Friday, 5 April
Blues v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEDT, Eden Park, Auckland
After starting the season with two wins the Blues have lost their last three but will back themselves to return to winning ways when they host the winless Highlanders. The Blues lost every one of their domestic fixtures last season and will be hoping to make the Highlanders their third Kiwi scalp of 2013. The Blues played with a lot of enterprise against the Chiefs last week, showing good willingness to throw the ball around and keep ball in hand, however they were unable to get through the Chiefs’ first-rate defence. The Highlanders are ranked 13 defensively this season, averaging 31 points conceded, so I expect a few Blues tries on Friday. The Auckland side has received a boost with All Black hooker Keven Mealamu expected to make his return via the bench. This will be his first appearance in 2013 after taking an extended leave.
The Highlanders’ losing streak spanning this season and last has reached eight games after they fell 33-34 at home to the Reds last week. They were out played for much of that game and continue to concede far too many penalties. They have too much talent to be in this predicament so you feel a turnaround must come at some point. Winger Hosea Gear in particular is having a fantastic season. With Nasi Manu out for the season, the Highlanders have signed experienced No. 8 Mose Tuiali’i from Japan. He has been rushed into the starting line-up. Prop Tony Woodcock has been ruled out with a hamstring strain and has been replaced by Jamie MacKintosh, who makes his first start of the season after being out with a back problem.
Betting: the Blues are a terrible team to bet on when they’re favourites so the head-to-head odds are too short for my liking. It is worth noting that in the last two weeks both sides have played the Chiefs. The Highlanders lost by 12 while the Blues lost by 7, however the scoreline for the Blues was flattering given the three potential Chiefs tries that were disallowed. If I had to bet (which I rarely do when the Blues are involved!) I would take overs if the over/under mark is 45.0 or less.
Brumbies v Kings
7:40 PM AEDT, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
The Brumbies scraped home against the Bulls last week, but a win’s a win and they had only just made the long trip back from South Africa. The Canberra side is now 5-1 for the season and they remain top of the overall standings. Centre Pat McCabe is finally expected to make his return this week, with rotational changes to the squad likely. Whether McCabe plays at centre or fullback will depend on the fitness of Jesse Mogg, who is recovering from a shoulder injury.
The Kings have endured a tough time overseas, however they have covered the line in four of their five games. They have played three consecutive games against New Zealand sides, all of which were high scoring affairs. Their defence has been terrible in their road games thus far, conceding 55 points to the Crusaders and 46 to the Hurricanes. With their opposition throwing the ball around freely, opportunities have arisen for the Kings to strike, and they have put up 20 and 30 points against the Crusaders and Hurricanes, respectively.
Betting: the Kings easily covered the line against a sloppy Hurricanes side last week, however the Brumbies are much more clinical and the Kings may tire as their tour continues. I rate the Brumbies as a better side than the Hurricanes, so if the Wellington side can beat the Kings by 16, I would back the Brumbies -19 at 1.50 odds (bet365).
Saturday, 6 April
Sharks v Crusaders
4:10 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
The Sharks will be ruing the timing of their bye last week after they hammered the Rebels 64-7 a week earlier. Ten tries were scored in all by ten different players as they piled on 40 points in the second half. The Rebels were the victims of a frustrated Sharks outfit that week after the Durban side had lost 10-29 to the Brumbies a week earlier. The Sharks will need to be at their best, however, after the Crusaders snapped a long home winning streak for the Stormers last week. The Sharks are still without Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Butch James, Jean Deysel and Tim Whitehead due to injury. These players are all due back at various stages over the next month so if they can successfully navigate the next couple of weeks the Sharks will be in excellent shape for the season.
The Crusaders enter this fixture having won their last five games against the Sharks. With no Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read or Israel Dagg last week I had expected the Stormers to get the better of the Canterbury side. Stand-in fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal then put in a man of the match performance as the Crusaders defended for their lives to defeat the Stormers 19-14 in Cape Town. The performance underlines the squad depth of the Crusaders which I had questioned earlier in the season. They obviously had a specific game plan of disrupting the Stormers’ lineouts, which worked well. The Crusaders have suffered further injury blows, with hooker Corey Flynn ruled out with an eye injury and winger Johnny McNicholl out for the season with a broken leg. In better news, fullback Israel Dagg has been named on the bench after missing the last two rounds.
Betting: this could easily go either way. The Sharks have a good home record with only the Chiefs beating them at Kings Park last season. The Sharks did lose at home to the Brumbies in Round 5 but that was as bad a Sharks performance as you’ll ever see and the Sharks shred the Rebels to pieces a week later. I expect a close game so I would back both the Sharks and Crusaders to win by 1-12 at 2.70 and 3.25 odds, respectively (Sportsbet).
Hurricanes v Waratahs
5:35 PM AEDT, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
It wasn’t a complete performance, but the Hurricanes avoided a potential banana skin by beating the Kings 46-30 last week. They lost their way a bit in the second half but held on for their third win on the trot. The Hurricanes will fancy their chances against the Waratahs after defeating them 33-12 in Sydney last year. They haven’t yet found the same consistency in their back line attacks that was on show last season, but they showed glimpses last week of what they’re capable of, scoring some excellent tries. Discipline will be key for them, with the Waratahs relying on six penalties to get over the Force last week. Keep an eye out for the highly rated 19-year old flanker Ardie Savea (Julian’s younger brother). Ardie will make his long awaited debut on Saturday after serving a four-match ban for a dangerous tackle in a pre-season game. No. 8 Victor Vito is in doubt and has been bracketed with Faifili Levave. In other changes, Motu Matu’u and Mark Reddish come in for the injured Dane Coles and Jeremy Thrush, respectively.
The 2013 Waratahs season bears close resemblance to last year. Approaching the halfway mark in 2012 they had three wins from their last five and had won their last two games. The exact same can be said for their form today. In 2012 the Waratahs then went on to lose every game for the rest of the season and this fixture could indicate what we can expect from the Sydney side going forward. The Hurricanes are arguably the 3rd or 4th best team in New Zealand and it is this type of fixture the Waratahs need to win if they are to make the playoffs. The Waratahs continue to win without being pretty, but coach Michael Cheika will be pleased by their resilient defence and their ability to close out tight games. They will need to improve in the territory and possession stakes, however. The Waratahs were second best in those stats against an unheralded Force side and a more clinical team would have put them to the sword last week. Wycliff Palu has recovered from injury and will likely start from the bench with Pat McCutcheon given the nod at No.8. Sekope Kepu returns to the starting line up to join Benn Robinson and hooker John Ulugia in the front row.
Betting: I’m leaning towards the Hurricanes to win by 1-12 at 2.80 odds (Sportingbet). The last time the Waratahs won away from home against a side other than the Rebels or Force was in Round 6 of 2011.
Force v Rebels
7:40 PM AEDT, NIB Stadium, Perth
They pushed the Waratahs all the way last week but the Force fell just short in their 19-23 loss in Sydney. They enjoyed good periods of possession but once again failed to convert it into points. Their defensive record is in the middle of the pack but it is the lack of points scored that is costing the Force, with an average of just 17.8 per game – the second lowest in the competition. Their upset win over the Reds in Round 5 remains their only win of a season that is already starting to slip away. The Force lost to the Rebels 30-23 in Round 1 and will be keen to avoid being swept by the Melbourne side. The Force won’t need reminding that they lost twice to the Rebels last season. The Rebels are actually unbeaten in Perth, with a 4-1 overall record against the Force.
The Rebels will be thankful to have seen the last of a terrible tour of South Africa, with the side hurt both on the score-sheet and off the pitch with internal scuffles. The Rebels continue to fade in the second half after again going into the break within touch of their opposition. They often fail to capitalise on their opportunities and their defence looks to be in tatters at times. Losing Luke Jones for ten minutes last week didn’t help with two tries conceded during his absence. Winger Cooper Vuna is available to play after his one-week suspension for fighting Kurtley Beale. Beale, meanwhile, is still out after being stood down indefinitely. Coach Damien Hill’s job could be on the line for this fixture. He is under immense pressure and a loss could spell the end of his tenure. An ugly stat for the Rebels is they are currently ranked 15th in both points scored and conceded this season, with an average of 17.5 points scored and 34 conceded.
Betting: historically this has always been a close contest. The average winning margin has been 2.6, with both games to date in Perth won by the Rebels by a solitary point. I would back both the Force and Rebels to win by 1-12 at 2.67 and 3.75 odds, respectively. A more aggressive pick is to back the winning scoreline to be less than 7.5 at 2.40 (Sportingbet). As I write for most weeks, keep an eye on the market for Force winger Alfi Mafi to score a try. He leads the competition in tries scored and he picked up two against the Rebels in Round 1. Given the propensity for the Rebels to fade in the second half, you may fancy the 6.50 odds for the Rebels/Force in the HT/FT market (Sportingbet).
Sunday, 7 April
Cheetahs v Stormers
2:05 AM AEDT, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
The Cheetahs enter this fixture on the back of four straight wins over New Zealand and Australian opposition. With only seven rounds completed they are only one win away from matching their five-win tally from 2012. Despite losing fly-half Johan Goosen for the season the Cheetahs continue to impress, driving in five tries in rainy conditions last week. They will enter this fixture as the underdogs, however, as they had a 1-7 record against South African opposition last season.
After losing only two games during the regular season last year the Stormers have already lost three and will view this fixture as one they must win. They threw the kitchen sink at the Crusaders in the second half last week but weren’t able to get over the line. No doubt lineouts have been practiced heavily during the week after they lost so many against last round. The difference between the Stormers this year and last is their defence, which averages 22 points conceded this season versus 16 in 2012. Prop Steven Kitshoff returns after serving a one-game suspension. Rynhardt Elstadt (shoulder) and Gerhard van den Heever (knee) are out and have been replaced by Michael Rhodes and Jaco Taute, respectively.
Betting: games between the two have been slow scoring of late. The Cheetahs lost 6-13 to the Stormers at home last season and 14-16 away. I would back the Stormers to win by 1-12 at 2.80 odds (Sportingbet). If you wish to be more conservative you could add a wager on the Cheetahs to win by 1-12 at 3.50.