Friday, 29 March
Highlanders v Reds
5:35 PM AEDT, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Every week I say the Highlanders are desperate for a win and every week they lose. They tried to play an up tempo game against a travel-weary Chiefs last week but lost 7-19 despite dominating territory and possession. They made far too many errors but will be buoyed by their ability to dominate the Chiefs scrum despite the absence of hooker Andrew Hore and prop Tony Woodcock. Both players have been named in the starting line-up for this fixture however winger Kade Poki has been sidelined by injury. Colin Slade will need to have a much better night with the boot if the Highlanders are to be competitive.
The Reds bounced back well from their disappointing loss to the Force with a 23-18 win over the Bulls. They aren’t at their best but at least the performance was a step in the right direction. The Reds will be without Digby Ioane and Chris Feauai-Sautia while Saia Faingaa, Nick Frisby and centre Mike Harris are also unavailable. In better news, Liam Gill is expected to play. The Reds will be pleased to see James Horwill get through his first spell of the season last week. He is set to play 60 minutes on Friday. Will Genia says he is ready to play 80 minutes for his third game back from knee surgery.
Betting: this is a tricky fixture for the Reds. A result either way wouldn’t surprise me. Going back to 2007 the home side has always won these fixtures between the two, however the Highlanders haven’t hosted the Reds since 2009. In their head-to-heads since 2008 the winning margins have been 6, 2, 5 and 6 points. I would make equal wagers on the Highlanders 1-12 and Reds 1-12 at 2.62 and 3.25 odds, respectively (bet365). If you wish to be more aggressive you can back the winning score-line to be less than 7.5 points at 2.25 odds with Sportingbet.
Saturday, 30 March
Hurricanes v Kings
2:35 PM AEDT, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
After a shaky 0-2 start the Hurricanes have won their last two games and will be fancied to win comfortably on Saturday. They have yet to hit the free-scoring form they found last season but even a mediocre performance should see them get past the visitors. The Hurricanes are currently sweating on injuries to Conrad Smith and TJ Perenara for this game.
After covering the start in their three home games, the Kings were blown off the park by the Crusaders last week. It looked like training ground practice at times as the hosts ran in seven tries. It was always going to be a baptism of fire, but the Kings will be disappointed by their lack of line speed and time in possession.
Betting: the Hurricanes should win comfortably, but they haven’t yet hit the free-scoring form of last season. The Crusaders beat the Kings by 35 points last week and I don’t think the Hurricanes can match that. I would back the Kings +34.5 at 1.60 odds (Sportsbet)
Chiefs v Blues
5:35 PM AEDT, BayPark Stadium, Mount Maunganui
It was a messy game to watch, but the Chiefs held off the Highlanders’ high tempo attack to win 19-7 last week. Fatigue may have played a role after returning from their two-game tour of South Africa. They now face an incredibly tricky fixture against a Blues side that let a win slip away last week. The Chiefs have lost scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow for up to six weeks, however Brendon Leonard has recovered from a cheekbone injury and is likely to start in Kerr-Barlow’s place. They will be pleased that Richard Kahui got through his first game in 10 months without any problems.
After a fantastic start to the season the Blues lost to the Bulls after making six changes to the squad for the sake of rotation. They then lost 27-30 to the Waratahs last week after leading 24-10 at half time. Last week the Blues made far too many errors are were unable to string phases together in the second half. Discipline cost them dearly in the end as they conceded a game-winning penalty kick to the Waratahs. All in all, the Blues are looking to be very much the mercurial side they were last season. Their cause isn’t helped by the loss of prop Charlie Faumuina for six weeks.
Betting: this is a genuine danger game for the Chiefs because the Blues will be frustrated and when they play at their best they can challenge anyone. If I had to wager I would tentatively back the Chiefs -3.5 at 1.59 odds (bet365).
Brumbies v Bulls
7:40 PM AEDT, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
They fell short against the Stormers last week, but the Brumbies are still in excellent shape for the season. They are 4-1, top the overall standings and sit six points clear at the top of the Australian conference. They will likely have fullback Jesse Mogg back after he was unable to play last week.
If they are to pull an upset here the Bulls must stop kicking possession away. The 18-23 score-line against the Reds last week was close, but the Bulls’ only points came from penalties. The Brumbies have been much stronger than the Reds this season so the Bulls will have to hold on to the ball a lot more if they are to stay in touch with the hosts. Discipline will also have to improve after they picked up two yellow cards last week. The Bulls have been forced to call up Wilhelm Steenkamp and Jean Cook from South Africa due to injuries to Flip van der Merwe and Grant Hattingh. Winger Bjorn Basson is also out. Up and coming star Jan Serfontein gets his first start at centre with Francois Venter dropping to the bench. Morne Steyn will start at fly-half again with Louis Fouche reverting the bench. Arno Botha returns after being rested last week.
Betting: the Brumbies may be a bit jaded by the long return home from South Africa while the Bulls are on the final game of a four-game tour. If the Bulls employ the same kicking game as last week the hosts should be too strong. This is a hard game to bet on because I feel the bookmakers have got the odds just right. If I had to bet at the line I would take the Brumbies, but I feel more comfortable taking the hosts at 1.32 odds in the head-to-head (Pinnacle Sports).
Sunday, 31 March
Cheetahs v Rebels
2:05 AM AEDT, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
The Cheetahs will be delighted to have come through their overseas tour with three wins from four, however I wonder how much of a toll all that travel will have taken. The schedule has been unkind to the Bloemfontein side, with their first bye not until Round 12. Of all the teams to play at home after a long tour, however, the Rebels must be near the top of their request list. Despite playing without fly-half Johan Goosen, the Cheetahs will back themselves in light of their recent form and 33-26 win over the Rebels in Melbourne last year. They will be pleased to have Heinrich Brussow back. He returned from a shoulder injury last week and was able to play 80 minutes.
The Rebels come into this fixture on the back of a 64-7 hammering at the hands of the Sharks. In all they conceded 10 tries in total and 40 points in the second half alone. The Rebels were actually competitive in South Africa last year so the score-line would have been a surprise to many. To make matters worse for the Melbourne side, they will be without Kurtley Beale and Cooper Vuna, who have been sent home from South Africa for disciplinary reasons. Scott Higginbotham is also in doubt after coming off with a shoulder injury last week.
Betting: the Cheetahs are painfully short in the head-to-head market. I’m not keen on many of the markets, but if I had to bet I would back the Cheetahs to win both halves at 1.80 odds (bet365).
Stormers v Crusaders
4:10 AM AEDT, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
This is arguably the best fixture of the round. The Stormers are coming off a 35-22 win over the competition-leading Brumbies while the Crusaders smashed the Kings 55-20, running in seven tries in all. Both teams made a 0-2 start to the season and have been undefeated since. After their 0-2 start the Stormers have now recorded wins over the Chiefs and Brumbies and are showing signs of returning to the dominating form they enjoyed last season. They have been hit by injury for this fixture, however, with hooker Tiaan Liebenberg ruled out and prop Steven Kitshoff serving a one-game ban. Their scrum will be severely tested this weekend.
The Crusaders come into this fixture having scored 96 points in their last two games – both against South African opposition. The Crusaders will be reeling, however, from the loss of captain Kieran Read for four weeks. They are already without fly-half Dan Carter who’s on paternity leave and Richie McCaw isn’t due back until later in the season. With Tom Taylor also injured, Tyler Bleyendaal gets the nod in the No. 10 jersey. In better news, winger Zac Guildford successfully came through his comeback game last week and has been named on the touring squad.
Betting: two years ago an injury-hit Crusaders side went to Newlands and came away with a win, so the Stormers must be wary here. Having said that, the Stormers were undefeated at home last season and with victories over the Chiefs and Brumbies already under their belt, I would back them in the head-to-head at 1.53 odds (Sportingbet).
Waratahs v Force
4:05 PM AEDT, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
The Waratahs will be pleased to have secured a much needed victory over the Blues after trailing 10-24 at half-time. It must be said that the Blues were terrible in the second spell, but a win’s a win. They now have a critical game against the Force. The Waratahs sit 3rd in the Australian conference and will be keen to avoid slipping into a battle with the Force and Rebels for the best of the rest tag. They will be wary of the visitors after losing at home to them last season.
After pulling off an upset win in Brisbane two weeks ago the Force will be bitterly disappointed to have fallen to a travel-weary Cheetahs side last week. They were still in the game in the dying minutes but conceded a last minute try to kill off the game. The Force were highly competitive against the Waratahs last season. They won 21-20 in Sydney in Round 4 and lost 18-23 in Round 8. The Perth side has been dealt a blow with the loss of hooker Nathan Charles for the season. Sias Ebersohn and Pek Cowan are also in doubt.
Betting: the two sides have played each other eight times since the Force entered Super Rugby and only on one occasion did the home side win. Based on recent history this should be a close game. There has been one draw between the two sides and the winning margin has been 5 points on four occasions and 1 point on three occasions. I would take the Force +10.5 at 1.91 odds (Sportingbet), but I would wait to see if Sias Ebersohn is playing first.