Friday, 12 April
Highlanders v Brumbies
5:35 PM AEST, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
We haven’t reached the halfway point but the Highlanders’ playoff hopes are already virtually extinguished after their sixth defeat in a row last week. Poor discipline and basic handling errors continue to hurt them. Goal kicking has also been an issue. Their loss to the Blues last week was costly, with Buxton Popoali’i and Lima Sopoaga picking up injuries. In better news, the Highlanders welcome back winger Kade Poki for this fixture. Coach Jamie Joseph has made some rotational changes in key positions in the hope of sparking their season back into life. Halfback Aaron Smith and fly-half Colin Slade have been dropped to the bench in favour of Fumiaki Tanaka and Hayden Parker.
They dominated territory and possession but the Brumbies were outscored by four tries to two against the unheralded Kings last week. Their astonishing slip has opened the door for the Reds to move into top spot, which raises the stakes for this fixture. Historically Dunedin has been tough place to visit but the Highlanders are struggling at the moment so the Brumbies will be looking for at least four points this weekend. The visitors welcome back fullback Jesse Mogg and fly-half Matt Toomua for this clash.
Betting: as always the Highlanders should be competitive but I can’t back them based on current form. I would back the Brumbies at 1.84 (Pinnacle Sports) in the head-to-head. If you wish to be more aggressive you may fancy the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportingbet).
Saturday, 13 April
Chiefs v Reds
2:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
The Chiefs’ season is ticking alone nicely, with a 5-1 record and the South Africa tour out of the way. Richard Kahui has made a strong impact after his long layoff from injury and Blues recruit Gareth Anscombe is having an excellent season at fullback. Their defence has been outstanding this campaign and their points for and against stats are actually better than those in their 2012 title winning season.
They have yet to play their best rugby but the Reds are definitely a team on the up. Will Genia is fully match fit and has been fantastic since his return from injury. His tactical kicking has been exemplary and he is crafty with ball in hand. Flanker Liam Gill has shown excellent form as well. Prior to their bye they dominated the Highlanders but only won by a solitary point. The Chiefs are a much stronger team than the Highlanders – both offensively and defensively – so the Reds will face an uphill battle on Saturday. They are now without Digby Ioane in addition Radike Samo, Beau Robinson, Nick Frisby and Chris Feauai-Sautia, with all of those players due back soon. Luke Morahan is also out with a cracked rib. They do get Rod Davies back for this clash, however. The injury-plagued winger has yet to start this season.
Betting: the only foreign team to beat the Chiefs last season were the Reds. In fact the Queensland side have won their last three against the Chiefs – including their last two in Hamilton. For this reason the head-to-head odds for the Chiefs are too short. The Reds will be highly competitive but I back the Chiefs to get over the line. I would take the Reds +8.5 at 1.91 (bet365). The Chiefs 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportingbet) is also worth a look.
Blues v Hurricanes
5:35 PM AEST, Eden Park, Auckland
The Blues face their third Kiwi opposition in as many weeks when they host a Hurricanes side that has won their last four. The Blues had lost three straight and will be relieved to have beaten the Highlanders in a season-defining game last week. The result keeps them very much in the hunt for the playoffs with just a point separating them from the Hurricanes. They need to improve at maintaining possession and their scrum came off second best last week, but they have an abundance of attacking talent and will be a real threat if they can cut down on their errors. George Moala is suspended for this clash while prop Charlie Faumuina will miss the rest of the season with a calf injury, which turned out to be more serious than initially thought.
It was a slow start to the season, but the Hurricanes have found more of their attacking form that saw them top the try scoring charts last season. They’ve put up 87 points in their last two games, however their defence looks soft at times. They’ve conceded at least 28 points in three of their last four games and were exposed by Bernard Foley’s easy line breaks last week. The Hurricanes have opted for a more attacking line-up this round, with Tusi Pisi starting at fly-half and Beauden Barrett shifting to fullback. Victor Vito (calf), Jeremy Thrush (ankle) and Blade Thomson (ankle) remain unavailable.
Betting: the Blues beat the Hurricanes 34-20 in Round 1 but the two sides have gone in opposite directions since then. The Blues are making too many errors and have only one victory from their last four while the Hurricanes are slowly getting back to the try scoring form they enjoyed last year. I fancy the Hurricanes will get over in a high scoring game. As a value bet I like the Hurricanes 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Rebels v Kings
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
The Rebels seem to have the measure of the Force after picking up their fifth win over the Perth side in six games. Until recently the Rebels would have circled this fixture against the Kings as a straight-forward win, but the Kings’ performance last week will have changed that. The Rebels are winless against South African sides since joining Super Rugby in 2011 and the Kings play in typical South African style, with big forwards and quality goal kicking.
The Kings caused the biggest upset of the season by drawing the Brumbies in Canberra last week. They were dominated in territory and possession but their resolute defense held the hosts at bay in the second half. The Kings actually outscored the Brumbies four tries to two which will give them real hope that they can secure their first ever away victory this weekend. They have recalled fly-half Demetri Catrakilis for this clash, with Siviwe “Shakes” Soyizwapi returning to the bench after an impressive debut last week.
Betting: the Kings have covered the line in five out of six fixtures. Given the Rebels’ poor form against South African sides I would back the Kings +8.5 at the line (Luxbet).
Force v Crusaders
9:45 PM AEST, NIB Stadium, Perth
Last week the Force continued to struggle at converting possession into points as they lost for the second time this season to the Rebels. They are winless at home in 2013 and lost all four games against New Zealand opposition last year. The Force can take heart, however, from the fact that they beat the Crusaders in Perth in 2010. The Force also drew the Crusaders in 2009. The Rebels beat the Crusaders in Melbourne last year so the men from Canterbury are prone to annual letdowns against less fancied Australian opposition.
The Crusaders are in the midst of a three-way battle for second place in the New Zealand conference. They are battered and bruised after playing the Stormers and Sharks in South Africa, with a sluggish second half last week suggesting fatigue. Despite their travel schedule and injury list most predict the Crusaders will be too strong for the Force. They are well structured and managed to keep the Sharks tryless last week. Dan Carter is not available for this fixture. Replacement fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal has impressed in his absence, however a few key misses at goal last week in Durban proved costly. Coach Todd Blackadder is resting a few key players for this clash with Sam Whitelock and Matt Todd not participating, although Corey Flynn and Israel Dagg return to the starting line-up.
Betting: the last two games between the Force and Crusaders have been high scoring affairs, with the Canterbury side winning 38-24 last year and 42-30 in Perth a year earlier. The Force have won only one game in their last ten spanning 2012 & 2013. However, given the propensity for the Crusaders to slip up against the Force and Rebels on the road, I find the head-to-head odds too low. I would back the overs if the over/under market is 45.0 or lower.
Sunday, 14 April
Stormers v Sharks
1:05 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
After being such a dominant force last year the Stormers find themselves 4th in the South African conference with a 2-4 record. With the 5-1 Sharks visiting, this weekend will be critical to their title hopes. On the positive side, they are much stronger at home, with just two home losses spanning this year and last. The Stormers have been hit by further injury leading into this fixture with fullback Jaco Taute and fly-half Elton Jantjies ruled out. Flanker Siya Kolisi is also in doubt. The Stormers’ injury list is a key reason for their struggles in 2013. Bryan Habana, Tiaan Liebenberg, Eben Etzebeth, Schalk Burger and Peter Grant are among eleven players on the injured list. The Stormers will be pleased to have fixed their line out issues last week, however they were exposed at scrum time, which will be an area of concern.
They failed to cross the try line, but Patrick Lambie’s seven penalties saw the Sharks get over a Crusaders outfit that beat the Stormers a week earlier. The Sharks lead the South African conference and would love to inflict further damage on a key rival’s title hopes this weekend. The Sharks have had injury problems themselves this season, with Bismarck du Plessis and Willem Alberts among six players on the injured list, however they look fighting fit compared to the Stormers. Patrick Lambie is in sublime goal kicking form, which is crucial in fixtures like these. He was seven from seven last week.
Betting: historically this has been a close contest. The Sharks beat the Stormers 19-26 in the playoffs in Cape Town last year and with the Stormers’ injury list as long as it is, I would back the Sharks 1-12 at 3.00 (bet365).
Bulls v Cheetahs
3:10 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
The Bulls will be desperate to get their season back on track after losing their last three games. They will be pleased to be back at home where have won seven of their last eight. With their overseas fixtures out of the way they will spend the rest of the campaign in South Africa. The Bulls had a bye last week to recuperate and should be fresh for this fixture. They will be without fullback Zane Kirchner for up to six weeks due to an injury he sustained against the Brumbies. In better news, wingers Akona Ndungane and Bjorn Basson are expected to return along with Flip van der Merwe. Wynand Olivier, Francois Hougaard, Grant Hattingh and Marcel van der Merwe are not yet available.
The Cheetahs’ dream run continued with their last-minute victory over the Stormers last week making it their fifth win on the trot. With just seven games played they have already equalled their winning tally from 2012. It’s a shame they lost fly-half Johan Goosen for the season but Burton Francis continues to get the job done in Goosen’s absence. The Cheetahs have opted for the same starting line-up as last week. They will be without Sarel Pretorius for four weeks, however Piet van Zyl would likely have been given the nod at scrum-half regardless.
Betting: historically the Bulls have had the measure of the Cheetahs. The Cheetahs snapped a seven-game losing streak against the Stormers last week, however, so you would have to be bold to rule the visitors out. Historically this has been a high scoring affair so I would take the overs if the over/under market is below 45.0.