Friday, 1 March
Blues v Crusaders
5:30 PM AEDT, Eden Park, Auckland
This is an intriguing fixture because the Crusaders are often slow starters in this competition while the Blues will be buoyant after last week’s win. In this fixture last year the Crusaders just got over the line with a 19-18 win and another close game is a strong possibility. The Crusaders are the only side in the competition who haven’t played yet so they may be a bit rusty.
Despite losing big names over the off-season the Blues showed signs in Wellington that they will be stronger than last year. They will be relieved have beaten fellow countrymen after failing to win a single domestic game last season. Their new winger Frank Halai had a good game on debut while former Highlander Chris Noakes played well at No. 10. The consensus last year was that the Blues were less than the sum of their parts. It will be interesting how far they can go under new coach John Kirwan.
The Crusaders start the season without Richie McCaw, who is on a six-month sabbatical, however Kieran Read is highly experienced as their interim captain. They lost prop Ben Franks to the Hurricanes and a shortage of wingers has forced them to start with Israel Dagg on the wing and Tom Taylor at fullback. Looking at their bench for this fixture it seems they don’t boast the same squad depth as in previous years. The Crusaders didn’t exactly set the world alight pre-season, losing to the Hurricanes and Highlanders before just getting over the Waratahs. They have stated their intention to play with a more expansive style in 2013 – these changes to the attack may take some time to gel.
As is always the case with the Blues, betting on their fixtures is dangerous. Will we see the Blues team that lost 19-18 to the Crusaders in Round 1 last season? Or will we see the Blues that were thumped 59-12 by the Crusaders in Round 13?
Betting: based on what I saw last week, the Blues and Hurricanes appear to be the weakest two sides in the New Zealand conference. Despite the Blues’ victory last week over the Hurricanes I tip the Crusaders to get over the line. I would back the Crusaders at 1.58 (Pinnacle Sports). As with all tips featuring the Blues, I don’t speak with much confidence!
Waratahs v Rebels
7:20 PM AEDT, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
The Waratahs had a shocking season last year, however two of their four wins were against the Rebels. The Waratahs started slowly last week against the Reds, trailing 3-17 at halftime after being let down by numerous handling errors and an inability to look after the ball. They also missed too many tackles and failed to convert on scoring opportunities. The Waratahs also didn’t look to be as fit down the stretch as the Reds. Israel Folau is still a work in progress.
The Rebels fell 13-30 last week to a superior Brumbies side after leading 13-12 at half-time. Injury-forced substitutions that exposed their lack of squad depth didn’t help their cause, although they can take positives away from the game. Their scrum held its own against the more highly rated Brumbies pack while the line outs went smoothly after a bit of a shaky start. In team news, Kurtley Beale is expected to play despite injuring his shoulder last week. James O’Connor will captain the side with regular captain Gareth Delve sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Betting: each time the two sides play the Rebels have improved their performance. In chronological order the Rebels have lost their four fixtures against the Waratahs by 43, 19, 16 and 9 points. Given the Waratahs are on a nine-game losing streak I would be inclined to back the Rebels +10.5 at the line at 1.91 (Sportingbet).
Reds v Hurricanes
9:20 PM AEDT, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
The Reds will be highly relieved to have beaten the Waratahs after losing to the Brumbies in Round 1. The quality of play last week wouldn’t have struck fear into other sides, however it’s still early days and the Reds will be looking to improve as the season progresses. For this fixture they will again be without captain James Horwill who has failed to recover from his ankle injury. They are also without Will Genia although his expected return is sooner than previously thought.
The Hurricanes will be hurting after their upset loss to the Blues last week. They dominated possession for much of the game but weren’t able to convert their chances. The spectator turnout in Wellington was surprisingly low and results like that won’t help. The Hurricanes lost Cory Jane to injury during the off-season, however captain Conrad Smith is set to play after recovering from a concussion last week. The Hurricanes have a good record against the Reds, although they will be up against it to pick them off again.
Betting: neither team looks like a title contender at this stage. Given the Red’s historical good form at Suncorp Stadium, I would tentatively back them in the head-to-head at 1.52 (Pinnacle Sports).
Saturday, 2 March
Chiefs v Cheetahs
5:35 PM AEDT, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
The Chiefs were highly entertaining in their impressive 41-27 win in Dunedin last week. They were patient in attack and were very willing to throw the ball around. New recruit Gareth Anscombe had a fantastic game at fullback. He was also 8/9 with the boot with Aaron Cruden still recovering from a groin injury. Nanai Williams was lethal in attack in his second ever game at centre, however he did look a bit soft on defence at times. They will be boosted by the possible return of hooker Hika Elliot, however Richard Kahui is still unavailable.
After trailing 16-5 at the break the Cheetahs were highly competitive against the Sharks last week before falling 22-29. They have a reputation for playing the most expansive rugby in South Africa and it’s good to see playmaker Johan Goosen back. I don’t fancy their chances against the Chiefs this week, however. The hosts were undefeated against South African opposition last year while the Cheetahs were 1-3 against New Zealand sides.
Betting: given the way these two sides play, on paper this looks to be a high scoring game. When the over/unders are published I would consider backing the over if they’re anything below the 55 mark. Last year the Chiefs beat the Cheetahs 39-33. Fingers crossed we get something as entertaining on Saturday!
Sunday, 3 March
Bulls v Force
2:05 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
After losing to the Stormers twice last year the Bulls will be buoyed by their 25-17 win last week. After having a poor season in 2012, Morne Steyn was a key figure in their victory, kicking six penalties and a conversion. He was also solid with his in-play kicking. The Bulls will also be pleased with their defensive effort and work rate.
If the Force couldn’t put away the Kings last week, what will their confidence be like heading to Pretoria? Among many of their problems are: poor goal kicking, botched lineouts, too many penalties conceded and an inability to convert possession into points. In one positive note, winger Alfie Mafi scored his third try in two games. The Force were 0-2 in South Africa last year with a tour that included a 53-11 hammering by the Sharks. While I don’t expect them to be beaten so badly this week, I still don’t expect them to be competitive. Discipline will be key for them as Morne Steyn was excellent with his penalty kicking last week.
Betting: based on the Force’s capitulation to the Kings last week, I can’t see them threatening the Bulls. I would back the Bulls to win by 13+ at 1.57 odds (Sportingbet).
Sharks v Stormers
4:10 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
The Stormers will be licking their wounds after falling short in a very even affair against the Bulls last week. They outscored the Bulls two tries to one but were undone by the kicking of Morne Steyne. Flyhalf Elton Jantjies will be hoping for a better game with the boot after having a shocker against the Bulls. The Stormers as a team will have to be better at converting their scoring opportunities into points this weekend. With that in mind perhaps we’ll see Joe Pietersen given the kicking duties.
The Sharks had a bit of a scare, but they were able to put away the Cheetahs 29-22 last week. They will be pleased with the performance of their forwards after they bettered a Cheetahs pack that included prop Coenie Oosthuizen at scrum time. The number of penalties the Sharks conceded last week will be a concern for them, however.
Betting: this could come down to a kicking duel between Lambie and Jantjies/Pietersen. The Sharks vs. Stormers fixtures last year were settled by 3, 5 and 7 points. A conservative option would be to back both sides to win by 1-12. Otherwise a decent value bet would be to back the Sharks to win by 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet). The reason for this pick is the Sharks have won seven of their last eight games against South African opposition.