Friday 4 May
Hurricanes v Blues
5:35 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
With the Blues out of finals contention, the Kiwis will be hoping they roll over against their fellow kinsmen. This round they visit the Hurricanes, who are coming off losses to the Crusaders (14-42) and Chiefs (14-33). Those losses were somewhat reversals of each other. Against the Crusaders the Hurricanes were blown away early but stuck with them in points scored for the remainder of the match. Against the Chiefs the Hurricanes matched them well before being blown away in the final stages. In each game the Wellington side showed glimpses of the danger they can pose, with fullback Andre Taylor continuing to have an excellent year, but on both occasions they were outclassed in the end, and it looks more and more like they’ll end up as New Zealand’s fourth best side.
The Blues enter this fixture on the back of six losses, one of which was a 25-26 last minute loss to the Hurricanes at Eden Park in round 5. Last week for the first 20 minutes the Blues could hardly have been any worse in their 11-23 loss to the Reds, going down 0-12 and showing no ability to get over the advantage line. The Blues then picked up and effectively matched the Reds 11-11 for the rest of the match, but the damage had already been done. Frustratingly for their fans, the side never seems to adapt, not just during games, but between them. For example the Reds exploited the same kick-off ploy as the Sharks against them, with good effect. It makes you wonder how much of the blame actually lies on the management, because at times the lack of structure on defence makes the Blues look like a Barbarians side that has had only one week of practice. I think already the end of this season can’t come soon enough for them. They won’t forget their one-point loss to the Hurricanes earlier in the season, however, and they should lift for this one.
Tip: Hurricanes to win by 1-12
Betting: back the Hurricanes to win (1.52 with Centrebet). Keep an eye out for odds on Andre Taylor to score a try. The Hurricanes fullback has been excellent this year, with some pundits in New Zealand comparing him to Christian Cullen.
Rebels v Bulls
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
With eight rounds to go the Rebels are arguably out of finals contention, with just two wins to date. They host the Bulls who, like the Rebels, had a bye last week. The Rebels will be playing this fixture without James O’Connor, who lacerated his liver while playing against the Waratahs two weeks ago. The injury could keep him out for up to six weeks. The Rebels have released Danny Cipriani with immediate effect after paying out the remainder of his contract. Coach Damien Hill is said to be contemplating starting Kurtley Beale in the No. 10 role. The Bulls will feel they dodged a bullet when they let their sizeable lead slip in their 36-34 win over the Brumbies two weeks ago. They are currently equal on points with the Stormers and will view this is as a game they really should win if they are to contest for the South African conference title.
Tip: Bulls to win by 1-12
Betting: the 1.20 odds on the Bulls is painfully short. I’ll sit this one out but you may want to consider the +11.5 start on the Rebels.
Saturday 5 May
Chiefs v Lions
5:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
The Chiefs continue to pick up wins, and after a long period of resistance from the Hurricanes, their superiority showed through in the end as they went on to win 33-14. This was impressive given they had just made the long trip back from South Africa. They now host the Lions, who have not tasted victory since round 1. The Chiefs know they will need to continue picking up points, with the Crusaders machine roaring into life just six points behind them on the New Zealand conference table, and they may have an eye on picking up five against the injury depleted Lions.
Tip: Chiefs to win by 13+
Betting: you may want to take the 1.08 odds on the Chiefs and pair it as a multi with other wagers this weekend. The -17.5 line odds may be tempting. If this game was played in South Africa I’d take the Lions at the line, but I’m not sure how well they’ll fare on the road.
Brumbies v Waratahs
7:40 PM AEST, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
This is a fixture that Australian rugby fans will have had circled in their diary for a while. The previously unheralded Brumbies continue to perform well this season as they top the Australian conference. They return from South Africa having scored eleven tries in their last two matches, and will be keen to keep the second placed Waratahs at bay. As things stand, the Brumbies have 31 points to the Waratahs 26 and the Reds 25. With the Reds making the tough visit to Christchurch this round, the Canberra side have a real opportunity to sprint clear in the conference. The Waratahs played very well last week in their narrow 33-37 loss to the Crusaders. They never looked out of the match and it took the individual brilliance of Robbie Fruen to separate the two sides. One disappointing aspect for the NSW side was their inability to secure kick-offs, which I’m sure they will be keen to rectify for this week.
I find this fixture hard to predict. The Brumbies have been impressive of late, but their fitness levels will be tested given the long trek they’ve had to make back from South Africa.
Tip: either side to win by 1-12
Betting: based on earlier form I would have backed the Brumbies, but the Waratahs showed enough last week to scare me off this one.
Sharks v Highlanders
1:05 AM AEST, Kings Park, Durban
The Sharks currently sit outside the playoffs, ten points behind conference leaders the Stormers and Bulls. They have won four and lost five thus far, but stay in South Africa for the rest of the season having played their last four games overseas. With the Bulls now abroad they will see this period as an opportunity to make up ground on their rivals. The Highlanders played their get out of jail card to overcome the Cheetahs last week. Down 30-9 midway through the second half, the southern men started throwing the ball around to good effect, scoring three quick tries as they went on to win 36-33. That’s now the 6th game that they’ve won by four points or less, so anyone who’s been backing them to win by 1-7 each round would have made a killing. The Sharks are arguably a step up from the Cheetahs, however, and I don’t expect them to give the Highlanders as many chances. Kings Park is a tough venue for visitors and I don’t fancy the Highlanders chances this week.
Tip: Sharks to win by 1-12
Betting: back the Sharks -5.5 at the line.
Cheetahs v Western Force
3:10 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
The Cheetahs will be kicking themselves after letting a 21-point lead slip against the Highlanders last week. To make matters worse they have lost their playmaker Johan Goosen for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. He’s been brilliant for them this year, and the Cheetahs are certainly a much weaker side without the number one points scorer in the competition. They seemed to lose the initiative when Goosen came off last week, with Sias Ebersohn missing numerous penalties, including one from out in front, in his absence. They will have to rebound quickly, however, if they are to have any chance of playing finals rugby. The Force are a team they will feel they can beat at home, although the visitors will take heart from the absence of Goosen. Ebersohn will have to play much better than he did last week.
The Force lost 3-17 to the Stormers last week, but the news off the pitch has been the bigger story. It initially looked like they had secured the services of Will Genia for next season, but he had since back flipped, deciding to stay with the Reds, although that too could still be up in the air. In better news for the Force, David Pocock is apparently set to re-sign with the club. They are still looking for their first victory over foreign opposition this season and this is their best opportunity yet.
Tip: Cheetahs to win by 1-12
Betting: the head to head odds on the Cheetahs are too low for my liking. I’m going to sit this one out but the +7.5 line bet on the Force is tempting, given Goosen’s absence.
Sunday 6 May
Crusaders v Reds
2:00 PM AEST, Rugby League Park, Christchurch
It is back-to-back Sunday fixtures for the Crusaders as they host the Reds in the final game of the round. The Canterbury side appears to have shaken off their sluggish start to the season with five wins in their last six games. They saw off a spirited Waratahs side last week in their 37-33 victory in Sydney. Robbie Fruen was the stand out player, scoring two tries and setting up the third. Only injury could prevent him from donning an All Blacks jersey this year based on the form he’s in. One concern for the Crusaders, however, must be the form of Dan Carter. Tom Taylor continues to keep him out of the No. 10 jersey, and he’s been making too many uncharacteristic errors of late. Richie McCaw played his first Super Rugby last week from the bench. I wonder how much longer it will be before we see him don the No. 7 again.
The Reds will be pleased to have seen off the Blues in Auckland last week, but the Blues were absolutely terrible in that game, so they may feel they could have done better. With that being said, they will be pleased to have avoided adding to their injury list, and Will Genia was excellent last week. He got good front-foot ball and menaced the Blues defence all game. Reds fans will be relieved to hear that the latest news is he will be playing for the Reds again next year, barring any salary cap issues. No team would want to give up a world class No. 9 like him.
Given the fact that the Crusaders are continuing to build momentum, and given they’ll be playing at home, I don’t fancy the Reds’ chances this week, although they should make the Crusaders work for it.
Tip: Crusaders to win by 1-12
Betting: the 1.24 head-to-head odds on the Crusaders is poor value. I’d take the Reds +10.5 at the line.