Friday, 19 April
Hurricanes v Force
5:35 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
The Hurricanes will be looking to bounce back from their crushing 28-6 defeat to the Blues. Word from across the Tasman is that the Hurricanes fare well against weaker opposition but flounder against stronger opponents. This certainly appears to be true, with the Wellington side boasting a 4-0 record against sides outside the playoffs but a 0-3 record against the top six teams. Coach Mark Hammett has opted to rest Jason Eaton and TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea for this fixture. Jeremy Thrush, Chris Smylie and Jack Lam will start in their respective places.
I wrote last week that the Crusaders suffer an annual away let down and this year it was the Force to ‘upset’ the Crusaders with a 16-14 victory. The result puts the Force within 8 points of a playoff spot so they still have everything to play for. Coach Michael Foley’s decision to start Sam Norton-Knight at fly-half paid huge dividends with Norton-Knight scoring their only try in the 3rd minute. Their defensive effort was particularly strong and was reminiscent of their winning performance against the Reds in Round 5. Whether or not the Force can maintain that level defensively remains to be seen, but based on past history, I wouldn’t bank on it.
Betting: the Hurricanes will be hungry given their loss to the Blues last week and the fact that the Blues will pick up four points for a bye this round. Historically the Hurricanes have had the measure of the Force in consistently high scoring games. The Hurricanes’ head-to-head odds are too low, so given the Force have yet to lose by more than 12 points this season I would take the Hurricanes 1-12 at 2.75 odds (bet365). The last four fixtures between the two have seen 65, 62, 69 and 55 points scored (most recent listed first). You may want to keep that in mind when the over/under mark is published.
Waratahs v Chiefs
7:40 PM AEST, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
The Waratahs had a three-game winning streak snapped by being comprehensively beaten 41-29 by the Hurricanes. They conceded far too many turnovers of possession which has been recurring theme this season. Spanning this year and last the NSW side have lost their last seven games away from home. The good news is they’re back in Sydney this week, where they have won three out of four this season. They will be wary, however, knowing they’ve lost seven of their last eight games against Kiwi opposition. The Waratahs have fared well on the injury front, with Berrick Barnes the only key injury. Both Wycliff Palu and Tatafu Polota-Nau are back from injury and have been named in the starting line-up.
The Chiefs suffered their first home defeat to foreign opposition since 2011 when they fell 23-31 to the Reds last week. The Red are proving to be a bogey team for the Chiefs, who haven’t beaten the men from Queensland in years. The Reds dominated them at the breakdown last week so no doubt this will be an area of focus for them on Friday. The Chiefs’ finishing also let them down after failing to adequately capitalise on 13 line breaks. After starting the season with 41-27 and 45-3 victories the Chiefs have picked up three further wins but have not managed to find the same dominating form they enjoyed last year and in Rounds 1 & 2. Coach Dave Rennie has responded to last week’s loss by making six changes to the squad, including replacing goalkicker Gareth Anscombe with Andrew Horrell at fullback.
Betting: this could go either way, but based on recent trends I will take the Chiefs to get over the Waratahs in a tight game. I would back the visitors to win by 1-12 at 2.75 odds (Sportingbet).
Saturday, 20 April
Crusaders v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEST, AMI Stadium (Addington), Christchurch
The Crusaders will be smarting from their loss to the Force but losing to the Force or Rebels in Australia seems to have become an annual occurrence for them. The Crusaders kept the Force pointless in the second half but were unable to penetrate the host’s resolute defence. They were also guilty of making far too many handling errors. Fly-half Dan Carter and No. 8 Kieran Read are still two weeks away from returning to the squad. Coach Todd Blackadder has re-introduced Sam Whitelock, Matt Todd and winger Zac Guildford to the starting line-up after making rotational changes last week.
The Highlanders sit at the foot of the overall standings with just six points – four of which are courtesy of a Week 3 bye. Their losing streak covering this season and last has now hit double figures. They continue to commit too many handling errors and seem to rely on individual brilliance rather than structure to break through opposition. They are flat-footed on attack and the Brumbies shut them out for most of the second half last week.
Betting: last year the Crusaders lost 19-28 to the Rebels in Melbourne. A week later they ravaged the Blues 59-12 for their biggest victory of the season. The Crusaders have won nine of their last ten games at home and I expect them to bounce back this week with a win. I would back the Crusaders -6.5 at 1.54 odds (Sportsbet)
Reds v Brumbies
7:40 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
This is the biggest game of the round for Australian rugby fans. The Reds will be looking to avenge their 24-6 loss to the Brumbies in Round 1. The Reds sit just two points behind the Brumbies so a win would see them go top of the Australian conference.
The Reds started the season slowly, but week by week they have been improving and at 9.00 odds they are my pick as the best value selection to take this year’s title. Last week they completely dominated the Chiefs at the breakdown. With both Will Genia and James Horwill in excellent form the Reds are looking capable of beating anyone at the moment. Fly-half Quade Cooper’s form is also picking up. They welcome back Digby Ioane for this fixture with Dom Shipperley dropping to the bench.
The Brumbies bounced back from their disappointing draw against the Kings by dispatching a desperate Highlanders outfit 30-19 in Dunedin. Under coach Jake White they have been impressive this season, showing excellent line speed in defence. Only the Sharks average fewer points conceded.
Betting: this result could determine who takes the Australian conference so it’s difficult to overstate how important this fixture is. I could see it going either way in a tight contest so I would back both the Reds 1-12 at 2.80 odds (Sportingbet) and the Brumbies 1-12 at 3.25 odds (bet365) . In recent years this has not been a high scoring affair so you may want to consider the under if the over/under mark is above 42.5.
Sunday, 21 April
Sharks v Cheetahs
1:05 AM AEST, Kings Park, Durban
With the South African conference as tight as it is every domestic fixture is critical this season. The Sharks currently lead the conference by three points over the Cheetahs and this week is a fantastic opportunity to put some breathing space between themselves and the men from Bloemfontein. It’s hard to look past the home side in this fixture. You have to go back to 2011 to find the last time the Sharks lost at home to a South African side. The Durban team has had the measure of the Cheetahs in recent years, having won the last five head-to-heads between the two – including a 29-22 away victory in Round 1. Tries continue to come at a premium for the Sharks. They have not crossed the try line since Round 6.
The Cheetahs’ five-game winning streak came to an end in Petoria last week when they fell 20-26 to the Bulls. In recent years the Cheetahs haven’t fared well against their fellow countrymen, with a 1-7 record last season and a 1-2 start this year. They were undone by conceding too many kick-able penalties last week and with Sharks fly-half Pat Lambie in excellent kicking form, discipline will be key to the Cheetahs’ chances this weekend.
Betting: this could come down to a kicking duel between Pat Lambie and Burton Francis. Based on past head-to-head history one would expect the Sharks to be too strong. Given the Cheetahs’ recent strong form the head-to-head odds for the Sharks are too short for my liking so my preference is to back the Sharks 1-12 at 2.80 odds (Sportingbet).
Kings v Bulls
3:10 AM AEST, Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
The Kings return to South Africa on the back of a come-from-behind victory over the Rebels. The new squad has shown excellent character this season to bounce back from their 20-55 hammering at the hands of the Crusaders in their first ever away game. Since then they gave the Hurricanes a scare before drawing the Brumbies and beating the Rebels. With seven games played the Kings have covered the line on six occasions – many of which were by a considerable margin. Despite their success they continue to play without the burden of expectation as week after week they are installed as the clear underdogs. Solid goal kicking has been key to their success in season, as highlighted by Demetri Catrakilis’ performance last week. The Kings welcome back captain Luke Watson for this fixture. He has not played since incurring an injury in Round 1.
The Bulls secured a much-needed victory over the high-flying Cheetahs last week and with the Sharks hosing the Cheetahs this round the Bulls have an excellent opportunity to move second on the South African conference. They have suffered their fair share of injuries this season, but welcome Bjorn Basson to the bench for this clash.
Betting: the Kings have only faced one other South African side this season so it’s too early to tell how well they match up against their fellow countrymen. The Bulls haven’t beaten a team by more than ten points this season but with the Kings having just made the long trip back from Australia I will have to go with the away team. I would back the Bulls 1-12 at 2.70 odds (Sportingbet). A slightly more conservative option is to take the Kings +11.0 at 1.90 odds (Sportsbet).