Friday, 8 March
Hurricanes v Crusaders
5:35 PM AEDT, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
The opening fixture of the round features two teams who are desperate to get their seasons back on track. The Hurricanes lost 20-34 at home to the Blues in Round 2 before falling 12-18 against the Reds. They will be frustrated after dominating possession and territory at times in both games but weren’t able to convert that dominance into points – something they certainly didn’t struggle with last season. Against the Reds it was handling errors that cost them in the end as two try scoring opportunities went begging. They also weren’t helped by some of the refereeing decisions by Steve Walsh.
The Crusaders looked rusty in their five tries to nil hammering by the Blues last week. Numerous handling errors were compounded by kicking possession away to a lethal Blues backline. They did well to capitalise on the scant possession they had through Dan Carter’s boot. With that being said, apart from the harsh TMO decision against Israel Dagg’s lunge at the line, the Crusaders never really threatened the Blues try line. The Crusaders are perennial slow starters in this competition, however, so you’d be mad to write them off at this stage.
Betting: both sides look a bit out of form. If I had to back a side I would take the Hurricanes +4.0 at the line (bet365). They have fared well in the territory and possession stats but have just failed to convert that dominance into points. I get the impression they are not far off getting back into the try scoring groove they found last year. The Crusaders, on the other hand, were dominated in territory and possession last week. They are perennial slow starters and this is only their second game of the season. They are employing a new attacking game for 2013 and perhaps it will take a bit more time for it to work, as they looked toothless last week.
Rebels v Reds
7:40 PM AEDT, AAMI Park, Melbourne
Neither team is setting the competition alight this season. The Rebels continue to be dogged by second half woes – a sign of their lack of squad depth, while the Reds were assisted by basic Hurricanes handling errors in their unconvincing win last week. The Rebels’ woes have been compounded by the loss of Kurtley Beale for a month with a fractured hand. They have been dreadful when he has been off the pitch. James O’Connor will play at fly-half in Beale’s absence with uncapped Angus Roberts starting at fullback. Captain Gareth Delve is still out with a shoulder injury, while Cooper Vuna, Chris Thomson and Jason Woodward remain injured. The last time the Rebels hosted the Reds they lost 17-32.
The Reds aren’t playing at the level they would like, but at least they are picking up wins. They will be pleased to have kept the league’s top scorers from 2012 to just 12 points, with a desperate defensive effort securing them victory over the Hurricanes last week. They are 2-1 for the season and would love to make it 3-1 going into their first bye week. Will Genia is still around a month from returning, but his younger brother Nigel could feature if Ben Lucas is unavailable.
Betting: given Kurtley Beale’s absence for the Rebels I would take the 1.38 head-to-head odds for the Reds (Sportsbet).
Saturday, 9 March
Highlanders v Cheetahs
5:35 PM AEDT, Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill
The Highlanders have been done no favours by competition organisers after getting a bye immediately after their first game of the season. They were highly competitive before the Chiefs pulled away in their 27-41 loss in Round 2. They actually dominated territory and possession in that game and their backs looked lethal in space. The Highlanders made great acquisitions during the off-season and the signs are positive for the Otago/Southland side. The only blight at this stage is the potential loss of No. 8 Nasi Manu for the whole season. They are already spread thin in loose forwards after Adam Thomson left for Japan. In better news, hooker Andrew Hore is back after serving a suspension while fly half Colin Slade has been ruled fit enough to start from the bench.
After a fairly impressive showing against the Sharks in Round 2 the Cheetahs were steamrolled 45-3 by the Chiefs last week. The Cheetahs were unlucky not to pick up more points as they showed great willingness to pass the ball around. Despite dominating territory and possession they went into the break down 3-10 and weren’t helped by wayward penalty kicking from Johan Goosen. In the second half the Chiefs clicked into a higher gear and the Cheetahs simply had no answers.
Betting: the Highlanders will come into this fixture fresh and hungry while the Cheetahs may start to feel the effects of their travel schedule and that Chiefs fixture. I expect the Highlanders to win but feel the head-to-head odds are a touch short. I would consider the overs in the over/under market. Both teams like to throw the ball around so this should be an entertaining game for the neutral.
Brumbies v Waratahs
7:40 PM AEDT, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
As the only undefeated team in Australia things are looking pretty rosy in Canberra at the moment. They are playing with great composure and have only allowed 19 points in their first two games. The Brumbies have comfortably beaten the Reds and Rebels and have signed former Wallabies flanker George Smith on a short-term deal after he returned home from Japan. He will provide strong back row cover for David Pocock. Smith has said he feels he’s a better player now than when he left in 2010. I get the impression the Brumbies are the best coached side in Australia and they now have a squad to rival the best in the country. They are my pick at this stage to top the Australian conference.
The Waratahs will be highly relieved to have ended their long losing streak with a win over the Rebels, but the nature of the win won’t strike fear into opposition hearts. Moments of brilliance were surrounded by handling errors, bad passing, poor discipline and missed tackles. The Waratahs were down 6-16 at the break but managed to take the lead in the final quarter. Much of their turnaround coincided with the injection of Ben Volavola from the bench as they piled on 25 points in the second half. They will be playing this week without No. 8 Wycliff Palu after he twisted his ankle last week. Berrick Barnes is expected to play, although this is not guaranteed.
Betting: I would back the Brumbies at 1.52 (Sportingbet) in the head-to-head. They’re in excellent form and Canberra Stadium is a tough place to visit for opposition sides.
Sunday, 10 March
Stormers v Chiefs
2:05 AM AEDT, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
The Stormers will be happy to be home after losing their opening fixtures to the Bulls and Sharks, however they will have their hands full with the in-form Chiefs visiting. The Stormers were held 0-0 at halftime before losing 6-12 to the Sharks last week and they will have to improve on their offence given the Chiefs have scored 86 points in their first two games. The Stormers will be hoping to avoid slipping to a 0-3 record after losing just two games during the regular season last year. They will be without Juan de Jongh and Jaco Taute, while Michael Rhodes, Schalk Burger and Scarra Ntubeni are still unavailable. In some good news, hooker Tiaan Liebenberg is fit enough to be added to the bench.
Despite losing a few key players during the off-season the Chiefs look solid. New recruit Gareth Anscombe is having an excellent season at fullback. He has also been 15/16 with the boot with Aaron Cruden still recovering from a groin injury. The Chiefs were actually kept quiet by the Cheetahs in the first half last week. They went into the break up 10-3 despite being dominated in territory and possession. The Chiefs then picked up the intensity in the second half and left the Cheetahs for dead. They finally reached top gear in the final quarter of the game with a performance that put everyone on notice.
Betting: this is a tough game for the Chiefs but they went unbeaten against South African sides last year. They were absolutely devastating once they clicked into gear last week I would back them in the head-to-head at 2.00 (Sportingbet).
Kings v Sharks
4:10 AM AEDT, Mandela Bay Stadium,Port Elizabeth
The Kings surprised everyone by winning their opening fixture against the Force. This made them the first new Super Rugby franchise to win their first game. Their work rate was excellent and they were well structured in defence as they held the Force pointless in the second half. With that being said, the Force played terribly in that game and few expect the Kings to add to their win tally.
The Sharks will be feeling pretty good about how things stand. They dominated the Cheetahs in Round 2 before a drop in intensity saw the hosts claw back to a respectable score line. They then held the Stormers at bay last week in a 12-6 battle of the boot. After a mixed performance against the Cheetahs their set-piece was much improved against the Stormers which bodes well for the rest of their domestic fixtures. The Sharks ended last season having won six of their last seven regular season games and they appear to have picked up where they left off. Ominously, the Sharks are still without several of their frontline players including captain Keegan Daniel, Bismarck du Plessis and Willem Alberts. They are looking like genuine title contenders at this stage.
Betting: I fancy the Sharks, but find it difficult to pick a margin. I would add the Sharks in the head-to-head at 1.10 (Pinnacle Sports) in with your multis.
Blues v Bulls
2:05 PM AEDT, Eden Park, Auckland
After a nightmare of a season in 2012 the Blues have enjoyed a dream start to 2013, picking up wins over the Hurricanes and Crusaders. They will be especially pleased with their performance against the men from Cantebury, where they dominated possession and territory in their five tries to nil victory. New coach John Kirwan seems to be finally getting the best out of the plethora of talent available in Auckland. They are playing with a lot more structure this year and are patient and composed in attack. They also hurt the Crusaders with their width and accurate in-play kicking. What will really please new coach John Kirwan, however, will be their defensive effort. They kept the Crusaders tryless in a game where their try line was barely threatened. The lineout needs a bit of work and Piri Weepu is missing too many spot kicks but they are looking like a genuine threat at this stage.
Despite winning last week, Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has slammed his team’s effort against the Force calling it their worst performance in five years. After the Force fell to the Kings in Round 2 the Bulls were expected to romp to victory, but only won 36-26 after trailing in the second half. They will be concerned after being outclassed at the breakdown by the unfancied visitors. The Bulls will be without Bjorn Basson for this fixture after he picked up a shoulder injury last week.
Betting: the 1.28 head-to-head odds on the Blues are too short for me. I want to see a bit more before I can remove their ‘mercurial’ tag. I would be more inclined to consider the overs in the over/under market.