing narrowly to Australia and New Zealand. However Twickenham is never an easy place to play at and the forward pack will need to win the battle up front to set up a platform for the rest of their game. Kicking will surely play a factor in whether the French can start their campaign off with a win.
Italy vs Wales
Often seen as the easy win of the tournament, they, like Scotland, have shown that they can defeat Southern Hemisphere teams. New coach Conner O’Shea has injected a new lease of life to the Azzurri, especially the kicking game and it certainly showed in the win against South Africa. Italy will have to stay focused for the whole 80 minutes and not give up the game late, as they did against Tonga.
Despite good results in the Autumn series, Wales seem like a team in transition with interim coach Rob Hawley trying to play a more expansive style, whilst Warren Gatland is away dealing with the Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer. Wales should be able to get the win and bonus point despite being away in Rome. George North will certainly need to step up his game and provide some tries if they are to walk away with the maximum points.
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