Super Rugby enters the last week before the finals. The 7th placed Waratahs sit one point outside a wildcard position with the Brumbies to play. The 6th placed Sharks are playing the 5th placed Bulls, so the Waratahs will back themselves to secure a last gasp wildcard spot. While many teams have nothing to play for, this round will provide one last chance for players to impress ahead of squad selections for the Tri Nations. Interestingly, the Chiefs vs Reds fixture is the only international game of the round.
Alongside my own opinions I have included the winner predictions of 15 ‘experts’ from Rugby Heaven in Australia and TVNZ in New Zealand.
Below are the current table standings with one round left to play. The Reds are assured to win their conference, while the Stormers are virtually assured the South African conference thanks to their superior goal difference. The New Zealand conference is still up to grabs, although the NZ runner up is virtually assured a wildcard position. Due to their end of season slump the Highlanders are now out of finals contention, leaving the Bulls, Sharks and Waratahs to fight for the final two wildcard positions.
Just note that for the final standings the tie-break rules are not what you may think. When two or more teams are on equal points, the positions will be determined in the following order: most wins, highest aggregate points difference, most tries, and then highest aggregate difference in tries for and against. If still level, the teams’ ranks will come down to a coin toss.
Below are the Luxbet odds for this weekend’s fixtures (subject to change).
Friday – June 17
Blues vs Highlanders
5:35 PM AEST
Expert tips: 14 for Blues, 1 for Highlanders
The Highlanders season completely disintegrated in the last three weeks, with three losses on the trot. To add insult to injury this included defeats at home to the Force and the Lions. The Blues also limp into this fixture on the back of a string of losses. In fact, the Blues haven’t won a game since week 12. While their losing streak included tough fixtures against the Stormers, Reds and Crusaders, that’s exactly who they’ll be playing in the finals, so it’s hard to be optimistic about the Blues title hopes at this stage.
Like a number of teams travelling this week, the Highlanders have had to charter a flight from Dunedin to Auckland as a result of domestic flight cancellations in the wake of the volcanic ash cloud. At one stage the Highlanders were contemplating a ten hour bus ride and three hour ferry, so thy will be relieved to have a flight organised.
The Blues did push the Crusaders last week, and given they still have everything to play for, you can be assured they will be focused and motivated. I expect a Blues win, but the head to head odds (1.22) are painfully low, especially given the Blues aren’t in winning form. The Blues won the reverse fixture 15-10 in Dunedin in Week 11, but I feel the Highlanders are a weaker team this time round. I will sit on the sidelines, but if you are keen for a punt, a head to head bet on the Blues is your best option.
Rebels vs Force
7:40 PM AEST
Expert tips: 3 for Rebels, 12 for Force
This fixture sees two teams playing for pride. The Force only have 3rd spot in the Australian conference to play for, while the Rebels are guaranteed the competition’s wooden spoon due to the Lions receiving 4 points for a bye this round. The news this week is that James O’Connor wanted too much money from the Force, and will instead be playing for the Rebels next year. Last week was O’Connor’s last game after he received a one-week suspension for dangerous conduct. To add to the Force’s woes, their flight plans have been disrupted by the volcanic ash cloud. Force coach Richard Graham has even said that taking the train to Adelaide and then flying on from there is a possibility if flights out of Perth are cancelled. With a win over the Highlanders two weeks ago and a close loss to the Reds last week, I expect the Force to triumph over the fading Rebels. The odds, unfortunately, are fairly stingy so its borderline whether or not to back the Force in a head to head bet.
Saturday – June 18
Chiefs vs Reds
3:30 PM AEST
Expert tips: 3 for Chiefs, 12 for Reds
The Reds have called on former All Black Caleb Ralph for this fixture as a result of their injury woes. The six-time Super Rugby winner was called up from Queensland club rugby after Luke Morahan became the sixth Reds winger to be sidelined. The Chiefs, meanwhile, will aim to end the season on a high as they bid to avoid the wooden spoon in the New Zealand conference.
The Chiefs will field a number of changes this week. Hooker Aled de Malmanche has been given a rare start ahead of Hika Elliot. The other change in the forward pack sees Romana Graham return to start at lock. In the backline, Save Tokula replaces injured Richard Kahui at centre.
After looking imperious mid-season, the Reds have looked more vulnerable of late, with a loss to the Brumbies and a hard fought win over the Force last week. The Chiefs drew the Hurricanes last round and defeated the Blues the week before at Eden Park, so they enter this fixture with a fair degree of confidence. The Chiefs have been installed as marginal favourites here, which doesn’t surprise me. I think the best value is to back the Chiefs to win by 1-12. If you’re the cautious type you could place wagers on both sides to win by 1-12, as this could be a tight fixture that goes either way.
Crusaders vs Hurricanes
5:35 PM AEST
Expert tips: 14 for Crusaders, 1 for Hurricanes
This fixture sees a home side hoping to win the New Zealand conference play an away team that’s hoping to avoid the conference’s wooden spoon. I use the terms “home” and “away” loosely here, because while the fixture is technically a Crusaders home game, it will be played in Wellington after their scheduled match in week 2 was cancelled in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake.
The Hurricanes will field an unchanged line-up from the side that drew the Chiefs last week. All four departing Hurricanes: captain Andrew Hore and Ma’a Nonu, who were both sacked, along with departing props Neemia Tialata and John Schwalger are due to start.
The Crusaders have showed signs of being dominating force this year, but they have also looked vulnerable at times as injuries have disrupted their season. After a narrow loss to the Reds they bounced back with an important victory over the Blues, and will back themselves again here. The Hurricanes haven’t lost since week 13, but they didn’t play a top-8 side during that time. I expect a Crusaders win, but the head to head odds are a bit harsh. I will sit on the sidelines, but for the keen punters out there, I think the best value bet is nonetheless a head to head bet on the Crusaders.
Waratahs vs Brumbies
7:40 PM AEST
Expert tips: 13 for Waratahs, 2 for Brumbies
Many are talking this up as a must win game for the Waratahs, although a bonus point may be all they need to secure a wildcard spot. The Waratahs will want to put their destiny in their own hands, however, and a win would guarantee finals rugby for them. After an appalling season, the Brumbies have actually picked up of late. They stunned everyone with a victory over the Reds and backed it up with a win over the Rebels last week. Having said that, I still expect the Waratahs to be too strong here, especially with so much to play for. The Waratahs’ main concern will be that the Brumbies are playing without pressure, which was exactly the case two weeks ago when they upset the Reds. My inclination is to back the Waratahs in a head to head bet. If you wish to be more adventurous, a line bet on the Waratahs (-8) could be good value given they ravaged the Highlanders 33-7 last week.
Sunday – June 19
Bulls vs Sharks
1:05 AM AEST
Expert tips: 12 for Bulls, 3 for Sharks
With a wildcard spot at stake for both sides, this is certainly the best game of the round. The Waratahs wait in the wings to potentially snatch a wildcard position from the loser, while the winner is guaranteed finals rugby. The Bulls won the reverse fixture 32-23 in week 14, which will give the Sharks additional motivation to beat their fellow countrymen. The Bulls enter this fixture on a high, however, after beating the Stormers last week to continue their winning streak that started in week 11. The Sharks will be frustrated by their inability to beat the Lions last week, but they will consoled by the fact that their 30-all draw with the Lions still keepd them in the hunt for a wildcard position. I expect the Bulls to win this one, and would back them in a head to head bet.
Cheetahs vs Stormers
3:10 AM AEST
Expert tips: 3 for Cheetahs, 12 for Stormers
The Cheetahs are playing for nothing but pride as they take on a Stormers outfit that will have one eye on finals rugby. This isn’t to say that the Stormers have nothing to play for here. While they are virtually assured to win the South African conference, they will be keen to finish at least second in the overall table to secure a bye in finals week 1. In fact, should the Reds lose against the Chiefs, a win could see the Stormers end top of the table.
The Cheetahs haven’t dominated the points table, but they have been competitive in most fixtures, even the ones they lost, so they are certainly no push overs. The Cheetahs pushed the Sharks all the way two weeks ago, and after a bye in week 17, they will be fit and fresh for their final fixture. While I do expect a Stormers victory, I think the head to head odds of 1.35 aren’t worth the risk. I would be more inclined to back the Cheetahs (+7.5) in a line bet.