Friday, 3 May
Blues v Stormers
5:35 PM AEST, North Harbour Stadium
The Blues failed to convert on a 11-9 halftime lead as they fell 11-12 to the Reds in Brisbane last week. The Blues enjoyed plenty of possession but were unable to break through the resolute Queensland defence. If they are to make the playoffs the Blues will have to start picking up foreign scalps. They are 4-1 against Kiwi opposition but 0-3 against overseas teams. They seem to win and lose games in clusters so they will be wary of creating another losing streak on Friday. The Blues’ preparation this week has not been ideal, with a couple players sent home with the flu, Rene Ranger suffering an infection and Jackson Willison out of training with a sprained ankle. Hooker James Parsons is out with injury so Keven Mealamu will make his first start of the season.
The Stormers went 3-1 on their overseas tour last year and have started this campaign with an 18-16 win over the Hurricanes. The visitors dominated the set-pieces and the breakdown in a forwards-dominated display in Wellington. They will be pleased to have Bryan Habana back in the squad and match fit. The Stormers have endured an injury-ravaged season but cannot be ruled out of playoffs contention despite sitting fourth in the South African conference. They have lost flanker Michael Rhodes to injury, however Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and Elton Jantjies have returned to full training.
Betting: I find it hard to separate the two sides but given they’ve been installed as the underdogs I would take the value by backing the Stormers to win by 1-12 at 3.40 (bet365). While they haven’t played at North Harbour Stadium before, the Stormers have won their last two games in Auckland.
Rebels v Chiefs
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
The Rebels started as 22 point underdogs but Scott Higginbotham starred as they gave the Crusaders a real scare in Christchurch last week. The Australian sides’ good run against the Kiwis looked set to continue when the Rebels led midway through the second half but they eventually succumbed to three late penalties to the Crusaders. A weak scrum and poor discipline late in the game proved to be the Rebels’ undoing. The result leaves them with a 2-7 record, with both wins coming against the Force. The Rebels welcomed back Kurtley Beale to training during the week and will take heart from having won both home fixtures against Kiwi sides last year.
The Chiefs head to Melbourne knowing no New Zealand side has won on Australian soil this season. Last week after jumping out to a 24-0 lead against the Sharks the Chiefs dropped a gear or two and ended up fighting hard for their 37-29 victory. Gareth Anscombe continues to impress with a perfect 6 from 6 with the boot on the night. Injury plagued centre Richard Kahui has recovered from a hamstring injury but now looks set to miss out this week with a shoulder problem.
Betting: I give the Rebels a real chance here but I’m put off by their inability to convert on second half leads. Nevertheless I expect them to be competitive so would back the Rebels +8.5 at 1.91 (bet365).
Saturday, 4 May
Highlanders v Sharks
5:35 PM AEST, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
The Highlanders’ losing streak spanning this season and last is now 11 games. They’ve been competitive in most fixtures but their inability to put points on the board has been their undoing. They don’t look organised on attack and instead rely on individual brilliance to make line breaks. They look flat footed with ball in hand and in their last three games they scored fewer points than the game before, so they appear to be going backwards on that front. The Highlanders look to be without wingers Kade Poki and Buxton Popoali’i this weekend. One positive is they will get centre Tamati Ellison back for the first time this season.
The Sharks showed great character to bounce back from going 0-24 early to give the Chiefs a real scare in their 29-37 loss in Hamilton last week. They were unlucky to miss out on a bonus point but nevertheless sit only one point behind the South African conference leading Bulls. After an excellent 5-1 start to the season the Sharks have lost their last three but have a good opportunity to snap their losing streak against the struggling Highlanders. The Sharks won two of their four overseas games last season and have won their last three games against the Highlanders, including a 16-30 away win in 2011. The injury-hit Sharks have lost Cobus Reinach to an ankle injury but they were relieved to hear that the SANZAR Judicial Hearing dismissed Frans Steyn’s citing for alleged foul play last week so Steyn is available to play.
Betting: given the Highlanders’ woes I’m surprised to see the Sharks installed as underdogs. I would back the Sharks in the head-to-head at 2.05 (Pinnacle Sports).
Force v Reds
7:40 PM AEST, NIB Stadium, Perth
The Force return to Perth having been trampled by the Brumbies 41-7 in Canberra last week. Until that point they hadn’t lost a game by more than 12 points this season. Interestingly, the Force now play a team they have the best head-to-head record against over the past 12 months. The Force have a two-game winning streak against the men from Queensland having beaten them 41-19 in Perth last year and 19-12 in Brisbane in Round 5.
The Reds defended valiantly to deny the Blues in their 12-11 win last week. The Reds have now completed their first clean sweep of New Zealand sides in Super Rugby to extend their fantastic record against Kiwi opposition. They have only one loss since Round 1 and I back them to make the playoffs regardless of whether they top the Australian conference. The Reds have replaced the injured Rod Davies with Dom Shipperley for this clash, while Albert Anae gets his first ever start at prop.
Betting: seven out of the eight Force losses this season have been by 1-12 so I would back the Reds to win by 1-12 at 2.70 (Centrebet)
Sunday, 5 May
Kings v Waratahs
1:05 AM AEST, Mandela Bay Stadium,Port Elizabeth
The Kings were combative and worked tirelessly but they simply weren’t good enough in their 12-26 loss to the Cheetahs last week. They will most welcome playing an Australian side this weekend. The Kings are 0-3 against South African sides but have two wins and a draw against Australian opposition. They welcome back winger Sergeal Petersen for this clash, which they hope will provide an extra boost to their attack. Skipper Luke Watson will again start from the bench as he continues to regain match fitness after his throat injury.
I’m probably beginning to sound like a broken record, but the Waratahs continue to win at home and struggle on the road. They are 4-1 in Sydney and 0-4 away from home this season, although the Kings provide an excellent opportunity for them to break that streak. The Waratahs gave the Bulls a real fight but they were their own worst enemy in their 19-30 loss in Pretoria last week. They missed three kicks at goal while poor discipline contributed to 18 points via Morne Steyn’s boot. The Waratahs must win this game if they are to keep their season alive, but victory is no certainty.
Betting: the head-to-head odds on the Waratahs are too short, after all, they only have a 2-4 record when being installed as the favourites over the past 12 months. I would back the Waratahs to win by 1-12 at 2.70 (Centrebet)
Bulls v Hurricanes
3:10 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
The Bulls made the most of ill-discipline by the Waratahs last week as penalties contributed to 18 of their 30 points in their 30-19 win. They remain undefeated on South African soil this season and now play a team they have a good record against. With four points for a bye coming up next week the Bulls are in an excellent position to make the playoffs as the South African conference winner. They welcome back Deon Stegmann and fullback Jurgen Visser for the game, with Wynand Olivier also returning to the squad.
The Hurricanes will wonder what could have been after falling 16-18 at home to the Stormers last week. They had a try conversion charged down which proved to be the difference between the two sides. The Stormers’ forwards dominated approach proved effective, particularly inside the 5 metre line, which doesn’t bode well for the Hurricanes as they commence their South African tour. The Hurricanes don’t mind playing the role of the outsider, however, with a 6-2 record over the past 12 months when installed as the underdog. They welcome back winger Julian Savea for this clash.
Betting: I fancy the Bulls to get the job done, but I have a hard time picking the margin. I would simply back the Bulls in the head-to-head at 1.28 (bet365).
Brumbies v Crusaders
4:05 PM AEST, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
The Brumbies come into this fixture with great confidence after hammering the Force 41-7 in their most complete performance of the season. They now face a stern test against a side who humbled them 40-22 and 52-10 in their last two meetings. The difference between now and their last meeting in 2011, however, is coach Jake White. The Brumbies have looked a different side since the South African’s arrival. White took the Brumbies from 4 wins in 2011 to 10 wins in 2012 and a 7-2-1 start to 2013.
The Crusaders’ indifferent form continued as they were made to work hard for their 30-26 win over the unfancied Rebels in Christchurch last week. They trailed midway through the second half but showed superior composure to pick up three penalty kicks for the win. The Crusaders camp summarised their performance as “not good enough” as New Zealand sides continue to be dominated at the breakdown by Australian teams. Todd Blackadder has responded to fullback Israel Dagg’s indifferent form by dropping him to the bench with Tom Taylor moving to fullback and Dan Carter getting his first start in a month after returning from paternity leave and a hamstring injury.
Betting: the Australian sides have dominated their New Zealand counterparts so far this season so I can’t look past backing the Brumbies in the head-to-head at 1.65 (bet365).