The following are previews and betting tips for the qualifying finals of the 2012 Super Rugby competition.
The Reds finished the regular season with the sixth best points tally, however courtesy of the conference system they have been given third seed and a home fixture for the qualifying finals. This round sees the Crusaders host the Bulls while the Reds host the Sharks. The two winners will then visit the Stormers and the Chiefs in the semi-finals. The Stormers will host the lower ranked winner while the Chiefs will host the higher ranked winner. If both the Reds and Crusaders win then the Reds would take on the Chiefs and the Crusaders would play the Stormers, although neither the Bulls nor the Sharks should be written off.
Saturday 21 July
Crusaders v Bulls
5:35 PM AEST, Rugby League Park, Christchurch
In what should be a great fixture for the neutral, the 2nd and 3rd best offences in the competition face off in the first qualifying final. The Crusaders finished the regular season with four wins and a one-point loss in their last five games, and with the likes of Carter and McCaw fit, they will back themselves to be a title threat once again. Prior to the international break the Crusaders looked invincible, notching 59-12 and 51-18 wins over the Blues and Highlanders, respectively. Understandably, the three Ireland fixtures were disruptive to the squad, which features so many All Blacks. After the break they fell 22-23 at home to the Hurricanes before notching an unconvincing 28-21 win against the Chiefs a week later. In the final round the Crusaders shot out to a 35-3 lead against the Western Force before making substitutions and losing their form a bit. They held on to win 38-24 but the game was already over at half time. Should the Crusaders win this fixture they won’t be afraid of facing the Chiefs nor the Stormers. They beat the Chiefs two weeks ago and last year they beat the Stormers at the semi-final stage in Cape Town.
The Bulls enter the finals in less convincing form. After starting the season with an 8-2 record they looked a genuine chance of winning the South African conference. They finished the season with a 2-4 record, however, to slump to 5th on the table. The Bulls lost both games (to the Highlanders and Chiefs) in their tour of New Zealand earlier in the season, but they had already played two fixtures in Australia by that stage and were beginning to tire as the long road trip took its toll. The Crusaders will be weary of the kicking threat of Morne Steyn, who was at his clinical best last week. The Bulls beat the Crusaders 32-30 in Pretoria in round 7, but the Crusaders were still in a rebuilding phase at that stage of the competition. I fancy the Christchurch side’s chances in an entertaining affair on Saturday.
Tip: Crusaders to win
Betting: Crusaders v Bulls fixtures have gone the way of the home side in recent years. I’m inclined to back the Crusaders to win but the 1.20 head-to-head odds are a bit short. It’s marginal, but I’m leaning towards the Crusaders -10.5 at the line @ 1.91 (bet365).
Reds v Sharks
7:40 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
It took six straight wins and a capitulation from the Brumbies in the final round, but the Reds have made the playoffs. As reward for winning the Australian conference they have been given third seed and a home game against the sixth seeded Sharks in the qualifying finals. The Reds finished the regular season with the best form in the competition, having won their last six fixtures. The most impressive of which was the 42-27 win over the Chiefs after the visitors looked like they were going to run away with the game at one stage. Like the Crusaders have a habit of doing, the Reds appear to have peaked at the right time. Their bonus point victory last week was the first time since 2003 they have taken five points against Waratahs. The Reds will sorely miss Quade Cooper, however, who was handed a one-week suspension for a high tackle last week. Two weeks ago the Reds benched Cooper after they had built a dominant lead against the Force. The Reds lost their way after his departure, so there’s no question his absence is a huge loss. The Reds will be hoping to reverse their 22-27 loss to the Sharks in Durban in round 4. Interestingly, Quade Cooper was also absent in that match.
The Sharks also bring strong form into this fixture, having won six of their last seven games. Against the Cheetahs they were given a scare, trailing 6-15 at half-time but they kicked into gear to score 28 unanswered points with four converted tries to secure a playoff spot. It should be noted that they started that game without Springboks forwards Willem Alberts and Bismarck du Plessis. Like the Reds the Sharks will also be without a key playmaker this week. Pat Lambie has been ruled out after aggravating an ankle injury against the Cheetahs. Frederic Michalak will start in his place. The Sharks will also be without Francois Steyn, who is ineligible to play. It remains to be seen how match fit Bismarck du Plessis is.
Tip: Reds to win by 1-12
Betting: on paper this should be a tightly contested affair between two evenly matched sides. Had this fixture been played in Durban I would have backed the Sharks, but with the Reds’ fantastic home record I back them to progress to the semi-finals. I would back the Reds in a head-to-head wager @ 1.45 (bet365)
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