The following are previews and betting tips for the 18th and final round of the 2012 Super Rugby competition.
With one round to play there are eight teams in contention for the six playoff spots. At this stage only the Chiefs and Stormers are guaranteed a place, having secured the New Zealand and South African conferences, respectively. The Brumbies currently top the Australian conference, five points clear of the Reds. However a Reds bonus point victory and a loss for the Brumbies without a bonus point would see the Reds top the Australian conference because the win/loss record takes precedent over points difference as a tie-breaking rule.
In terms of playoff teams’ nationalities, numerous scenarios are possible, featuring between 1 and 3 sides from New Zealand, 1-3 sides South Africa, and 1-2 sides from Australia. Looking at the fixtures ahead, all six teams in the top six have winnable fixtures against sides outside the top six, so the most likely scenario is we will have one Australian team, two New Zealand teams and three South African sides in the playoffs.
Below are the current table standings. Note that the top side from each conference automatically qualifies for the playoffs.
Friday 13 July
Hurricanes v Chiefs
5:35 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
This is a fantastic fixture to start the weekend. The two sides last played in Round 6 with the Chiefs winning 47-38 in an entertaining game so neutrals will be hoping for more of the same this week. Prior to their bye last round the Hurricanes beat the Crusaders 23-22 in Christchurch. They have won five of their last six and will feel the win they so desperately need this round is within their grasp. Realistically the Hurricanes will need a four try bonus point as well, so they will be throwing the kitchen sink at their local rivals on Friday. The Hurricanes welcome back Victor Vito and possibly Cory Jane for this fixture.
The Chiefs have already secured the New Zealand conference so they may not play with the same intensity as the Hurricanes. Having said that, they are playing for the top seed in the playoffs and they won’t wish to enter the finals on the back of consecutive defeats. The Chiefs desperately need to sort out their set pieces ahead of the playoffs. Their lineout was atrocious last week and their scrum has been dominated in the last two rounds.
Tip: either side to win by 1-12
Betting: Given the willingness of both sides to throw the ball around and the strengths of their backs, I would take the over 51.5 in over/under betting @ 1.91 (bet365). The last time these two sides played 85 points were scored in all.
Saturday 14 July
Brumbies v Blues
3:30 PM AEST, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
With a five point buffer over the Reds, the Brumbies need just a bonus point this week to secure the Australian conference, although that could be a tricky task against a dangerous Blues side. As a basic form guide, both sides have played the Force in the last two weeks. The Brumbies won 28-17 while the Blues won 32-9. Admittedly, the Brumbies were playing away from home while the Blues won at Eden Park, but it does highlight the threat that the boys from Auckland pose. Prior to their victory over the Force the Blues gave the table topping Chiefs a real scare when they lost 34-41 in a tightly fought affair. With captain Kevin Mealamu back in the side the Blues could be a formidable roadblock this round.
Tip: Brumbies to win by 1-12
Betting: the Blues are a mercurial side, which makes betting risky. If I had to wager I would take the Blues (+7.0) at the line @ 1.91 (bet365).
Crusaders v Western Force
5:35 PM AEST, Rugby League Park, Christchurch
The Crusaders are living dangerously at the moment. They lost to the Hurricanes in round 16 before scraping through with a win against the Chiefs last week. Given that the Chiefs’ lineout and scrum went so terribly awry, the Crusaders will be concerned that the Hamilton side was still in the match right up until the final whistle. Like with so many sides, the Crusaders have numerous scenarios for their possible playoff position with one round to play. The best case scenario is they finish 3rd while the worst case scenario is they finish 8th and outside the playoffs. In their favour, however, is the fact that they have a very winnable fixture against the Force this round. The Crusaders did lose to the Rebels earlier in the season, but that was away from home and they had rotated the squad for that fixture. This week they are in Christchurch and will be fully committed. The Crusaders have a habit of winning when it matters and I back them to make the playoffs once again.
The Force have pride and a desire to avoid the wooden spoon to play for. They were competitive for a fair portion of the match against the Blues last week, however the local side found their stride in the second half and ran away 32-9 victors. The Force were without Nathan Sharpe, David Pocock and Matt Hodgson last round, and with the same appearing to be true this week, another blowout is possible.
Tip: Crusaders to win by 13+
Betting: despite the sizeable head start to the Force, I would be inclined to take the Crusaders (-24.5) at the line @ 1.91 (Centrebet). The Crusaders are well capable of embarrassing their opposition, with winning margins of 28, 33 and 47 already dished out this season. The Force have had it tough against New Zealand sides so far this competition, with the Hurricanes and Blues beating them by 27 and 23 points, respectively. This could be a long evening for the injury depleted Force.
UPDATE: Crusaders No. 8 Kieran Read has been ruled out with a rib injury. Richie McCaw will move back to No. 8 with Matt Todd starting on the openside. In a couple of squad rotations, Samuel Whitelock and Robbie Fruean will start from the bench, with Tom Donnelly and Sean Maitland starting in their place. The Western Force welcome back Nathan Sharpe, who has recovered from a back injury.
Reds v Waratahs
7:40 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
The Reds enter this fixture knowing that, realistically, they need a bonus point victory this weekend. They sit five points behind the Brumbies while the Crusaders, Bulls and Sharks all have winnable home fixtures against sides ranked 10th and below. The Brumbies have a tricky fixture against the Blues this round, so it is possible that the Reds could top the Australian conference with a bonus point win. It is also possible, however that they could miss out on the playoffs even with a bonus point victory, so other results will likely determine their fate this week.
The Waratahs have another opportunity to play the spoiler this round. They fell 19-15 at home to the Brumbies last week, but have a second chance to ruin the season of a fellow Australian team. The Waratahs had the better of possession and territory against the Brumbies. They also outscored them two tries to one. If they can cut down on the penalties and handling errors then they could give the Reds a scare.
Tip: Reds to win by 1-12
Betting: the Waratahs will probably lift for this one, but I back the Reds to get the job done on Saturday. I would back them in a head-to-head bet @ 1.31 (Centrebet).
Stormers v Rebels
11:00 PM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
The Stormers are one of only two sides to have secured a place in the playoffs, and with the South African conference in the bag, they will now turn their attention to securing top seed and a possible home final in the playoffs. The Chiefs have a tricky visit to Wellington this week so the Stormers are in with a real chance of topping the overall table. In cold, wet conditions they stumbled over the line against the Cheetahs last week, but that’s what the Stormers have been doing all season. They are only 12th in points scored this year, but their league leading defence has won them 13 out of 15 fixtures. The Stormers concede only 15.5 points per game on average, which is almost five points less than the next best defence.
The Rebels were down by 24 points at one stage before leading by five and ultimately losing by five in an entertaining game against the Lions last week. They were without James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale so they will be pleased to have scored four tries without their key playmakers. The Rebels will find things hard going this week, however, when they take on the best defence in the league. Given their injury woes and poor away record, the Rebels will do well to keep the margin under ten points this weekend. However, given the Stormers have yet to score four tries in a game this season, I don’t expect a large blowout.
Tip: Stormers to win by 13+
Betting: the Stormers have yet to beat a side by more than 15 points this season, but this is arguably their easiest fixture of the year. Nevertheless I will bank on them to continue to do only just enough to win. I will tentatively back the Rebels (+19.5) at the line @ 1.91 (Centrebet).
Saturday 15 July
Sharks v Cheetahs
1:05 AM AEST, Kings Park, Durban
After suffering a potentially season-wrecking loss against the Lions in round 15, the Sharks responded in the best possible way with a bonus point victory over a dangerous Bulls side at Kings Park last week. They will be especially pleased with their ability to secure such an emphatic victory without the likes of Patrick Lambie, Steven Sykes and Willem Alberts in the squad. The Sharks’ destiny is now in their own hands. A bonus point win this weekend would guarantee them a playoff spot. The Cheetahs made the Stormers work hard for their win last week, so they should be no pushovers. However, given how hard it is for away teams to play at Kings Park, it’s hard to look past a Sharks victory. The Sharks won the reverse fixture 34-20 in round 13, so I expect a comfortable win this weekend.
Tip: Sharks to win by 13+
Betting: given how tough Kings Park is to visit, and given the Sharks will be looking for four tries, I would back them (-14.5) at the line @ 1.91 (Centrebet).
Update:: Bismarck du Plessis is unlikely to start for the Sharks due to a knee injury. The Sharks welcome back Pat Lambie, Willem Alberts and Steven Sykes for this clash.
Bulls v Lions
3:10 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Like the Sharks the Bulls know that a bonus point victory will guarantee them a spot in the playoffs. They looked like contenders for the South African conference at one stage, but the Bulls have stuttered of late with only one win in their last five games. The Lions upset the Sharks 38-28 in round 16 and scored four tries against the Rebels last week, so the Bulls will have to play at their best if they are to pick up maximum points.
The Lions play what could be the franchise’s last game in Super Rugby. They sit bottom of the table with a 3-12 record, but they have been more competitive than their league standing suggests. They’ve won two of their last three games and will enjoy the chance to play the role of the spoiler.
Tip: Bulls to win by 1-12
Betting: given the Bulls’ wobbles of late I couldn’t back them in the head-to-head market. I would back the Lions (+17.5) at the line @ 1.91 (Centrebet).