ESPN Rugby Pick’em Predictions: France, Scotland to continue Six Nations winning start in Week 2 – ESPN

The second round of the Six Nations is usually where we get a decent gauge of where the power lies in this championship. First round matches usually offer a raised eyebrow, but by the second batch of games, the leading pack separates out from the rest of the field and we can narrow in on who the genuine favourites are.

This weekend we’ll see whether Scotland can back up their remarkable win over England at Twickenham — a victory which ended their 38-year drought without a win on English turf — with Wales lying in wait at Murrayfield. Many of the squads have been hit with injury disruption before and during this tournament, but Scotland will want to prove their win over England was no mere fluke. Last weekend in Cardiff, Wales beat 14-man Ireland but both will hope for an improved performance this time around. France are now tournament favourites and travel to Ireland on Sunday looking to make it two from two after they stuck 50 points on Italy. But it all kicks off at Twickenham as Eddie Jones’ England look to get their campaign back on track against the Azzurri.

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To help you with your ESPN Rugby Pick’em decisions, here’s how the teams are shaping up ahead of the second round.

England vs. Italy

(Saturday, Twickenham, Feb. 13, 14.15 GMT)

England were calm on the surface when they faced the media on Thursday, but you know underneath and in the private corridors of their bio secure bubble, they will be quietly simmering at how they performed against Scotland and the subsequent criticism. Eddie Jones loves these sorts of weeks — the chance to prove doubters wrong — and he’ll be getting his team fired up. However, these matches are tough for England. Win and it is expected, lose and it is the end of their rugby world. Jones’ side have decided against panic picks, and instead want to embrace their game plan of “English rugby” which focuses on quick ball, quick ruck speed and physicality. We saw none of those against Scotland and the five changes made by Jones reflects the need to get an early foothold in the match. Courtney Lawes, Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Kyle Sinckler and George Ford all start. While Anthony Watson barely saw the ball against Scotland, expect him to be given license to thrill from the back while Lawes will be chopping down anything blue in sight. England were comfortably outplayed by Scotland last weekend, and nothing but a comfortable win will do for Jones and his men.

For Italy, this match is normally about damage limitation. They have given England their fair share of scary spells — remember the ruck-less “fox” tactic from 2017? — and ran them close in the first half of last year’s Six Nations match in Rome, but have never managed to get over the line. Perhaps they will take inspiration from how Scotland fared last weekend, but they’re certainly not underestimating the Twickenham fear factor — at least on the surface. Italy coach Franco Smith has been talking of Twickenham as an “iconic” stadium, but despite the magnitude of what’s facing them, they have again gone with a number of younger players as they look to snap their 28-game losing streak in the Six Nations. Just one of their six backs has double figures worth of caps — the recalled Carlo Canna at inside centre — while they have stuck with Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi again at half-back. Andrea Lovotti makes a welcome return at loose-head having last played for Italy a year ago, but in a match where the Azzurri are heavily up against it, only Smith will know if his team have answered his pre-match challenge of delivering a “high level performance.”

Prediction: Expect England to pull away in the second half after a close first 40. There will be a couple of yellow cards — no red for ‘Pick’Em’ purposes — but England will get their Six Nations back on track.

Scotland vs. Wales

(Saturday, Edinburgh, Feb. 13, 16.45 GMT)

Scotland now need to ascertain whether they’ve already conquered their Everest, or merely reached base camp. Their win at Twickenham last weekend was comprehensive, dominant and hugely impressive. Stuart Hogg, Cameron Redpath, Hamish Watson, Jonny Gray and Finn Russell were all outstanding — yet all 23 who featured will end up in Scottish rugby history. But for this group — to become real rugby immortals — they need to push on now and win the championship. Unrealistic? No. Not based on last weekend’s performance. But, one performance does not make a Grand Slam. The key now is consistency. They have been forced into three changes through injury with Sean Maitland, Redpath and Jamie Ritchie all missing out so Scotland’s depth is starting to be prodded. With the Calcutta Cup now back north of the border, how they would dearly love to complete two-thirds of the Triple Crown this weekend. How long ago that dismal World Cup seems, where Gregor Townsend’s doubters started sharpening their pitchforks after a poor return. A year and a bit on, however, you’d hope to see a number of these Scots in Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions squad this summer (if the tour happens).

But back to the present, let’s not get carried away. Scotland must not allow last weekend’s triumphant win at Twickenham to get away from them and prove that was the start of something, rather than a sporadic moment of glee. These two sides met in the autumn in their delayed Six Nations match from last year, and Scotland put them away, but Townsend is not underestimating what lies in wait this weekend. “Wales are a quality team,” Townsend said. “You look at their individual players; players with near to 100 caps, players with well over 100 caps, players that have won Grand Slams and they’ve got some real experience in that pack. We expect them to perform and their game now looks to have added physicality from what we saw in autumn.”

Travelling north is a depleted Wales. They are without a host of prominent figures, and even lost one nailed-on debutant in Josh Macleod during one of the final training sessions. They edged past 14-man Ireland in their Six Nations opener, but you sense Wales are still trying to re-find the grit and resilience we saw under Gatland. But with one win under their belts, and heading to Scotland as underdogs, beware this Wales side flying under the radar. Even though they are without the likes of George North, Hallam Amos, Jonathan Davies, Johnny Williams, Dan Lydiate and Tomos Williams, Wales will head to Scotland fancying their chances. They too are chasing the Triple Crown and a win in Murrayfield will do wonders for their confidence and to ease the weight on Pivac’s shoulders.

Prediction: Scotland will make it two from two in a narrow match with over 3.5 tries scored.

Ireland vs. France

(Sunday, Dublin, Feb. 14, 15.00 GMT)

After another turbulent week for Ireland playmaker, captain and talisman Johnny Sexton as he misses out through injury. He again found himself at the centre of comments made elsewhere about his health and well-being. He was forced off against Wales in their Six Nations opener, which prompted Dr. Jean-Francois Chermann in France — who stood Sexton down in 2014 due to concussion when he was at Racing 92 — to speculate over the fly-half’s general well-being. Sexton said Chermann’s comments were “inaccurate and highly inappropriate,” and Chermann subsequently apologised. Sexton is clearly getting tired of this inflammatory speculation and admitted the chat does “wear down on [him].” While Ireland hoped he’d feature, he misses out on their 23. So too does Conor Murray with a hamstring strain. So it’s a new-look Ireland side for France.

There will be little love lost on Valentine’s Day when France travel to Dublin to face an Ireland side who will be smarting from their opening round loss to Wales, but will equally take heart from how close they pushed Pivac’s side considering they played with 14 men for 68 minutes of the match following Peter O’Mahony’s red card. He sits out the next three championship matches through suspension, so Rhys Ruddock starts in his spot at blind-side. Burns gets the chance to start fly-half with Jamison Gibson Park at scrum-half. Iain Henderson captains the side with James Ryan also missing out due to return-to-play protocols. It’s a muddled Ireland side and they head into this home match in an unusual position — as underdogs.

France are favourites to win the Six Nations, and marginally have the edge with the bookies for Sunday’s match, by a three-point margin. They did the business in Rome in their opener, as they stuck 50 points past Italy through seven tries with Antoine Dupont again mesmeric at scrum-half. He has even caught the eye of All Blacks great Aaron Smith, who said Dupont is teaching him new things about how to play at No. 9. But France are far more than just Dupont, and are evolving nicely ahead of their home World Cup in 2023. Fly-half Matthieu Jalibert, Bernard Le Roux and Gregory Alldritt were all magnificent for Les Bleus. But what we’re seeing now is rare consistency from France. They make just two changes with Anthony Jelonch in for Dylan Cretin and Damian Penaud replacing Teddy Thomas. They’re keeping the same group of players together and nurturing as a unit, rather than succumbing to knee jerk selections like we’ve seen in the past. That double act of Raphael Ibanez and Fabien Galthie have a plan, and it’s anchored around their wonderful half-backs. They now have depth, confidence and will head to Ireland with the possibility of a first Grand Slam in 11 years at the back of their minds.

Prediction: France to win this by a small margin.

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