Friday 25 May
Chiefs v Bulls
5:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
The Chiefs had a bye last week to stew over their 42-27 loss to the Reds in round 12. They were up 22-8 at one stage but the Reds scored a try in the last minute of the first half and never looked back. The Chiefs have lost Richard Kahui for the remainder of the season, which is a big loss for them. The Crusaders’ demolition of the Blues last week will serve as a reminder that their seven-point gap at the top of the New Zealand conference could disappear in a hurry if they slip up.
The Bulls look to be fading as their tour of Australia and New Zealand takes its toll. They resorted to a lot of kicking against the Highlanders last week and they looked exhausted just ten minutes into the second half. Morne Steyn wasn’t his usual reliable self, missing two penalties and a conversion, which were costly in the end as they went down 16-11.
Tip: Chiefs to win by 1-12
Betting: the Bulls ran out of steam last week in Dunedin and the Chiefs will be a step up from the Highlanders. I would back the Chiefs head-to-head at 1.47 (odds from Centrebet)
Saturday 26 May
Hurricanes v Rebels
3:30 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
After beating the Highlanders in Dunedin the Hurricanes were knocking on the door of a playoff spot but fell short against the Brumbies in Wellington last week. They looked good at times, with TJ Perenara and winger Savea having strong games, but after leading 25-16 they conceded 21 unanswered points as they went on to lose 25-37. The handling errors mounted in the end as they failed to secure a second bonus point in the dying stages. They’re certainly not out of the playoff picture but the Hurricanes can ill-afford to lose more ground at this stage of the competition. They have no shortage of attacking options but they have a poor defensive record, conceding on average almost 29 points per game. It is this statistic that will likely be their undoing this year. Cory Jane is expected to be out for six weeks after picking up an injury against the Brumbies, which is a big loss for the Hurricanes.
The Rebels will be delighted to have picked up back-to-back wins over the Crusaders (28-19) and Force (32-31). They will be especially pleased to have picked up their first away win of the season. Interestingly, the two away wins in the club’s history have both been one-point victories over the Force. One concern for the Rebels will be their leaky defence. They’ve conceded more points than any other team this competition.
I can see this being a high scoring game. The Hurricanes have plenty of attacking talent in the backs while Kurtley Beale and Julian Huxley will set up plenty of try scoring opportunities for the Rebels.
Tip: Hurricanes to win by 1-12
Betting: the head-to-head odds on the Hurricanes are too short for my liking. I would take the Rebels (+10.5) at the line.
Blues v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEST, Eden Park, Auckland
After a momentary return to winning ways in week 12, the Blues were pummelled last week in Christchurch. It looked like an exhibition game at times as the Crusaders romped to a 59-12 victory. The one highlight for the Blues this year has been their solid scrum but they were definitely second best against the All Blacks-heavy Crusaders pack. In the end they just had no answers to the Crusaders onslaught. The latest addition to their injury list is Benson Stanley, who may have played his last game for the Blues after picking up a concussion.
The Highlanders picked up a vital win over the previously league-leading Bulls last week. They now sit just two points off a playoff spot and will be gunning to be a third Kiwi side in the top six. The Highlanders were good at retaining possession last week. They returned to keeping ball in hand after their experiment of kicking in play failed to come off against the Hurricanes. One concern will be their line out, which has been flaky over the past few weeks.
Tip: Highlanders to win by 1-12
Betting: the Blues are an unpredictable side, so it’s difficult to bet with confidence here. If I had to wager I would back the Highlanders head-to-head at 1.62 (odds from Centrebet)
Brumbies v Reds
7:40 PM AEST, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
The Brumbies are still flying at the top of the Australian conference after coming back from 16-25 down to win 37-25 against the Hurricanes. Concerns had been raised on how they would fare without five-eighth Christian Lealiifano, but they responded well in Wellington, with replacement No. 10 Zach Holmes scoring 22 points on debut. They are a well-coached and well drilled side that is highly organised in set pieces. They were sharper than the Hurricanes in the end and are well placed to secure a spot in the playoffs – a feat they haven’t achieved since 2004. Flanker Michael Hooper is available for selection after avoiding suspension for his lifting tackle on Victor Vito last week.
Quade Cooper made a successful return for the Reds in their 34-20 win over the Lions last week. The Reds will be pleased to have secured the bonus point, although they weren’t able to put the Lions to the sword as the Blues were able to. They’re now on 36 points to the Brumbies’ 44. A win in Canberra would put the Reds within striking distance of the Australian conference leaders. They will be acutely aware that a loss would put the Brumbies in pole position to top the Australian table, so I don’t expect them to throw caution to the wind on Saturday.
Tip: Brumbies to win by 1-12
Betting: this game could go either way, with both sides in good form at the moment. The Reds won the round 7 encounter over the Brumbies 20-13 but only the Sharks have beaten the Brumbies in Canberra so far this season. You may want to consider backing both sides to win by 1-12, as I don’t expect a blowout.
Western Force v Lions
9:40 PM AEST, NIB Stadium, Perth
Two of the weakest sides in the competition face off when the Force host the Lions. The Force have lost their last six games, while the Lions haven’t won since round 1. With a playoff spot now out of reach both teams are playing for pride, although with the uncertainty over the Lions’ place in the competition next season you could argue they still have a lot to play for.
The Force will be gutted by their one-point home loss to the Rebels. They will lament the timing of that fixture, having played their previous two fixtures in South Africa. They did manage to put 31 points on the board, which is excellent given they were averaging 18.9 points per game up until that point. A similar offensive effort should see them get over the line here.
The Lions have been mercurial on the road. After putting in a spirited performance in their 34-21 loss to the Chiefs they were absolutely dreadful in their 25-3 loss to the Blues. Last week they lifted in their 34-20 loss to the Reds, which makes it difficult to predict what to expect from the South African side.
Tip: Force to win by 1-12
Betting: back the Force to win at 1.36 (odds from Centrebet)
Sunday 27 May
Cheetahs v Waratahs
1:05 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Two weeks ago both of these sides were well within playoff contention, but with the Cheetahs on 27 points, the Waratahs on 28 and the 6th placed Sharks on 41, both sides have probably left themselves with too much to do at this stage of the competition. The Waratahs in particular will be seething after losing their last four games, which has turned the Australian conference into a two-horse race between the Brumbies and Reds. Both the Cheetahs and Waratahs played the Stormers in Cape Town in the last two weeks. The Cheetahs lost 14-16 in round 12 and the Waratahs lost 13-19 in round 13. These results, along with their relative table standings, suggest the two sides are evenly matched, so this should be a tight game. Both the Cheetahs and Waratahs have lacked attacking flair of late, so I don’t expect a high scoring game.
Tip: either side to win by 1-12
Betting: back the Waratahs (+4.5) at the line.
Sharks v Stormers
3:10 AM AEST, Kings Park, Durban
South African fans will be keeping a close eye on this one, as will numerous teams eyeing up the Sharks 6th and final playoff spot. Both sides are in good form. The Stormers have won their last four and have only lost one game this season (Crusaders in round 8). The Sharks have won their last three and are still a small chance of winning the South African conference. The Bulls are their next opponents so much of their season rides on these two games.
The Stormers are playing very much like they did last year. They boast the competition’s stingiest defence but are only ranked 11th in average points scored. The Sharks are more balanced in that respect, but have already lost to the Bulls (13-18 in round 1) and Stormers (12-15 in round 2) this season, so they need to get the better of their countryman if they are to be successful this season. The Sharks do have an excellent home record, however, with the Chiefs the only visitors to emerge victorious in Durban so far this season, so this should be a tight contest.
Tip: either side to win by 1-12
Betting: back both sides to win by 1-12.