Friday 9 March
Crusaders v Chiefs
5:35 PM AEDT, Rugby League Park, Christchurch
The Crusaders and Chiefs have played the same opponents so far this competition. After starting with a 19-18 away victory over the Blues the Crusaders fell 24-27 to a fired up Highlanders side last week. The Chiefs lost 19-23 to the Highlanders in round one then beat the Blues 29-9. This will be the first home game for the Crusaders and the first away game for the Chiefs, however it is being played in Napier, not Christchurch. For the neutral this should be an excellent game. The New Zealand conference is proving to be unpredictable, and without the likes of Carter and McCaw for the Crusaders, the Chiefs will certainly back themselves to get a win here. However, I think the loss to the Highlanders will have served as a wakeup call to the Crusaders, so I expect a renewed focus for this week, especially given this is their first game in front of home fans (technically). I expect a Crusaders victory, but it should be tight.
Tip: Crusaders to win by 1-12
Western Force v Hurricanes
10:05 PM AEDT, NIB Stadium, Perth
The Force have started the season with away losses to the Brumbies (17-19) and Reds (20-35), while the Hurricanes will play their third away game on the trot in what is a gruelling travel schedule. The Wellington-based side lost to the Stormers 26-39 in round 1 then overcame the Lions 30-28 in round 2. This is supposed to be a year of building for the Hurricanes, but they certainly have no troubles accruing points. It’s their defence that is hurting them at the moment, however. The Force seem to be lacking in ideas and spark when in possession, which doesn’t bode well for their chances this season. With that being said, they will take heart from the fact that they outscored the Reds in the second half last week. I think if they can stay fresh, the Hurricanes should be able to put enough points on the board to overcome the Force. If the Hurricanes fatigue after their bruising games in South Africa then the Force are in with a real chance.
Tip: Hurricanes to win by 1-12
One speculative punt is for the Hurricanes to be leading at half-time then go on to lose at 7.25 odds.
Saturday 10 March
Brumbies v Cheetahs
3:35 PM AEDT, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
The Brumbies pleased the local faithful with an ugly 19-17 win over the Force in round 1. They then had a bye in round 2. The Cheetahs lost to the Lions 25-27 in round 1 and then were hammered 51-19 at home by the Bulls. I don’t expect this game to be a classic. Both sides will likely be towards the bottom third of the table at the end of the season. The Brumbies should be much fresher than the Cheetahs, and for this reason they should have the edge. The Cheetahs have a terrible record in Australia.
Tip: Brumbies to win by 1-12
Highlanders v Waratahs
5:35 PM AEDT, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Like last year the Highlanders have come out of the blocks really well this season, beating the Chiefs away 23-19 then holding out the Crusaders at home 27-24. The Waratahs started the season with a last minute 21-25 home loss to the Reds. They then beat the Rebels 35-19. The Highlanders were immensely impressive last week, and looked fired up in their first game at the indoor Forsyth Barr Stadium. They have better squad depth this season, so they may be able to avoid the jaded second half of the season that they went through last year. The Waratahs will be pleased to have bounced back from their loss to the Reds, but will be under no illusions how hard their next assignment will be. This has the potential to be the best game of the round. A lot will come down to whether the Highlanders can maintain the same intensity and desire they showed last week.
Tip: either team to win by 1-12
Reds v Rebels
7:40 PM AEDT, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Despite their injury list the Reds have picked up where they left off last year, defeating the Waratahs 25-21 and the Force 35-20. Mike Harris has been immense for them with the boot, boasting a 24 from 24 record. His kicking could make the difference for them this season. The Rebels had a bye in the first round, then lost to the Waratahs 35-19. Given how close the Reds and Waratahs are in form so far this season, I expect the Rebels to lose by a similar score line this week.
Tip: Reds to win by 13+
Sunday 11 March
Sharks v Lions
2:05 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
The Sharks were talked up at the beginning of the season but are still winless this campaign, having lost to the Bulls 13-18 in round 1 and the Stormers 12-15 in round 1. They will take heart from the fact that they were competitive in both games, however. The Lions beat the Cheetahs 27-25 in round 1 before falling to the Hurricanes 30-28 in round 2. This will be their first away game of the season and the Sharks’ first home fixture. The Sharks will be disappointed with their 0-2 start to the season, and I expect them to take out their frustrations on the Lions this weekend. The main problem for the Sharks is putting points on the board, because their defensive record isn’t bad. The Lions haven’t beaten the Sharks in ten years.
Tip: Sharks to win by 1-12
Bulls v Blues
4:10 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
The Bulls have been one of the surprises of the tournament thus far, starting with wins over the Sharks (18-13) and Cheetahs (51-19). All of the talk of them being in a year of rebuilding after losing key players has quietened down quickly. The athletic Blues outfit should prove an interesting test for the Bulls, and will give more insight to where they’re at this season. The Blues will be disappointed to have started the season with losses to the Crusaders (18-19) and Chiefs (9-29), but given their mercurial nature, you can never rule out a fierce resurgence in form. They’re just too hard to predict from one week to the next. With that being said, given their poor showing against the Chiefs, the loss of Rudi Wolf Jerome Kaino for the tour of South Africa and the difficulties of playing the Bulls at altitude after a long flight from New Zealand, I predict the Bulls will be too strong at home. The only concern for the Bulls is they will be without scrum half Francois Hougaard, who’s serving a one match ban.
Tip: Bulls to win by 13+