Joe Schmidt can mastermind Irish Six Nations success
SINCE the traditional curtain-raiser for springtime moved from Five Nations to Six in 2000 no team has won the championship three years on the bounce.
Making history is the carrot being dangled in front of England ahead of this year's renewal, which gets going this weekend.
The English, as has become the norm since Eddie Jones took the helm, go into the championship as warm favourites, at no bigger than even-money, and they are clearly the team to beat.
Indeed, beat them is something only one team has done under Jones's watch, with Ireland denying England the Grand Slam last term.
That win for Joe Schmidt's men couldn't prevent England taking the title, but it did ensure that for the third time in four seasons, the recent heavyweights of European rugby finished as the top two.
The bookies, and the organisers, clearly see something similar transpiring this time around, with Ireland second-favourites at a best price of 15/8 with 888sport, and the fixtures all pointing towards a Twickenham showdown on St Patrick's Day.
Scotland, however, might have other ideas. They haven't got their hands on the title since the final year of the Five Nations in 1999, but optimism has rarely been as high than at present, with a fine November campaign under new coach Gregor Townsend providing a thrilling 53-24 win over Australia and an agonising defeat at the hands of the All Blacks.
The Scots are 11/1 shots this time around, and their opening game in Cardiff against Wales could go a long way to deciding how they fare.
Yet, an away trip to Dublin is likely to be too difficult for a very promising team, and the feeling is they will be more of a threat a year from now.
The Welsh will be narrow favourites for that game on Saturday, but they have away games in Dublin and at Twickenham on the horizon and have been rocked by injuries to Talupe Faletau, Sam Warburton, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb and Liam Williams.
All of which marks Warren Gatland's comments that they are worth a bet down as hot air, unsurprisingly.
France are at a low ebb and continue to struggle on the back of the influx of well-paid foreigners to their club game, with only a home fixture against Italy possibly saving them from the wooden spoon.
The French are Ireland's opening opponents on Saturday, and while there is always an element of danger in Paris, the fact the visitors are 4/9 shots tells you they really should get off to a winning start.
England have been beset by injuries, with around 15 players set to be ruled out of the early games, most notably Billy Vunipola, and they will be thankful for a soft opener in Rome.
Despite those ailments, it is very likely to boil down to the Irish and English again.
Paddy Power go 4/5 about a dual forecast involving the two nations and that could well interest punters with plenty of pounds and patience to play with.
England have a formidable squad and a fearsome leader in Eddie Jones, although they do face tricky trips to Edinburgh and Paris, two venues that really come to life when the English are in town, and there has to be a chance they'll have lost once before the Paddy's Day showdown with Ireland.
In contrast, I can't see where Ireland will slip up prior to Twickenham, with the fact they have Scotland at home a particular boost.
Schmidt will be without Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien – the latter for the early games – but the back row is an area of serious strength, with the form of CJ Stander at number eight putting a question mark over whether Heaslip would be in the team in any case.
November went very well, with young players being given, and taking, their chance, and the optimism has not been harmed in any way by the form of Leinster and Munster in Europe.
Ireland are a settled unit, while young guns like Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour are ready to sparkle.
One slight concern would be a lack of cover at half-back for Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, but you can't live in fear of injuries and I'm fairly confident Schmidt will take his men to England with a Grand Slam still to play for.
It could be that England gain revenge for last year and spoil that party, in which case the championship may come down to try bonuses and points difference.
To that end, Ireland having Italy at home should really help, and at 15/8 they have to be the outright bet.
At the start of January, I suggested a bet on Stockdale for top tryscorer, and while things haven't gone altogether smoothly with Ulster in the last few weeks, I'm still sweet on the chances of the powerhouse winger at 14/1 (Boylesports).
He has made a flying start to his international career, with four tries in as many games, and there is no reason that rate should slow down, especially with the brittle French and Italians up first.
Elsewhere in the tryscorer betting, Stuart Hogg catches the eye at 16/1 with Ladbrokes.
The Scottish full-back is perhaps the most exciting broken-field runner in the European game and has come back with a bang for Glasgow after a long injury lay-off.
He grabbed three tries last year and could go as well, if not better, as a result of Townsend's expansive style of play.
Another player to consider is England's Danny Care.
While he's not the starting scrum-half, Care gets plenty of game-time off the bench against tiring teams, with his pace off the base of scrums and rucks a real asset.
Care has 13 tries in 76 internationals, but five of those have come in the last year and he is a dark horse who is worth an each-way bet at 66/1 with Ladbrokes.
Finally, the top pointscorer market is dominated by Owen Farrell (6/4) and Sexton (9/4) on the basis that they are the kickers for the best teams.
However, I'm tempted by the 10/1 quoted by Boylesports about Scottish out-half Finn Russell.
With his side throwing the ball about tries are likely to flow and Russell can fill his boots with conversions, so he's definitely worth a look.
As is the Six Nations itself, with it all probably boiling down to that showdown on March 17. It's a good job it has an early enough kick-off.
Ireland, 15/8, (888sport)
France, bottom two finish, 13/10 (Boylesports)
Jacob Stockdale, top tryscorer, e/w, 14/1 (Boylesports)
Stuart Hogg, top tryscorer, e/w, 16/1 (Ladbrokes)
Danny Care, top tryscorer, e/w, 66/1 (Ladbrokes)
Finn Russell, top pointscorer, 10/1 (Boylesports)
WITH transfer deals going on all over the place on deadline day, some of the Premier League managers whose teams have games tonight could be forgiven for having one eye on their phones while prowling the sidelines.
It has been a busier than usual January window, with teams at both ends of the table searching for that all-important deal that could make the difference between a dream season and a disastrous one.
Manchester United splashed the cash in the January sales to entice Alexis Sanchez (right) from Arsenal and the Chilean should make his league debut for the club against Spurs at Wembley this evening.
Sanchez is a top drawer player but his recruitment won't help United bridge the gap to neighbours City at the top of the table, and neither will it make Jose Mourinho abandon his safety-first approach against direct rivals.
With Harry Kane leading the line for Tottenham, the attacking talent on show will be of the highest class, yet goals could be at a premium this evening as both teams will want to avoid defeat.
Spurs hammered hapless Everton last time out at Wembley, but their form has been patchy of late and while they haven't lost at their adopted home since their first outing against Chelsea in August, there have been some poor displays there.
United, meanwhile, are yet to concede in 2018, winning all five games, and Mourinho would happily head back up the road with a point.
Spurs are favourites at 13/10 with William Hill, but a draw is by far the most likely outcome and it should be backed at 12/5 with Bet365, while the 10/11 offered by William Hill about under 2.5 goals in the match looks a steal.
United won 1-0 when the sides met at Old Trafford in October in a turgid game, and the first half here may well go along the same lines, so another bet worth looking at is the 0-0 at half-time, which can be backed at 15/8 with Sky Bet.
One manager trying to get a few deals over the line today is Sam Allardyce, whose Everton team have hit a terrible run of form.
They host Leicester City tonight and another defeat for the Toffees will have them looking over their shoulders again towards the relegation scrap.
Allardyce prides himself on tightening teams up at the back but Everton have looked ponderous at both ends of the field and this game looks set up for the Foxes, and the pace of Jamie Vardy in particular.
Leicester are massive at 13/8 with Bet365 to complete a typical smash-and-grab, while the 4/1 quoted by Sky Bet about an away win with Vardy scoring is very appealing.
Finally, Watford are also in relegation danger despite being in the top half, and their woes can continue at Stoke, whose victory over Huddersfield last time showed the bounce factor a side can get from a new manager.
Paul Lambert is a no-frills appointment but he might be exactly what the Potters need and he can get the better of Watford's new boss Javi Gracia tonight.
Get on Stoke at 5/4.