The Highlanders and Stormers remain the only undefeated sides in the competition, although the Stormers had a bye in round three.
Friday 23 March
Blues v Hurricanes
5:35 PM AEDT, Eden Park, Auckland
The Blues return to New Zealand after getting mixed results in South Africa. They managed to beat the Bulls in round 3 but lost 27-17 against the Stormers in an error-ridden game which saw them dominated at most set pieces. The Blues will be able to take heart, however, from the fact that they finished the stronger of the two sides. Their slow start to the game cost them dearly. The Hurricanes have been better than many pundits predicted this season, with a 2-2 record after four games. They pushed the 4-0 Highlanders all the way last week, and will feel they can beat anyone on their day. I’m going for a bit of an upset here, and predict the Hurricanes to nick this one against a travel weary and injury hit Blues side.
Tip: Hurricanes to win by 1-12
Rebels v Western Force
7:40 PM AEDT, AAMI Park, Melbourne
Two of Australia’s weakest sides enter this fixture with contrasting fortunes. The Rebels will still be hurting after conceding an injury time try in their 26-33 loss to the Cheetahs, while the Force will be celebrating an upset 21-20 win over the Waratahs in Sydney. “A tad too familiar this” was the comment from Melbourne Rebels coach Damien Hill after seeing his side rack up their 12th straight loss. The Rebels can take heart, however, from the fact that they’re losing tight games rather than repeating some of the blowouts they suffered in their inaugural season. The main point of concern for them, however, is points scored. The Rebels average 17 points per game which is the lowest in the competition. The team with the second worse record for this statistic is in fact the Force, so on paper this should be a low scoring game. It will be interesting to see how the comparative fortunes last week play into the confidence levels for this match, which on paper should be quite even. I’m leaning towards the Force to take the points, but it is marginal
Tip: Force to win by 1-12
Saturday 24 March
Waratahs v Sharks
3:35 PM AEDT, Sydney Football Stadium, Sydney
The Waratahs were booed off the pitch after their 20-21 loss at home to the Force last week, which will hardly help team moral. Waratahs fans always have high expectations and they’re always quick to complain when those expectations aren’t met. The Waratahs have responded to last week’s insipid showing by promoting Brendan McKibbin to No. 9 at the expense of Sarel Pretorius. Berrick Barnes has moved back into five-eighth at the expense of Daniel Halangahu, however McKibbin will take over the kicking duties due to Barnes’ groin injury. Granted, McKibbin gives the Waratahs a better kicking option, but they arguably lose their best attacker by benching Pretorius, so there will likely be more fallout with the fans if the move doesn’t pay off. The Sharks will be on a high after their comeback win over the Reds last week in Durban. The Sharks were 0-17 after 32 minutes before roaring back to a 27-22 victory. If the Waratahs don’t get a result here then it will be a case of “here we go again” for the Sydney-based side. One good piece of news for the Waratahs is the return of back-rowers Wycliff Palu and Lopeti Timani for the game.
Tip: either side to win by 1-12
Crusaders v Cheetahs
5:35 PM AEDT, Rugby League Park, Christchurch
The Crusaders have not been at their dominant best this season, with their only victory coming in round 1 against the Blues. Now that they’ve had a bye, they should get their season back on track when they host the Cheetahs. After falling short against the Brumbies the Cheetahs will be on a high after snatching victory two minutes into stoppage time against the Rebels, however a fresh Crusaders side is a real step up from the Rebels and I predict the Crusaders to be too strong here. With that being said, however, the Cheetahs +17.5 line bet @ 1.90 (Centrebet) looks tempting.
Tip: Crusaders to win by 1-12
Brumbies v Highlanders
7:40 PM AEDT, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
This fixture features two of the surprise packages of the competition. The Brumbies were all but written off at the start of the season while the Highlanders don’t have a team sheet that would scare too many opposition coaches. The Highlanders’ dream start to the season continued last week with a tricky 19-17 win over the Hurricanes. They’re a cohesive unit at the moment, and have become well adept at closing out tight matches. The Highlanders’ winning margins have been 4, 3, 1 and 2 this season. The Brumbies picked up wins over the Force and Cheetahs before posing the Chiefs all sorts of problems in their valiant 22-29 loss in New Zealand last Friday. The Brumbies will pose the Highlanders a similar challenge this week. They impressed me with their showing against the Chiefs in a game where I thought they would be second best. A draw looked likely until the Chiefs were able to snatch victory with a last second try. Both sides will back themselves to win here, and I expect it to be a tight one. Given the Highlanders’ strong ability to close out matches I will back them to nick this one too – just.
Tip: Highlanders to win by 1-12
Bulls v Reds
2:05 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
The Bulls will be fired up after losing at home to the Blues two weeks ago. They had a bye last week and should be fresh for this one. The Reds will be kicking themsleves after letting their 17-0 slip in their 22-27 loss to the Sharks last week. In their defence, their rythem was disrupted by the loss of Mike Harris and Ben Lucas to injury during the game. The Reds can take positives from the fact that they put in one of their better performances of the season, but they will be reeling from further disruptions to their line-up. Lucas and Harris have returned home due to injury, so along with Quade Cooper, the Reds are missing three playmakers and kickers. Furthermore Digby Ioane has received a harsh five week ban for his dangerous tackle on Coetzee last week, and has also returned home. Will Genia will likely take on kicking responsibilities like he did halfway through last week. Given the disruptions to the Reds line-up, I back the Bulls to get over the line, but it should be close.
Tip: Bulls to win by 1-12
Lions v Stormers
4:10 AM AEDT, Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
The Lions have only one win this season, and another loss looms large when they host the undefeated Stormers. The Stormers capitalised on numerous Blues errors last week in their 27-17 victory, and are beginning to look like genuine title contenders. The Stormers have conceded on average 18 points per game, which is the lowest in the competiton. They dominated the Blues last week at set pieces, and the scoreline could have become a blowout. I’m tipping the Stormers for the win.
Tip: Stormers by 13+