Friday 1 June
Crusaders v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEST, Rugby League Park, Christchurch
The round starts off with a battle for South Island supremacy when the Crusaders host the Highlanders. The two sides last faced off in round 2, when the Highlanders won 27-24 in Dunedin, but you’d have to be bold to back the visitors this week. The Crusaders are coming off a 59-12 demolition of the Blues before their bye last round. The Blues game looked like an exhibition match at times, with the Auckland side having no answers to the Crusaders onslaught. Nine Crusaders tries were scored in all, which makes you wonder where the Crusaders offence had been over the prior two weeks. They welcome back No. 8 Kieran Read for this fixture. The Highlanders enter this game on the back of good victories over the Bulls (16-11) and Blues (27-20). They too pose a strong attacking threat, with the ability to score tries out of nothing, but I don’t fancy their chances this weekend.
Tip: Crusaders to win by 1-12
Betting: if the Crusaders play like they did two weeks ago then the 9.5 start for the Highlanders won’t be enough. Based on the Crusaders form for the rest of their season, however, the 9.5 start for the Highlanders looks too generous. Given this uncertainty I would simply back the Crusaders to win at 1.27 odds (Centrebet).
Rebels v Brumbies
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
After back to back wins over the Crusaders and Force the Rebels were brought back to earth with a thud when they were pummelled 66-24 by the Hurricanes in Wellington. It was misery for Rebels fans to watch, with the side looking like they had nowhere to go. If they kicked possession away they were punished and for long stretches of the game they had no penetration with ball in hand. The Rebels defence is a shambles, as highlighted by the 33.2 points they concede on average, which is the highest in the competition. To compound their woes, Kurtley Beale picked up a shoulder injury and will be out for at least this round and possibly Australia’s four June Tests.
The Brumbies will be seething after Zack Holmes’ last minute penalty attempt failed as they lost 12-13 to the Reds. They’ve lost to the Queenslanders twice this year, so if they fail to secure the Australian Conference it will be those two results that undid them. The Brumbies will have to refocus for this game because with the Reds just five points behind and due to receive four points for a bye this week, a loss in Melbourne would hand too much momentum to the Queenslanders. The Rebels are a much stronger side at home, but I tip the Brumbies to take the honours here.
Tip: Brumbies to win by 1-12
Betting: the Rebels defence was dreadful last week, but the Brumbies were held tryless by the Reds. If I had to pick a line I would take the Brumbies at -8.5, but personally I would back the Brumbies to win at 1.32 odds (Centrebet).
Saturday 2 June
Blues v Chiefs
5:35 PM AEST, Eden Park, Auckland
The Blues will be sick of fellow Kiwi opposition having lost all six domestic fixtures so far this season. Few pundits will fancy their chances to make amends for that this weekend when they host the top of the table Chiefs. The Blues were their own worst enemy last week in their 20-27 home loss to the Highlanders. At 6-20 they were in with a chance when a bundled line out throw on their own five metre line went straight to Adam Thompson of the Highlanders. The gifted try gave the visitors the breathing room they needed to see the game off. The game highlighted the Blues season thus far, always showing glimpses of promise before self-destructing at critical times.
Apart from their slip against the Reds, the Chiefs have been on a fantastic run. They sit seven points ahead of the Crusaders with four rounds to play, so they’re in an excellent position to win the New Zealand conference. They defended well last week in their 28-22 win over the Bulls. The visitors posed them plenty of problems and the Chiefs trailed at the break for the first time this season. They overturned the eight-point deficit in the second half with some explosive runs and were deserved winners in the end. Fullback Andrew Horrell in particular had an excellent game, scoring the first try and kicking tactfully. He looked composed and assured, and is yet another strong back to come out of Hawke’s Bay. Sonny Bill Williams played well at inside centre.
Tip: Chiefs to win by 1-12
Betting: the Chiefs won the reverse fixture 29-9 in week 2, but a lot of rugby has been played since then. I expect the visitors to be too strong, but can’t predict a margin with confidence given the mercurial nature of the Blues. I would back the Chiefs in a head-to-head bet at 1.27 odds (Centrebet).
Waratahs v Hurricanes
7:40 PM AEST, Sydney Football Stadium, Sydney
The Waratahs continue to find new ways to impose misery on themselves. Their 34-35 loss to the Cheetahs was their third one-point loss this season. Their largest losing margin this season is only eight, which will frustrate their fans, because they are so often in the game before finding a way to lose. They now return from South Africa with their playoff chances extinguished.
The Hurricanes are still very much in finals contention, sitting five points behind the 6th placed Sharks. They travel to Sydney on the back of a 66-24 demolition of the Rebels and will be hoping Beauden Barrett can replicate the kicking form he showed last week in Wellington. Barrett was 9/9 with the boot that night.
Tip: Hurricanes to win by 1-12
Betting: the Waratahs should be competitive, but I couldn’t back them given they’ve lost their last five. I would back the Hurricanes +2.5 at the line.
Lions v Sharks
1:05 AM AEST, Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
If you think it’s tough being a Waratahs supporter this season, spare a thought for the Lions. After beating the Cheetahs in round 1 they haven’t tasted victory since. They return from a miserable overseas tour only to face the red hot Sharks. Many had tipped the Sharks to dominate the South African conference at the start of the season, and after a slow start, they have found some good form. The Durban side have won their last four games, the most recent of which was their 25-20 victory over the South African conference leaders the Stormers. The Sharks now sit five points behind the Stormers and will be pushing to take the conference.
Tip: Sharks to win by 1-12
Betting: you don’t often get blow out games in South African conference games. The Sharks won the reverse fixture 32-20 in round 3 and I back them to get the double over the injury hit and travel weary Lions. I would back the Sharks to win at 1.20 odds (Centrebet).
Bulls v Stormers
3:10 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
This game has huge implications for the South African conference, with the Stormers sitting just two points ahead of the Bulls. Both teams lost last week, which has brought the Sharks right back into contention. The Bulls returned to South Africa having lost their last two games in New Zealand, but it was always a big ask to get results in Dunedin and Hamilton at the end of a long road trip. They are still every chance of topping the South African conference, however. Last week Bulls were a tough nut to crack and it took a few moments of brilliance from the highly athletic Chiefs to get the better of them. Morne Steyne continues to be excellent with the boot, and the side boasts a strong forward pack, particularly at line outs. You can expect plenty of driving mauls and high kicks from the Bulls this week.
The Stormers will be looking to rebound from their 25-20 loss to the Sharks in Durban. They were dominated at the scrum and at the breakdown by the Sharks and will be looking for improvements in those areas for this clash. They concede only 16.3 points per game, which is easily the best in the competition, but they are only the 11th ranked side in points scored. This could be their undoing this season.
Tip: either side to win by 1-12
Betting: the Stormers won the reverse fixture 20-17 in round 6 and I expect another close game this week. I would back both sides to win by 1-12.