Scotland v Ireland (14:25)
For those able to tear themselves away from Cardiff against Worcester in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, the Six Nations gets off to a thundering start at Murrayfield in what should prove to be one of the seminal matches of this year’s tournament. The Scots will hope to build on an encouraging Autumn and ride on the coat tails of some all-action Glasgow performances from the last two months. They will however, be wary of the relative ease with which Munster brushed off Glasgow in the Champions Cup. The home side have lost scrummaging linchpin WP Nel for the tournament but his replacement, Dickens’ Zander Ferguson, will press his outside claim for a place on the Lions tour. In the second row Jonny Gray will continue to tackle anything that moves while his brother flops onto the odd ruck and lurches around the midfield like a Giraffe in a Donald Trump wig. The Scots are not short of back row options and have settled on the hard-running, hard-bearded, Josh Strauss at number eight with Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson operating on the flanks. Captain Greig Laidlaw will point and shout a lot before provide service to the in-form Finn Russell. With the dangerous back three of Seymour, Hogg and Maitland seemingly set in stone, the big decision for Vern Cotter was in the centre where he has opted for the classy Alex Dunbar and the find of the autumn, Huw Jones.
Ireland start the tournament as many people’s favourites for the title, with Leinster and Munster tearing up trees in Europe, and off the back of two tremendous performances against the All Blacks, confidence will be sky high in the Irish camp. The loss of Johnny Sexton is a big blow but will be offset by the improved performances of Paddy Jackson and the fact, that in the form of Conor Murray, Joe Schmidt can call on the best scrum half in Europe. Murray should have plenty of opportunities to torment the Scots with his box kicking as he will be playing behind a strong pack, the nearly seven feet of Devin Toner should cause problems for the Scots at the lineout and there will be no shortage of ball carrying from Jack McGrath and the bull-like Tadhg Furlong. In the back row Ireland have an embarrassment of riches, even with Peter O’Mahony missing through injury they have the luxury of leaving Josh van der Flier on the bench as cover for CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip. The now settled centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will be of keen interest to Lions watchers who will also keep an eye on Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo, if less so on Keith Earls, in the back three.
Ben – Ireland by 2, Russ – Scotland by 6, Doug – Ireland by 10
England v France (16.50)
Le Crunch just might have a little more snap than in recent years as France showed some signs of returning to their old selves during the autumn internationals. England though, as has been under-reported in the media, are unbeaten under Eddie Jones and will be a daunting prospect at home. The hosts’ pack does however have a somewhat makeshift appearance due to the absence of both Vunipolas, Chris Robshaw and George Kruis through injury. The second row combination of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes is a familiar one and should hold no fears for England fans, but it is up front that the French will hope to take advantage, England’s front row is short of match practice through injury and suspension, with only Dan Cole appearing for his club in recent weeks. Maro Itoje makes his much heralded move into the back row, where he will hope to quickly form an understanding with Tom Wood and Nathan Hughes. Jones will hope that Ben Youngs will leave his Leicester form at Welford Road, and that the cleverness of the George Ford, Owen Farrell partnership will keep the massive French pack moving . Which should enable the genuinely dangerous outside backs; Jonathan Joseph, Elliot Daly and Jonny May to take advantage of tiring bodies. The solidity of Mike Brown will also be welcome in what promises to be a bruising encounter.
The French will undoubtedly bid to attack any English weakness in the scrum and the selection of massive units like Uni Antonio and Sebastian Vahaamahina means they will probably keep matters tight, looking for offloads from Louis Picamoles to create opportunities. The loss of Wesley Fofana was a blow foe Les Bleus but Gael Fickou should prove a more than able deputy, Remi Lamerat gets the nod to partner Fickou, leaving Mathieu Bastareaud free to sniff out the finest sausage rolls that Richmond high street has to offer. Baptiste Serin gets the nod at scrum half to form an intriguing partnership with Camille Lopez and the Fijian pair of wingers will pose a threat in open play even if France do persist with the baffling Scott Spedding at full back.
Ben – England by 10, Russ – England by 7, Doug – France by 3
Italy v Wales (14:00)
Italy will see this as their best opportunity for a win this year after Wales endured a trick autumn, but the Welsh will be determined to avoid the potential banana skin and to build up some momentum for the rest of the tournament. Conor O’Shea can call on the best pair of Italian half backs that have been available for some time in Edoardo Gori and Carlo Canna and feels confident enough to leave out an in form Michele Campagnaro. The mighty Sergio Parisse again leads the side and if his pack can provide some front-foot ball he will feel he can take advantage of the absence of Taulupe Faletau. Despite clamour for change, Rob Howley has picked a relatively conservative side, Jake Ball replaces the injured Luke Charteris alongside new captain Alun Wyn Jones, while Sam Warburton switches to blind side. The new saviour of Welsh rugby takes his place on the open side with the ever-impressive Ross Moriarty fills in at number eight. Rhys Webb returns at scrum half to link up with Dan Biggar, who has held off the challenge of club mate Sam Davies to retain his place, usally about three feet from the referee’s ear, in the side . Jamie Roberts has lost out to Scott Williams in the battle to partner Jonathan Davies (2), promising at least a partial change in style from Warrenball and the revolutionary prospect of George North, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny actually seeing some of the ball in attack.
Ben – Wales by 18, Russ – Wales by 8, Doug – Wales by 15