Friday 18 May
Hurricanes v Brumbies
5:35 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Round 13 opens with a great clash featuring two sides very much in the hunt for a playoff spot. The Hurricanes enter this fixture on the back of victories over the Blues and Highlanders, while the Brumbies won their previous two games against the Lions and Waratahs. The Hurricanes’ win over the Highlanders has drawn them right back into the playoff picture. They now sit just two points behind the 6th placed Sharks and three points behind the 5th placed Crusaders. They showed good continuity in attack last week and looked dangerous in open play. They are a side that thrives on turnover ball and open, free-flowing games. Fullback Andre Taylor will be disappointed to have missed out on the 35-man All Blacks training squad given the strong season he is having. One interesting squad change for this fixture is Tusi Pisi will wear the No. 10 jersey for the first time this season with Beauden Barrett starting on the bench.
The Brumbies will still be on a high after dispatching the Waratahs 23-6 before their bye last week. The victory came at a cost, however, with No. 10 Christian Lealiifano ruled out for up to six months with a broken ankle. In a squad that is short of star names this will be a huge blow. Having said that, the Brumbies were given little chance at the start of the season due to their youthful squad, but they are a great example of how a team can be bigger than the sum of its parts. A lot of credit has to go to their South African and former Springboks coach Jake White.
This should be a balanced, free-flowing, open contest. It is good game for the neutral, but not necessarily for the punter, because it’s a tough one to predict. The result will provide good insight into how the Brumbies will fare without their star playmaker. It will also provide insight into the Hurricanes playoff chances.
Tip: either side to win by 1-12
Betting: back the Brumbies (+5.0) at the line
Saturday 19 May
Highlanders v Bulls
3:30 PM AEST, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
The second game of the round is also an excellent one for the neutral. The Highlanders have run with the ball more than any other team this season while the Bulls average almost 34 points scored per game, which is the comfortably highest in the competition. After starting the season well the Highlanders are starting to wobble as the injury list takes its toll. They have lost consecutive games for the first time this season (Sharks away, Hurricanes at home), and they will know that a third straight loss will likely see them slip more than five points behind the 6th and last playoff spot. The Highlanders faded badly at the end of last season, and while they have more depth this time round, I don’t fancy their playoff chances this year.
The Bulls continue to do just enough to pick up wins. Their 27-24 victory over the Waratahs was their 5th on the trot, which is the best active winning streak in the competition. Four of those five wins have been by six points or less, and they have averaged almost 62 points per game in total scores during that stretch, so they are used to high scoring games. Morne Steyn continues to be excellent with the boot, which has been a major factor in their success. The only issue for the Bulls is whether their fitness can hold up over this six-game overseas tour. After this round they play the Chiefs before heading back to South Africa to host the Stormers. There’s a decent chance they won’t win either of those games, so I’m sure they’ll eye up this fixture as an important game.
Tip: Bulls to win by 1-12
Betting: the Highlanders will have to put a lot of points on the board if they are to emerge victorious. Given the extensive Highlanders injury list I would back the Bulls at 1.90 to make it six in a row (odds from Centrebet).
Crusaders v Blues
5:35 PM AEST, Rugby League Park, Christchurch
The Crusaders will be licking their wounds after suffering a shock 28-19 loss to the Rebels last week in Melbourne. Todd Blackadder’s plan to rest six frontline players backfired terribly with the Rebels putting on a spirited performance in the second half to overcome a 19-10 halftime deficit. The Crusaders were pinged for constant infringements and they weren’t able to mount any reply to second half tries by Phipps and Mortlock. They ended up scoreless in the second half and return to New Zealand with a point to prove. The Christchurch side has not played up to everyone’s expectations this year, with their much-vaunted attack failing to fire. They have scored just 23 tries in 11 games this season, compared to 40 this time last year.
The Blues snapped their seven-game losing streak by beating the toothless Lions 25-3 last week. It wasn’t a convincing performance, especially given the Lions entered last week’s fixture having lost their last eight. The Blues lineout continues to go awry and their kick-off returns remain poor. They went lateral far too quickly and were easy to defend against at times. The Blues also conceded too many costly penalties, particularly in the first half. They were a better side in the second half, it has to be said, and they were able to convert more of their dominance in territory into points. Anscombe had a strong game with his in-play kicking behind the Lions backline, although he missed three penalties and a conversion, which would have cost them dearly in a closer game. One of the positives for the Blues this season has been their solid scrum, and I’m sure Woodcock & Co. would love to dominate that aspect of the game against the Crusaders this weekend.
After an insipid performance against the Reds in round 11 I said that I didn’t expect the Crusaders to put in two poor performances in a row, but they did just that. They still hold a playoff position, but have opened the door for the Hurricanes and Highlanders, not to mention the Reds. They really need to win this game and I’m sure the Blues would love to be the spoilers here.
Tip: Crusaders to win by 1-12
Betting: the Crusaders remain joint favourites at 4.00 odds to win this competition, and I can’t help but think they’re overrated. Anyone who has backed them week in, week out will have a hole in their wallet, and once again, the head-to-head odds are a too short for my liking. I’d be more inclined to back the Blues (+9.5) at the line.
Reds v Lions
7:40 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Round 12 could not have gone better for the Reds. On top of their inspired 42-27 comeback victory over the Chiefs, the Waratahs, Crusaders and Highlanders lost, which has enabled the Reds to climb within five points of a playoff spot. They have put the rest of the competition on notice by snapping the Chiefs nine-game winning streak, and will fancy themselves as a genuine chance of taking the Australian conference over the Lealiifano-less Brumbies. The Reds and Brumbies play each other next week, and with the hapless Lions their next opponents, I wonder if the Reds will have one eye already on round 14.
After putting in a strong performance against the Chiefs in round 11, the Lions were absolutely dreadful in their 25-3 loss to the Blues last week, with a toothless attacking display. Like the Blues they went lateral too early, spreading the ball wide as they shuffled from one side of the field to another without gaining much territory. They have some powerful ball runners in the squad and they need to play more like they did against the Chiefs, using their strong forwards to bust their way up the middle to get good go-forward ball. One strategy the Lions have employed over the past few weeks is to pass up numerous kickable penalty opportunities to take the quick tap. It hasn’t worked out for them thus far, and if they continue to employ that strategy then the margin could be a blow out.
Tip: Reds to win by 13+
Betting: The Reds may make some squad rotations for this fixture, but if the Lions play like they did last week then it should still be a comfortable victory for the Queenslanders. I’d back the Reds (-18.5) at the line. One option is to take the 1.07 head-to-head odds for the Reds and pair it with other wagers as two-leg multi bets (odds from Centrebet).
Sunday 20 May
Cheetahs v Sharks
1:05 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
The Cheetahs’ second half heroics saw them fall just short against the highly fancied Stormers last week. They came back from 16-0 down at the break to only just lose 16-14 in the end. Like the Waratahs they are still a chance of making the playoffs, but need to win fixtures such as this to have any chance. With their best player in Johan Goosen out for the season it’s going to be a tough ask, especially given the ruthless form the Sharks are in.
After a shaky start to the season the Sharks are firming as playoff contenders. Their 53-11 demolition of the ill-disciplined Western Force sees them move into the 6th and final playoff spot, and I think there’s a decent chance the South African conference will feature three teams in the top six this season. The rest of their fixtures are against South African sides so they will have to get the better of their countrymen if they are to feature in the playoffs. They will eye the Cheetahs and Lions fixtures in particular as games they must win.
Tip: Sharks to win, but I can’t predict the margin
Betting: back the Sharks to win at 1.71 (odds from Centrebet).
Stormers v Waratahs
3:10 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
The Stormers will be relieved to have come away from their game against the unfancied Cheetahs with a victory. They led 16-0 at halftime but were scoreless in the second spell as they held on for a 16-14 win. They have only lost won game this season, which is the best win-loss record of the competition. The Stormers sit behind the high scoring Bulls in the South African conference, however, due to superior the bonus points tally of the Bulls. They face two tough fixtures away from home against the Sharks and Bulls after this, so they will be keen to hit the road in winning form.
It would have been a long, sombre flight for the Waratahs after their 24-27 loss to the Bulls last week. It was hyped up as being a must-win game, and with a tough fixture against the Stormers this week, many pundits will have written off the Waratahs’ chances of making the playoffs this season. The nature of the loss to the Bulls will have hurt, conceding a late try that stemmed from a scrum with their put in. One positive for the Waratahs is that Drew Mitchell passed a fitness test last Friday and has been included in their tour squad. The Waratahs always play with the weight of expectation on their shoulders, and with that burden now lifted it will be interesting to see if they start putting in better performances for the last third of the season.
Tip: Stormers to win by 1-12
Betting: back the Stormers to win at 1.30 (odds from Centrebet).
Western Force v Rebels
4:35 PM AEST, NIB Stadium, Perth
The Western Force return to Australia having lost all three games in their tour of South Africa. They have now lost their last five and will likely turn their attention away from obtaining a playoff spot to avoiding the wooden spoon in the Australian conference. Their lack of discipline has been costly. Last week against the Sharks they conceded 17 penalties which undid all their good work in putting phases together. The ended up losing 53-11 despite nearly matching the Sharks in possession. A poor defensive effort saw them leak 43 consecutive points and seven tries in all. Despite the bad results, they will still give themselves a real chance of beating the Rebels. The Rebels did upset the Crusaders last week, but they are winless on the road this season. The previous time the Rebels won a game (34-23 against the Blues), they backed it up with a terrible performance (6-37 against the Brumbies), so the Force can take heart from that.
The Rebels will be on a high after a spirited second half performance saw them overcome the highly fancied Crusaders. On top of coming from behind to win, the Rebels will be pleased to have kept their opponents scoreless in the second half. They now sit 12 points behind a playoff spot, so to have any chance of making the playoffs they must win most of their remaining fixtures. As I alluded to earlier, the Rebels are winless on the road this season, so they will have to turn that statistic around immediately if they are to keep their season alive.
Tip: Rebels to win by 1-12
Betting: given the Rebels poor away form this game could go either way. I give the visitors the edge given the discipline and defensive issues that interim Western Force coach Phil Blake is having to sort out. I would back the Rebels to win at 1.90 (odds from Centrebet)