Friday, 22 February
Highlanders v Chiefs
5:35 PM AEDT, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
This is a great fixture to start the round. The Chiefs hosted the Highlanders in Round 1 last year and lost 23-19, so they will be keen to avoid the same bad start this season. The two sides played again in Round 16, with the Chiefs winning 27-21 in Dunedin. You don’t get too many blowouts when the New Zealand sides play each other, and with the Highlanders strengthening with the acquisitions of Ma’a Nonu, Brad Thorn and Tony Woodcock in the off-season, there’s little reason to expect anything different for this fixture.
It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs fare this season with the losses of Sonny Bill Williams and their top try scorer, Sona Taumalolo. They welcome back Richard Kahui, but it remains to be seen how fit he is. The Highlanders start the season without captain Andrew Hore, who is serving a suspension.
Betting: given their strong pre-season form I fancy the Chiefs in a tight game. I would back the Chiefs +2.0 at the line at 1.91 odds (Pinnacle Sports).
UPDATE: Brad Thorn has been ruled out with a calf strain. Tamati Ellison is also unavailable for the Highlanders so Phil Burlegh will partner Nonu in the midfield.
Rebels v Brumbies
7:40 PM AEDT, AAMI Park, Melbourne
The Rebels did well to bounce back from a slow start to secure a key win over the Force last week. It broke a four-game losing streak, however they will require a better performance to get over the Brumbies this round.
The Brumbies defence did well to keep Quade Cooper and the Reds quiet last week, conceding only two penalty goals. A lot of that success came from their dominance in the forwards and winning the battle at the breakdown. They will be pleased to have beaten a side that defeated them twice last season, especially given they missed out on a post-season spot to the Reds via points difference in 2012. The Rebels will pose quite a different threat to the Brumbies this week, however, with the need to keep two opposition playmakers (James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale) quiet. The Brumbies missed a conversion and four penalty attempts last week and a similar performance could hurt them on Saturday. In contrast, James O’Connor was 6/6 with the boot against the Force.
The Rebels lost both fixtures to the Brumbies last season (37-6 away, 19-27 at home) and I expect them to fall short again, with the Brumbies winning in a tight game.
Betting: the Brumbies on paper should be too strong here. I would back the Brumbies at 1.47 odds (Sportingbet).
Saturday, 23 February
Bulls v Stormers
4:10 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
This should be a typically bruising affair. The Stormers start this season as the most fancied South African team after topping the regular season standings last year. The Bulls lost home (14-19) and away (17-20) to the Stormers last year, and given the relatively small changeover in squads from 2012, I expect a similarly tight tussle here. The Stormers will be without lock Eben Etzebeth, Juan de Jongh and Schalk Burger, while the Bulls are missing Dean Greyling, Akona Ndungane and Jacques Potgieter.
Betting: like the bookmakers, I find this fixture really difficult to pick. I don’t predict either side will be blown away so I would back both the Bulls to win by 1-12 at 2.95 and the Stormers to win by 1-12 at 2.85 (Sportingbet). For those who wish to be more aggressive, you can bet that neither team will win by more than 7.5 points at 2.10 odds (Sportingbet).
Hurricanes v Blues
5:35 PM AEDT, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
This should be a free-flowing, high scoring affair, featuring the two worst defences in New Zealand last year. The Blues will be reeling from the departures of Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Gareth Anscombe and Jerome Kaino, however they were highly competitive in their pre-season fixtures (lost 41-35 to the Reds, beat Waratahs 40-36, beat Highlanders 31-29).
The Hurricanes recruited Ben Franks from the Crusaders last year, but I still feel their forward pack is their weakness. They are capable of scoring plenty of points, however, with their tally of 58 tries last season the best in the competition by a margin of 8 tries! Like the Blues they had high scoring pre-season games (beat the Crusaders 27-26, beat the Rebels 47-45), which lends me to believe we will see plenty of points on Saturday.
The Blues failed to beat a single New Zealand side last season, despite being competitive in most of their domestic games. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, will sorely miss winger Cory Jane, who is out for the season with a knee injury. They are also without Ardie Savea, who is suspended for four weeks. I tip the Hurricanes to win this week, but I don’t say that with much confidence.
Betting: given the mercurial nature of the Blues this is a dangerous fixture to bet on. I would tentatively take the Blues +5.5 at the line at 1.91 odds (bet365).
Reds v Waratahs
7:40 PM AEDT, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
This is the best fixture of the round for Australian rugby fans. The Waratahs were dreadful last year, but with a new coach, plenty of player turnover and the acquisitions of Michael Hooper and Israel Folau, they will be optimistic they can be more competitive in 2013. This is the Waratah’s first game of the season, meanwhile the Reds had the opportunity to cast off a few cobwebs against the Brumbies in Round 1. The Waratahs did play one more pre-season game, although they are never a full substitute for the real thing.
Canberra is always a difficult place to visit, but the Reds will be disappointed by the nature of their loss last week. They will be rankled by the fact that they failed to score a try and they must opt for more attacking rugby earlier in the game. Given they will be back at home this round, I expect them to do just that. The Reds will also be looking to cut down on the number of penalties this week after conceding 13 in Round 1. Mike Harris will be hoping for better success with the boot.
The Reds will again be without skipper James Horwill, Anthony Faingaa and Will Genia. The Waratahs will be without Berrick Barnes (knee) and Rob Horne (hamstring).
Given this fixture is at fortress Suncorp, you would have to be bold to tip against the Reds. I fancy the Waratahs will be highly competitive, however.
Betting: given the Reds’ strong record at Suncorp Stadium and the fact that the Waratahs haven’t played a competitive fixture yet, I would back the Reds at 1.80 (Sportsbet)
Sunday, 24 February
Cheetahs v Sharks
2:05 AM AEDT, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
The Cheetahs were the neutral’s favourite last year after playing uncharacteristically expansive rugby for a South African franchise. The downside of their endeavour, however, was they conceded 29 points on average in 2012 – the 3rd worst defensive record in the competition. The Lions were the only South African team the Cheetahs managed to beat last season and with some notable losses to the Cheetahs squad during the off-season – including Andries Strauss, Sias Ebersohn and Juan Smith – it will be hard for them to bridge the gap to the Sharks, Bulls and Stormers. Johan Goosen will be key to the Cheetahs’ fortunes, but there aren’t too many Springboks around him. Fellow Springbok prop Coenie Oosthuizen has recovered from a neck injury and will start from the bench.
After scraping into the playoffs the Sharks fared well in in the post-season to make it to the final – only to fall to the Chiefs and the brutal travel schedule. They will know more than anyone the importance of securing home advantage in the playoffs and will be looking to be more consistent during the regular season this year. The appear to have the measure of the Cheetahs – winning 34-20 away and 34-15 at home last season – so they will back themselves to start the season on a winning note. The only question mark is their injury list, which includes Keegan Daniel, Tim Whitehead, Bismarck du Plessis and Willem Alberts.
Betting: I struggle to predict a winning margin for this one, so I would be inclined to take the Sharks at 1.45 in the head-to-head market (Pinnacle Sports).
Kings v Western Force
4:10 AM AEDT, Mandela Bay Stadium,Port Elizabeth
The Force did well to starve the Rebels of possession for the first 30 minutes last week. They showed good continuity at times, however they were only able to score 11 points during that spell. They weren’t helped by a few key lines outs that went astray when they were in a good position. They also weren’t helped by poor discipline which led to two sin-binnings in the second half. The Force can take a lot of heart from that performance, however, because they had a fair amount of turnover in players from last year, including the losses of Nathan Sharpe and David Pocock. It was always going to be a difficult to task to hit the ground running.
This will be a tough season for the Kings, made more difficult by the fact that if they can’t beat the Force at home, who can they beat? A loss here will further damage the already shaky confidence of a side that lost to the Lions and the Griquas (a Vodaphone Cup team missing its Cheetahs players) pre-season. On paper the Kings squad looks terribly weak, although they did well to recruit Argentinian players Nicolas Vergallo and Tomas Leonardi. On the bright side, the Kings will be backed by a 48,000 strong crowd after tickets were sold cheaply to ensure a good turnout.
The Force will back themselves to win here, which is just as well because the Kings on paper should be the whipping boys of the competition. Force winger Alfie Mafi looks set to have a good season. I might have something on him to score a try.
Betting: the Force are understandably short here. The Kings could well finish 0-16 this season. I would back the Force to win by over 7.5 points at 1.60 odds (Sportingbet).