Friday 30 March
Highlanders v Rebels
5:35 PM AEDT, Rugby Park, Invercargill
The Highlanders return to New Zealand after a one-game tour of Australia which saw them fall just short against an impressive Brumbies side. They will be disappointed to have broken their winning streak, but have done incredibly well given the injury problems in the side. The most recent loss is playmaker Colin Slade due to a badly broken leg. This is on top of the five changes they had to make last week. The luckless Slade will be out for up to 12 months. His regular back up Lima Sopoaga is also out injured, so rookie Chris Noakes will likely get the start. The Rebels on the other hand will be on a high after breaking their twelve-game winning drought against the Force. They also welcome back James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale for this clash. The Highlanders start as 1.37 favourites which I think is stingy given the circumstances. Given the Highlanders’ victories have all been by narrow margins, I would be tempted to take the Rebels (+7.5) at the line.
Tip: Highlanders to win by 1-12
Saturday 31 March
Hurricanes v Cheetahs
3:30 PM AEDT, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
The Hurricanes will give themselves every chance of making the playoffs after they upset the Blues with a last ditch try to snag victory at Eden Park. The Blues dominated most aspects of the game, especially the scrum, but the Hurricanes made great use of the opportunities they had, and their backs were absolutely brilliant. Beauden Barrett, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith and Andre Taylor in particular stood out. Unlike the Chiefs, however, the side isn’t well balanced, with a forward pack that gets dominated at times. The Cheetahs gave the Crusaders a bit of a scare last week and will be desperate for points to keep their season alive. Another loss would see the South African side move to 1-5. Despite their poor record the Cheetahs haven’t been blown away this season, so they’ll be no pushovers. The Cheetahs (+8.5) at the line is worth looking at. My main concern for them is they’ll fade with this being their fourth overseas game on the trot.
Tip: Hurricanes to win by 1-12
Chiefs v Waratahs
5:35 PM AEDT, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
After falling to a defeat against the Highlanders in the first round, the Chiefs have been undefeated since, beating the Blues, Crusaders and Brumbies before their bye last week. There is good balance in the Chiefs squad this year. They’ve always been strong in the backs, but the forwards are looking good too, with Tongan and Samoan internationals in a front row that dominated the All Black-heavy Crusaders at the scrum a few weeks ago. The Waratahs responded superbly last week after their insipid showing against the Force a week earlier. The Waratahs put in a solid showing against the Highlanders a few weeks ago, and the Chiefs will really have their work cut out for them. This should be a close contest, and my inclination is to take the Waratahs (+4.5) at the line.
Tip: Chiefs to win by 1-12
Brumbies v Sharks
7:40 PM AEDT, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
The Brumbies continue to impress this season, beating the previously undefeated Highlanders to go 3-1 for the season. A lot of credit can go to the new coach Jake White, who you may remember won the 2007 World Cup as the head coach of South Africa. Where the side lacks in house hold names it makes up for in organisation and strong overall team performances. The Sharks 30-34 loss against the Waratahs last week moves them to 2-3 for the season, so they’ll be keen for a victory to avoid falling further behind the Stormers in the South African conference. The Sharks have had one of the roughest schedules so far this season, with trips to the Bull and Stormers to start the year, so I am certainly not writing them out of finals contention. They have a quality squad and will have a much kinder schedule after their tour of Australia and New Zealand. I’m going for a bit of an upset here, and back the Brumbies to nick this one.
Tip: Brumbies to win by 1-12
Western Force v Reds
9:40 PM AEDT, NIB Stadium, Perth
The Force will be disappointed they couldn’t secure a second consecutive win last week when they fell 29-30 to the Rebels in a game that saw them down 21-0 at one stage. The win over the Waratahs the previous week remains their only victory of the season. The Reds return to Australia battered and bruised after losing both games in South Africa. The injury-hit side was demolished 61-8 by the Bulls, which is easily the biggest losing margin of any team so far this season. With the competition as tight as it is, I wonder if the negative net points for and against will come back to haunt the Reds, because most fixtures have been won by seven points or less this season. Reds management have made five more changes to the already disordered squad, with Beau Robinson dropped to the bench and Radike Samo dropped from the match squad. The Reds will again be using their fifth-choice goal kicker. Given the disarray in the Reds camp, I back the Force to nick this one in a tight contest.
Tip: Force to win by 1-12
Lions v Crusaders
2:05 AM AEDT, Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
After their 27-25 win over the Cheetahs in week 1, the Lions have lost every game since, so they will be keen to pick up more points ahead of their tour of Australia and New Zealand. They face an uphill battle, however, when they host the Crusaders and, quite likely, Dan Carter. The Lions can take heart from the fact that they haven’t been an easy team to beat this season, with 12 points their biggest losing margin. The Stormers had to work hard for their 24-19 win in Johannesburg last week, which serves as a warning sign for other visiting sides. The Crusaders bounced back from consecutive defeats with a 28-21 win over the Cheetahs last week, but it wasn’t clinical. Everyone keeps waiting for the Crusaders to kick into gear this season, but it just hasn’t happened for them yet. The return of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw a bit later will provide some added spark, which they appear to need.
Tip: Crusaders to win by 1-12
Stormers v Bulls
4:10 AM AEDT, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
South African fans will be relishing this top of the table clash in the South African conference. The Stormers have the better win-loss record this season, with no defeats to the Bulls solitary loss, but they haven’t blown sides away. This isn’t a huge surprise, it must be said, because the Stormers have a reputation for a stingy defence and not scoring many points. The Bulls, meanwhile, have dished out the two most punishing wins of the season, including a 61-8 hammering of the Reds last week. That’s not bad for a side that was supposed to be in a year of rebuilding this season. I’m going for an upset here, and tip the Bulls to get one over their rivals.
Tip: Bulls to win by 1-12