Dutching French and flying Irish a value Slam dunk
LAST year, I tipped Ireland in the Irish Independent to win the Triple Crown, Championship, and Grand Slam at prices of 5/1, 7/2, and 10/1 respectively, and this year I reckon they have every chance of repeating the trick.
However, it is always tougher for Ireland to win the Championship in even numbered years like this -- as we have to play England and France away in consecutive weeks, and to a lesser extent, playing Wales at home is not as advantageous as one would imagine; we have a better record in Cardiff than in Dublin lately.
Also, victories in Paris are as rare as Brian Cowen fan clubs -- and this year's championship will largely be decided by that match against France on February 13.
If you ask me, France and Ireland are the only serious contenders as Wales a peaked a couple of years ago; and England have no idea of their best side and don't have a reliable out-half. Italy at home should be straightforward and although the Scottish provinces are much improved this year, Ireland should have more than enough to comfortably beat Scotland at Croke Park.
Luke Fitzgerald is the only Grand Slam winner that Ireland won't have to pick from but overall, the Irish squad is, if anything, stronger than last year as Keith Earls is a ready-made replacement for Fitzgerald and the form of Denis Hurley, Shane Horgan, Johne Murphy, Ian Dowling, Shane Jennings, and Tony Buckley give a great depth to the Irish squad.
The consistent improvement of Jonathan Sexton means that an injury to, or loss of form of Ronan O' Gara would not be as devastating to Ireland's chances as was the case in previous years.
Tommy Bowe goes from strength to strength and Gordon D'Arcy is available for the whole championship and is getting back to the form that helped him capture the player of the tournament in two separate Six Nations campaigns.
The Irish backline is the strongest in the competition with all of the likely starters having been selected to go on last year's Lions tour.
Tomas O'Leary missed out through injury but some of the others emerged as true world-class stars. O'Driscoll reaffirmed his status as the best centre in the world scoring in four of Ireland's five matches in last season's Six Nations and was later voted 'Rugby World' magazine's World Player of the Decade.
Tommy Bowe continued his remarkable rise to world-class-winger status and it's hard to argue that Rob Kearney is not currently the best full-back in the world.
O'Driscoll may find it tough to score as many tries as last season and perhaps Keith Earls is a better bet in the top try-scorer market. The Munster man is 14/1 (Skybet) to top the try-scoring charts and this is great value as Ireland will spread the ball wide at every opportunity in the hope of using his explosive pace. I would also suggest backing Ireland to be the top try-scoring team at 11/4 (Blue Square).
Irish rugby is on the crest of a wave with the National side going unbeaten in 2009 (including an impressive victory over the World Champion and Tri-Nations winners South Africa) and capturing the Nation's first Grand Slam in 61 years.
Munster and Leinster won the Magners League and Heineken Cup respectively and are to the fore again in both competitions this season -- and, once again, an Irishman was chosen as the Lions captain. Declan Kidney showed in his time at the helm at Munster that he does not rest of his laurels, and as much as he will underplay Ireland's chances publicly, he will be eager to retain the Six Nations title.
I would suggest dutching (backing both) Ireland and France to win the championship and Grand Slam as I don't see either team losing to anyone apart from each other. France and Ireland are 7/4 (Stan James) and 5/2 (Paddy Power) respectively to win the championship and this is a max bet for me at an overall price of 27/50.
The odds don't seem immediately attractive but a winner is a winner; and in these recessionary times who can afford to turn their noses up at a 54pc return on investment!
The Grand Slam prices of 5/1 on France (Betfair) and 6/1 on Ireland (Bet365) can be dutched for an effective price of 6/5 and this represents great value. There is also good value in Ireland winning the Triple Crown at 2/1.
Championship outright -- dutch Ireland and France at 7/4 and 5/2 respectively.
Grand Slam -- Dutch Ireland and France at 5/1 and 6/1 respectively.
Triple Crown -- Ireland at 2/1.
Top try-scorer -- Keith Earls at 14/1.
Top try-scoring team -- Ireland at 11/4.