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Nic Ladds 29th Jan 2010 - 21:38

Six Nations team by team preview

One of the most interesting Six Nations in years promises some classic matches and thrilling rugby union action. You may know who you're supporting but who are you going to back to win?

Fancy the French to finally go a tournament without sulking? Think Ireland will Grand Slam the field for the second year running? Think Wales can overcome last year's heartbreak? Expect England to defy all the critics? Or fully expect outsiders Scotland or Italy to cause a major upset?

Our team-by-team preview can hopefully help you make up your mind and once you have you can view all our Six Nations betting here

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France - odds to win 6/4

For as long as anyone can remember France will be breathtakingly brilliant one moment then diabolically awful the next, sometimes in the same minute, but it is the brilliant France that we may be beginning to see coming in to this tournament.

In their autumn internationals they sent a message to their rivals by beating world champions South Africa in a mightily impressive performance before being beaten by New Zealand in a fantastic, open game but this demonstrated that they are still not the finished article.

Their squad selection has raised a few eyebrows, not least because of the inclusion of centre Mathieu Bastareaud after his involvement in a lie concerning an assault in New Zealand last year while Toulouse players Yann David, Florain Fritz, Maxime Medard, Cedric Heymans and Lionel Beauxis have all been left out which is a bold move from Marc Lievremont and will be heralded as a massive error or stroke of genius depending on how France do.

Meanwhile Aurelien Rougerie, Julien Malzieu, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Benjamin Boyet are all recalled and the French pack looks frighteningly good as the likes of Thierry Dussautoir, Immanol Harinordoquy and Louis Picamoles have been outstanding all year.

France play England, Ireland and Italy all at home which could be key. The fact they have three teams in the top four seeds in the Heineken Cup final stages shows the strength of French rugby at the moment and they are worthy favourites to win their first Six Nations since 2007, it is all a question of which France will turn up, and if it is the side at their best, they will be almost impossible to stop.

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Ireland - odds to win 5/2

Last year's Grand Slam winners certainly have the firepower to match up to the French and Declan Kidney's side achieved the accolade of being the first test team in the professional era to go through a calendar year unbeaten and in 13 matches under Kidney, they have lost just once to New Zealand.

Ireland do face away games in France and England which will pose serious tests for them but the fact they have three games at Croke Park should go some way to redressing the balance.

The fact that Ireland's two most prominent sides Munster and Leinster are doing so well in the Heineken Cup bodes well for the team in green and with both sides packed full of international players, the squad will at least be used to playing with one another, a luxury which England in particular cannot claim to have.

In Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland have a fearless leader who appears to be getting better with age, while Lions captain Paul O'Connell commands the scrum and with Tommy Bowe (who is 8/1 favourite to be top try scorer) on the wing, Rob Kearney at full back and players like Jonathon Sexton emerging as true superstars, they certainly have the weapons to win their first back-to-back titles since 1948-49.

Their only possible weakness is the scrum which was worryingly pushed around by both Australia and South Africa but only France really look like they could trouble them up front and you can be sure Kidney will have been working hard on this and many wouldn't discount them for another Grand Slam at odds of 6/1.

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Wales - odds to win 4/1

Having come so close last season where a Ronan O'Gara drop goal not only stole the title from Wales but handed Ireland the Grand Slam, Warren Gatland will be desperate for his side to go all the way this year, but judging on recent performances this doesn't look too likely.

The fixtures list hasn't been too kind to them for a start as they have to play both England and Ireland away and a loss in either of these which is highly conceivable would effectively end their chances of going all the way.

In the autumn internationals, Wales scraped past Samoa, made heavy weather of it against Argentina and were soundly beaten by Australia all on home turf and their main worry wasn't scoring points, it was their defence which conceded a worrying amount and Gatland's big talking before each game certainly won't have helped matters as he only seemed to fire up the other side.

Wales do have some hugely talented individuals with Leigh Halfpenney, Jamie Roberts, Lee Byrne and James Hook all having outstanding seasons for the most part and the country will hold its breath on the fitness of the influential Mike Phillips who they all hope will be back at scrum half.

The Welsh pack have often look lost on the pitch with certain players seemingly running around with no purpose and as a result their pack has been exposed on more than one occasion and a lot of this seems to be down to attitude - the wrong attitude.

This would part explain the shambles in defence as the team struggles to pull together in those moments when their camped on their own five-metre line for ten minutes, and it is this that needs to improve if they are to stand a chance of competing once again, otherwise when the French come to visit or when they travel to Ireland, the frustrated Welsh fans could be in for a long 80 minutes.

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England - odds to win 9/2

Some may feel England are an unusually big price to take this Six Nations but with all the critics Martin Johnson has and the disappointing results that have been churned out by the Three Lions it is not hard to see why they are less fancied than their rivals.

Despite injuries playing their part for poor showings in the autumn internationals (beaten with ease by Australia and New Zealand and scraped past an under-strength Argentina), Johnson's team selection has come in for continuous scrutiny as he keeps opting for veteran players who are reliable but offer little in the way of creativity and he has been accused of not letting the future stars have their go.

This could cripple England come World Cup time next year as the tired legs of the likes of Joe Worsley Simon Shaw and Jonny Wilkinson begin to creek and it will be interesting to see if Johnson gives the go - ahead to Courtney Lawes, Shontayne Hape and Tom Croft on a regular basis, names that may well be carrying England through to next year.

The forwards have looked like they don't know what the game plan is while the backs have lacked creativity all over the pitch and here's hoping a Ben Foden or a Matthew Tait can breathe some life in to the back line.

You can't of course ever count England out, runners-up in the last World Cup when written off and somehow finishing second last year, helped also by the fact that they play Ireland and Wales at Twickenham before a huge trip to France and a tough one in Scotland.

England should not be written off but if they bring the kind of form to this competition that they bought to the autumn Tests then Italy may even have hopes of pulling off a famous victory and win or lose, you can be sure Johnsons' supporters and critics will be some of the loudest voices during the competition.

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Scotland - odds to win 16/1

After years as certs for at least second bottom place in the Six Nations, Scottish rugby may finally be exiting the wilderness and be able to come out fighting against the top teams and dare we say it, provide a huge shock and challenge for the win.

This may be a little far fetched just yet but Scotland's battling win over Australia at Murrayfield showed how resilient they can be and that was a huge result to add to their autumn win over Fiji before suffering a narrow loss to Argentina which can be seen as disappointing.

Andy Robinson seems to have instilled a new belief in the side, a belief that they can win big games and you only need to look at Edinburgh and in particular Glasgow to see how much better Scottish rugby has become due to their excellent performances in the Magners League.

The main problem that Scotland seem to have is the inability to score enough tries with four in last year's, three the year before and six tryless Six Nations matches over the last two years are not stats that point to probable winners.

Some huge young talent including Euan Murray in the pack and the Evans brothers Thom and Max in the backs combined with experienced heads of Nathan Hines, Phil Godman and Chris Paterson make for a well balanced squad and while the title may be beyond their reach this year, expect Scotland to surprise a few and if they continue to grow like this a Scottish challenge next year could well be in the offing.

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Italy - odds to win 150/1

Italy's huge odds to win really do sum up their chance in this Six Nations although they do continue to improve but going in to Six Nations battle without the man who many feel is the best number eight in the world, Sergio Parisse, is a massive blow and he is an irreplaceable character.

Their autumn results show they are going the right way though with a convincing win against Samoa and keeping the score respectable against Australia and New Zealand - something they would not have managed in the past and expect some tight games and maybe even a win or two for the Azzuri (they managed to beat both Wales and Scotland in 2007).

As if they didn't already have enough stacked against them they have to play away matches to Wales, France and Ireland and they may target their home games against wooden spoon rivals Scotland and stuttering England for a victory.

The performances of Treviso in the Heineken Cup, beating Perpignan and running Northampton close show how far they have come and whilst winning looks beyond their wildest dreams, expect them to give some of the bigger teams a real fright and some ferociously hard-fought games.

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