Friday, 15 March
Highlanders v Hurricanes
5:35 PM AEDT, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
The New Zealand conference is looking very even at the moment so both teams will be desperate for a win. The Hurricanes are currently 1-2 for the season while the Highlanders are 0-2 and currently on a five-game losing streak.
Despite losing to the Chiefs in Round 2 it was a promising start for the Highlanders. They pushed the Chiefs for most of the match and there were high expectations for this season after some high profile acquisitions during the offseason. The mood will be much different now after they lost 19-36 to the unfancied Cheetahs in Invercargill. Lima Sopoaga will be hoping for a better outing after being responsible for a couple of tries conceded. Colin Slade will get the start this week with Sopoaga dropped to the bench.
After losing their first two games the Hurricanes beat the Crusaders 29-28 courtesy of an intercept try in the dying minutes. Beauden Barrett’s 7-from-7 performance with the boot was crucial. The Hurricanes were actually outscored four tries to two but were aided by poor discipline from the Crusaders which enabled Barrett to keep the score ticking over with penalties. The Hurricanes may call on the services of the uncontracted former Highlander Jason Rutledge as a result of the injury concerns for Dane Coles and Motu Matu’u.
Betting: I find this fixture really difficult to predict. The two sides won a game apiece last season in their head-to-heads. If anything I would consider backing both the Highlanders (2.70) and Hurricanes (3.15) to win by 1-12 because I don’t expect a blowout either way. Both games last year were settled by less than seven points. Keep an eye out for the try scoring market. Highlanders winger Kade Poki has scored four in two games.
Waratahs v Cheetahs
7:40 PM AEDT, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
The Waratahs continue to be less than the sum of their parts as they were thumped 35-6 by the Brumbies last week. I can’t help but notice how their marquee signing in 2011, Sarel Pretorius, is flourishing since leaving the club. He was South Africa’s 2010 Super Rugby player of the year but struggled to find form within the Waratahs’ rigid structure last season. He has since enjoyed an excellent start to 2012 with the Cheetahs and said that leaving the Waratahs was the best move of his career. Yes, the Waratahs have a new coach but I haven’t seen enough to suggest that they have found a way out of their funk. The Waratahs will be buoyed by the returns of Berrick Barnes to the starting line-up and Rob Horne to the bench, however Tatafu Polota-Nau and Wycliff Palu are unavailable due to injury.
The Cheetahs were written off before the Highlanders game after they were mauled 45-3 by the Chiefs a week earlier. However the Cheetahs dominated most of the first half against the Chiefs before the home side found a gear that no team could keep up with. They took positives from that and were able to dominate a Highlanders team that they had never previously beaten. After a poor performance against the Chiefs Johan Goosen was excellent with the boot, kicking 8-from-8 last week. Half back Sarel Pretorius is having a good season and will no doubt be keen to make a point against his former employers.
Betting: the Cheetahs are playing better rugby than the Waratahs at the moment, however I wonder how much of a toll their overseas tour is beginning to take. To their credit they lifted for their second game, but all too often you see South African teams fade badly during the back end of their overseas tours. Nevertheless, I would back the Cheetahs +8.5 at 1.91 odds (bet365, Centrebet, Sportingbet). If you wish to be more aggressive I would consider backing the Cheetahs at 4.10 (Pinnacle Sports) in the head-to-head.
Saturday, 16 March
Kings v Chiefs
4:10 AM AEDT, Mandela Bay Stadium,Port Elizabeth
The team that were supposed to be the whipping boys of the competition continue to frustrate oppositions with their well-structured defence. The Kings have now played over three halves of rugby (152 minutes to be exact) without conceding a try. They ultimately lost the battle of the boot between Demetri Catrakilis and Patrick Lambie last week, however in that 12-21 loss to the Sharks they easily covered the +16.5 line – the second time in as many fixtures. With that being said the Kings hardly threatened the Sharks try line last week and penalty kicking alone won’t be enough to keep up with the Chiefs. They will need to improve on their ball retention as the season progresses.
The Chiefs just fell short in their 34-36 defeat to the Stormers last week, however they can take positives from their ability to put points on the board consistently. They now average 40 points scored per game – the best record in the competition by a margin of over ten points! The Chiefs will have to work on their discipline, however, after conceding two yellow cards and five penalties in a scoring position last week. They will be hurting from the losses of hooker Mahonri Schwalger and prop Ben Tameifuna for this fixture.
Betting: I don’t expect the Kings to have sufficient answers to the Chiefs try scoring machine. Despite this I feel the bookmakers aren’t giving the hosts enough credit. I would back the Kings +17.5 at 1.92 odds (Luxbet, Pinnacle Sports).
Crusaders v Bulls
5:35 PM AEDT, AMI Stadium (Addington), Christchurch
The Crusaders have solidified their reputation as slow starters in this competition after losing the to Blues and Hurricanes. They were blown off the park by the Blues but they will be hurting more after letting a 9-point lead slip in their 28-29 loss to the Hurricanes. They outscored the Hurricanes four tries to two but were undone by penalties conceded and an intercept pass in the dying minutes. Daniel Carter’s penalty miss from right out in front didn’t help. Now back in Christchurch, they will now be hoping to emulate the Stormers who beat the Chiefs at home after losing their first two fixtures on the road.
Much of the talk across the Tasman is of how the Blues shot themselves in the foot by making six changes to a winning combination for last week’s defeat, however you have to give a lot of credit to the Bulls who were unfancied victors after making the long trip over from South Africa. The Pretoria side now enjoys a 3-0 record and will like the timing of this fixture. If there’s ever a good time to play the Crusaders it’s early in the season. The Bulls will be without winger Lionel Mapoe for this fixture.
Reds v Force
7:40 PM AEDT, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
The Reds have won their last three games but I’m still not convinced they can be title contenders. Last week they failed to dominate a Rebels team that was missing Kurtley Beale. The week prior they were fortunate to have beaten a luckless Hurricanes side. While I fancy their chances against the Force it won’t be until they face the Bulls next week that I can get a better gauge of their title credentials. The home side will be boosted by the early return of captain Will Genia. He is due to start the game but only play the first half with Nick Frisby taking over after the break. Dom Shipperley is out with a minor back injury.
After failing to defeat a Kings team that were supposed to be the whipping boys of the competition, the Force were surprisingly competitive against the Bulls the following week. The competition schedule has been kind to them, giving the side a bye the week after their South African tour. The Force have suffered a double blow with winger Nick Cummins and lock Sam Wykes ruled out. They are also sweating on whether Captain Matt Hodgson will be able to play. The Force will have to rely on South African Sias Ebersohn to have another good game if they are to be competitive.
Betting: I had thought about backing the Force +14.0 at the line, however their injury list has scared me off. I would back the Reds in the head-to-head at 1.14 odds (Pinnacle Sports) and perhaps add it to your multis.
Sunday, 17 March
Sharks v Brumbies
2:05 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
This is arguably the best fixture of the round as it features two of the three undefeated teams in the competition. Both sides have yet to face foreign opposition so the result will provide insight into the relative strengths of the Australian and South African conferences.
What the Sharks would give for a try. They have gone 194 minutes without crossing the line and continue to rely on the boot of Patrick Lambie to outscore their opposition, however with the league’s second best scoring team visiting I get the feeling this won’t suffice. Worryingly for the Sharks, the Brumbies boast the best defence in the competition by some margin so there’s a fair chance their try scoring drought will continue. The Sharks have suffered a double injury blow with forwards Jean Deysel and Jacques Botes ruled out for up to four weeks. In better news, captain Keegan Daniel is expected to return to the squad.
The Brumbies’ excellent start to 2012 continued last week with a 35-6 hammering of the Waratahs. Fullback Jesse Mogg continues to have an excellent season while Christian Lealiifano continues to impress. Their victory came at a significant cost, however, with the loss of star flanker David Pocock for the season after he tore is ACL. Recent recruit and Brumbies veteran George Smith will now have to shoulder a lot more work than he would have previously bargained for. On the upside, the Brumbies defence continues to suffocate oppositions – conceding 8.3 points on average this season. They also have the second highest average in points scored (29.7). The caveat to these stats, however, is they have only faced Australian opposition. Their away fixtures against the Sharks and Stormers will provide a much sterner test.
Betting: I back the Brumbies’ suffocating defence against a Sharks team that is struggling to score. I would back the Brumbies +4.5 at 1.92 odds (Pinnacle Sports).