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Six Nations: Round two talking points

Ireland announced their team for Saturday's Six Nations trip to France and there was one glaring omission, Johnny Sexton.

The Irish captain, goal-kicker and fly-half suffered a hamstring injury on Wednesday and will now be absent for the 16:45 kick-off at the Stade de France.

Joey Carbery will take over both the number 10 shirt and kicking duties in his first Six Nations start, while Sexton's Leinster colleague James Ryan will captain the side in a match they are 7/4 to win.

However, with 102 caps worth of fly-half missing, can Andy Farrell's men rise to the occasion? Or will they see their Grand Slam dreams float off into the Saint-Denis night?

Time for Carbery to shine

There is, of course, the chance this could galvanise the Irish. They dominated Wales on the opening weekend, cruising to a 29-7 win to kick on from a successful autumn that included a victory over New Zealand.

Carbery kicked a long-range penalty in the 64th minute to see his side home in their 29-20 victory over the All Blacks, a moment that would have been particularly special for him having been born on the North Island.

However, the 26-year-old returned to Ireland before starting secondary school and has played all of his club rugby in the Emerald Isle, initially as Sexton's understudy at Leinster before switching to Munster in 2018.

On his day, Carbery is brilliant and, while he will mainly stick to the playbook, can provide a more flamboyant and free-running option to Sexton. The issue is, he struggles to stay fit and was a doubt for this tournament after undergoing elbow surgery in December.

He looked to have potentially surpassed Sexton in the pecking order after impressing at the 2019 Six Nations, but a hamstring injury and then an ankle problem meant he failed to make an impact at World Cup 2019, before a string of further issues ruled him out for the best part of two years.

Sexton is expected to be back in contention for Italy's visit to Dublin on 27th February, but Saturday is a chance for Carbery and others to show they can live without their skipper.

The fly-half is 15/2 to score a try and it is not just he who will be looking to step out of Sexton's shadow.

Stand-in captain James Ryan was deemed unlucky not to get the job in 2020 and has struggled ever since, missing out on last summer's British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

Ireland are 1/1 when given a +5 start and will need to compete up front. Ryan's size has often been questioned and like Carbery, the lock needs to come of age and show he belongs on the world stage.

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Advantage France but can Ntamack produce?

One man's loss is another man's gain and after a mixed start in his country's 37-10 win over Italy, Romain Ntamack will be desperate to show he is still the man for the France number 10 shirt, especially with Mathieu Jalibert thought to be closing on fitness following a thigh problem.

The Toulouse stand-off dazzled in the autumn, most notably in Les Bleus' 40-25 victory over the Kiwis.

Jalibert was in the driving seat for last year's 15-13 win in Dublin, playing his part in what proved to be the winning try from Damian Penaud.

Penaud is 9/5 to score a try and will need service to thrive. Last week saw him dovetail nicely with scrum-half Antoine Dupont, himself standing in for usual captain Charles Ollivon, for his team's fourth try, but Ntamack needs to start having more of a say.

Interestingly France, 10/19 to beat Ireland for the third straight year, have opted for a six-two forwards-backs split on their bench, suggesting they are preparing for a big battle up front.

That means their precocious 22-year-old outside-half will need to be pragmatic as well as positive in order to give his big men the requisite field to maintain their 11/4 hopes of a first Grand Slam since 2010.

History beckons for Scotland

Scotland fans will be well aware that it is 20 years since they won away in Cardiff.

While they beat Wales in Llanelli in 2020, they have failed to defeat the reigning Six Nations champions at the Principality since a team including coach Gregor Townsend triumphed 27-22 in the final round of the 2002 tournament.

After retaining the Calcutta Cup with last week's 20-17 victory over England, the Scots will be full of confidence but equally wary, having lost 25-24 to the Welsh last year, in the process, failing to back up their victory at Twickenham.

Having won in both London and Paris last year, Scotland's reputation as poor travellers is wavering, and they are 8/11 to win Saturday's 14:15 kick-off.

Townsend has made five changes for the match, with props Pierre Schoeman and WP Nel joining hooker Stuart McInally in a new-look front row, while Sam Skinner starts on the blindside and Sione Tuipulotu takes the number 12 shirt from Sam Johnson.

Wales have handed a debut to flanker Jac Morgan and at 11/10 with a +2 start, surely have to improve after last weekend's misery in Dublin.

However, Wayne Pivac is currently without captain Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Ken Owens, Dan Lydiate and George North amongst others and his team again look underpowered.

Scotland's changes show just how much confidence Townsend has in his side. They now need to take the next step and transfer their belief into a longed-for Cardiff victory.

Statement win required from England

Scotland may have won the Calcutta Cup match, but they were given an almighty helping hand by England.

The Red Rose led 17-10 at Murrayfield, but failed to see out the game with hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie conceding a penalty try after being caught in an unfamiliar wide position as his side lost their defensive discipline.

The predetermined decision to withdraw Marcus Smith also remains a mystery and Eddie Jones freely admitted in the aftermath that he got things wrong.

Cowan-Dickie has dropped to the bench to be replaced by Jamie George for Sunday's trip to Italy in one of eight changes to the starting XV.

That said, Joe Marchant's inclusion at centre rather than on the wing is arguably the most telling. England lacked go-forward ball against Scotland and it will be the Harlequins man's job to punch holes in the Italian defence.

Fortunately for Eddie Jones, England have historically been flawless against Italy, winning all of the pair's 28 meetings.

Jones has taken his team to the Stadio Olimpico three times since his appointment in late 2015 and they have won by an average of 30 points when you combine those scorelines.

Having been given a -25 handicap at 10/11, they should win by a similar margin against an Italy team who were again plucky in Paris but as is so often the case, failed to produce 80 minutes of rugby.

The Azzurri haven't won a Six Nations match since triumphing 22-19 against Scotland in 2015 and at 14/1, it would be a monumental surprise to see that run end.

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