Friday, 26 April
Hurricanes v Stormers
5:35 PM AEST, FMG Stadium, Palmerston North
It wasn’t convincing, but the Hurricanes saw off the Force last week to maintain their playoff hopes. They have been quiet achievers this competition, with five wins out of their last six, making them New Zealand’s most inform side. Beauden Barrett returns to fly-half this week with Andre Taylor playing at fullback. Jason Eaton and TJ Perenara start after being rested last week while Victor Vito returns from injury. Julian Savea has made himself unavailable for this clash following his court appearance for assault during the week.
The Stormers have been in Australasia for a while after having a bye last week so they should be fresh. Their season has been dogged by injuries, with a total of 13 players unavailable at one stage. They have been boosted by the return of Scarra Ntubeni, Eben Etzebeth, Rynhardt Elstadt, Elton Jantjies and Bryan Habana to the touring squad. This has created a welcome selection dilemma for coach Allister Coetzee after their stand-in players beat the Sharks two weeks ago. The Stormers will continue to rely heavily on the boot of Joe Pietersen to get them over the line with Elton Jantjies out for another week.
Betting: the Stormers’ 3-4 record is heavily due to their extensive injury toll. With key players starting to return to the squad they still may make a run for the playoffs. Given they travelled well last season I expect the Stormers to be competitive. I would back both the Hurricanes and Stormers to win by 1-12 at 2.80 and 3.20 odds, respectively (Sportingbet).
Reds v Blues
7:40 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
The Australian conference is looking to be another two-horse race between the Reds and Brumbies, who drew 19-19 at Suncorp last week despite the Reds outscoring the visitors three tries to one. Despite the Blues’ resurgence the Reds will fancy their changes given their fantastic record against New Zealand sides. They have won their last three against the Blues and are odds on to make it four straight.
The Blues’s second bye week came at a bad time after they hammered the Hurricanes 28-6 two weeks ago. Earlier in the season they built up some good momentum but their Round 5 bye disrupted their form, which resulted in losses to the Waratahs and Chiefs. Since then they have beaten the Highlanders and Hurricanes but it remains to be seen how sharp they will be after a week off. The Blues certainly prefer to play compatriot sides this year. They enter this fixture with a 4-1 record against Kiwi teams but a 0-2 record against foreign opposition. Francis Saili has been in court during the week for a driving offence and is out of the starting fifteen. Winger George Moala is out of the squad for breaking team protocol.
Betting: the Reds have won something like eleven out of their past twelve games against New Zealand opposition and are one win away from their first ever clean sweep in a year against Kiwi sides. The Reds like to play expansive rugby and the New Zealand style of play obviously suits them. I do expect the Blues to be competitive so I would back the Reds to win by 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportingbet)
Saturday, 27 April
Chiefs v Sharks
5:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
The Chiefs come into this fixture on the back off losses to the Reds and Waratahs. Their slip from the top position in the New Zealand conference has been made worse by the losses of Andrew Horrell and Fritz Lee to injury. They have received a welcome boost, however, with Craig Clarke and Mo Schwalger returning from injury. Clarke has pointed to slow starts as a contributing factor to their recent losses, saying the Chiefs are getting “out-passioned” in the early stages of games. The Chiefs continue to defend well but it is lack of offence that is hurting them. In their last four games they have averaged 21.25 points scored, compared to 38.75 over the first four rounds.
After building up excellent momentum with a 5-1 start the Sharks have lost their last two games and have extended their tryless streak to three games. Offence has been a struggle all season. When excluding the Sharks’ 64-7 demolition of the Rebels they have averaged 16 points scored. It is their league-leading defence that is keeping them in playoff contention. The Sharks’ injury woes are a big reason for their struggles. There are 16 players on the injury list with Paul Jordaan the latest addition. The Sharks have opted to make some rotational changes for this clash, with Keegan Daniel, Marcell Coetzee and Franco van der Merwe dropping to the bench.
Betting: all three of the Chiefs’ losses this season have been to foreign sides so the locals will be very wary here. They have won their last four against the Sharks, however, so I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.65 (Sportingbet).
Brumbies v Force
7:40 PM AEST, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
They were outscored three tries to one and had a sin binning in each half, but after defending gallantly at the end the Brumbies managed to draw the Reds 19-19 at Suncorp last week. This leaves them in an excellent position in the Australian conference, especially given the Reds still have to visit South Africa. The Brumbies have extended George Smith’s contract to the end of the season, which provides an excellent boost to their title chances.
The Force come into this fixture with a 2-7 record, but they will give themselves a fighting chance of causing an upset here. They are always competitive against the Brumbies and have already beaten the Canberra side at Canberra Stadium. Since the Brumbies beat the Sharks in Durban they haven’t quite matched their early season form, which will give the visitors some heart.
Betting: historically the Brumbies have struggled the put the Force to the sword. At Canberra Stadium they lost 19-27 to the Force in 2011 and only scraped through with a 19-17 win in 2012. Given the low head-to-head odds I would back the Brumbies to win by 1-12 at 2.67 (Sportingbet).
Sunday, 28 April
Bulls v Waratahs
1:05 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
The Bulls have put their horrible overseas tour behind and have won their last two games back in South Africa. Both victories have been impressive. They snapped the Cheetahs’ five-game winning streak in Round 9 before thumping the Kings 34-0 in Port Elizabeth. The Bulls now host the Waratahs, who they have beaten on the last four occasions. Like a number of South African sides the Bulls have had their fair share of injuries to deal with. While they do get back Wynand Olivier and Dewald Potgieter for this clash, they will be without lock Paul Willemse for nine weeks. Willemse joins Hencus van Wyk, Grant Hattingh, Zane Kirchner and Francois Venter on the inactive list.
The Waratahs left for South Africa on a high after defeating the Chiefs 25-20 last week. They jumped out to a 15-0 lead and showed good composure to bounce back after falling behind late. After a torrid season in 2012 they are starting to build solid home form. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for their away form. This season the Waratahs are 4-1 at home but 0-3 on the road and away games don’t get much tougher than playing the Bulls at altitude in Pretoria.
Betting: the Bulls at home have an excellent record against foreign opposition. The Waratahs would do well just go get a bonus point out of this one. I would back the Bulls -5.5 at 1.55 (Sportsbet).
Cheetahs v Kings
3:10 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
The Cheetahs are in an excellent position to make the playoffs for the first time after upsetting the Sharks in Durban last week to move one point behind the South African conference leaders. They also have both byes to come – each worth 4 points. Beating the Sharks snapped a five-game losing streak to the Durban side and it gives the Cheetahs a 6-1 record over their last seven games.
It was always going to be tough playing at home in Port Elizabeth a week after a four-game overseas tour, but the Kings will be disappointed to have been so comprehensively beaten by the Bulls last week. Their slow start was their undoing as the visitors shot out to a 20-0 lead after 34 minutes. To their credit, the Kings fought back to keep the Bulls pointless until the 76th minute, however they were never able to threaten the Bulls try line.
Betting: the Kings have been excellent performers at the line this season, with a 6-2 record, however I think the bookmakers have got the line just right, installing the Cheetahs as 13.5 point favourites. I would back the Cheetahs in the head-to-head at 1.12 (bet365) and perhaps at them to your multis.
Crusaders v Rebels
2:05 PM AEST, AMI Stadium (Addington),Christchurch
The Crusaders got their season back on track by dispatching the hopeless Highlanders 24-8 last week. Ironically, they now start as 1.04 favourites against a side they’ve never beaten. The Rebels won their only previous clash with the Crusaders 28-19 in Melbourne last year. With the halfway mark upon us, the Crusaders have already lost four times this year, however all four losses have been away from home. At AMI Stadium no team has come within 16 points of the Crusaders, so it’s hard to look past the home team on Sunday.
The Rebels seemed to do everything within their power to lose to the Kings in Round 9. Their two wins for the season have both been against the Force – a team they beat twice last year as well. With one win from their past seven, it’s difficult to see them getting a result here. Having said that, the Crusaders haven’t been all guns blazing on attack this year, and they have suffered injury disruptions in key positions. The Highlanders were dreadful last week but managed to get within 16 so the Rebels are a fair chance at the line.
Betting: the Australian sides have fared very well against their New Zealand counterparts this season. While I don’t give the Rebels much chance in the head-to-head, they should be able to cover the line. The Crusaders may have one eye on their visit to Canberra next week, so I would back the Rebels +22.5 at 2.00 (Pinnacle Sports).