Note that the All Blacks had a midweek camp during the week, which will have disrupted the preparations of New Zealand teams for this weekend.
Friday, 17 May
Hurricanes v Chiefs
5:35 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
The Hurricanes bounced back from their 14-48 hammering by the Bulls to beat the Cheetahs 39-34 in Bloemfontein last week. The result was crucial because it keeps them in playoff contention, 5 points adrift of the 6th placed Crusaders. The Wellington side continues to struggle defensively, averaging 27.5 points conceded per game, which is actually worse than their defensively lacklustre 2012 season. Centre Conrad Smith remains out due to his head injury, however the Hurricanes have no new injury concerns and have named an unchanged line-up for this week.
They started as 15.5 point favourites but the Chiefs only beat the Force by a solitary point in Pukekohe last week. They dominated set-pieces and the breakdown yet were outscored two tries to one. That was the sixth game in a row that the Waikato side has failed to cover the line. The Chiefs have suffered a blow with fullback and goal kicker Gareth Anscombe out for five weeks. On the upside, Aaron Cruden was 6/6 with the boot in Anscombe’s absence last week. The Chiefs will also be without Tim Nanai-Williams until after the June break due to a stomach ulcer. They have already lost Charlie Ngatai, Andrew Horrell and Richard Kahui in the midfield and have been blocked by the NZRU from bringing in an overseas player as cover. Flanker Sam Cane has also been ruled out for this clash.
Betting: the Hurricanes are the underdogs in this fixture but they are 2-0 at home when starting as the outsider this season. Hurricanes vs. Chiefs fixtures have been won by the home team on seven of the last eight occasions. The only exception was the Chiefs drawing the Hurricanes in Hamilton in 2010. The Hurricanes beat the Chiefs by 3 points the last two times they hosted them, however they may be a bit jaded from the long trip back from South Africa. This should be close so I would back both the Hurricanes and Chiefs to win by 1-12 at 3.25 and 2.75 odds respectively (Sportingbet).
Rebels v Stormers
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
The Rebels gave the Blues a real scare last week before losing 32-36. This continues their recent trend of being competitive against New Zealand sides. The challenge for them this week, however, is they have never beaten a South African team in eleven attempts. An interesting trend with the Rebels is they cover the line more often on the road than at home, with a 1-4 home line record and 4-2 away line record in 2013. The Rebels remain without Kurtley Beale who has taken an indefinite leave from rugby. They will also be without James O’Connor for this week and possibly the next. Back up fly-half Angus Roberts is also out, having dislocated his shoulder last week.
For the second week running the Stormers were highly competitive but fell short in their 15-21 loss to the Waratahs. This was their first loss against Australian opposition in eight matches. Their defeat came at a heavy cost, with Rynhardt Elstadt and Duane Vermeulen possibly ruled out for the rest of the season. They have made seven changes for this clash, some injury forced and others rotational. This will be the first time this season that scrum-half Louis Schreuder and fly-half Elton Jantjies will start together.
Betting: the Rebels play with lack of structure at times which doesn’t match up well against South African-style rugby and their chances aren’t helped by the absences of O’Connor and Beale. Given the Stormers average only 20 points scored per game I don’t expect a blowout so I would back the Stormers 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet).
Force v Sharks
9:45 PM AEST, NIB Stadium, Perth
The Force almost shocked the Chiefs but fell just short in their 21-22 loss. They put in another strong defensive effort, outscoring the hosts two tries to one, but were undone by numerous penalty infringements. They now have a very winnable fixture against the injury-ravaged Sharks. They have never beaten the Durban side but the visitors’ injury woes and poor showing last week will give the Force genuine hope.
The Sharks lost to the Reds at Suncorp last week with a 32-17 scoreline that flattered the visitors. The Reds cruised out to a comfortable lead and then went to sleep for much for the second half. Coach John Plumtree has admitted that their playoff chances are now pretty much finished, with the side sitting nine points outside the playoffs. Jannie du Plessis has been named in the starting line-up after being rotated to the bench last week while Willem Alberts gets his first start of the season.
Betting: the Sharks have lost their last five games while the Force have only won one of their last eight, however the Sharks were dreadful last week while the Force almost beat the Chiefs. Given the Sharks’ injury woes I would back the Force 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Saturday, 18 May
Crusaders v Blues
5:35 PM AEST, AMI Stadium (Addington), Christchurch
The Crusaders enjoyed a bye last week after upsetting the competition leading Brumbies 30-23 in Canberra. They were lifted by Dan Carter’s return to the squad and played with much better intensity than in previous weeks. They will be pleased to see Carter hasn’t lost any of his touch, with a perfect 6/6 afternoon with the boot. The Crusaders have received a further boost with All Blacks No. 8 Kieran Read returning after seven weeks out with a toe injury.
The Blues come into this fixture on the back of wins over the Stormers and Rebels, but the nature of their wins wasn’t convincing. They failed to score a try against the Stormers then almost surrendered a 29-10 halftime lead against the Rebels a week later. The Rebels’ switch of tactics in the second half towards a tight forward approach paid dividends last week, which will interest the Crusaders. Chris Noakes was 2/6 from the boot for the Blues in that game. He will have to do much better than that if the Blues are to have a chance this weekend.
Betting: the Crusaders look a different team with Dan Carter back in the squad. They will be looking to avenge their 15-34 loss to the Blues in Round 2 and given their excellent home record against the men from Auckland, I expect the Crusaders to be too strong on Saturday. Due to the erratic nature of the Blues I’m not confident about any line wagers so I would back the Crusaders in the head-to-head at 1.32 (Pinnacle Sports).
Waratahs v Brumbies
7:40 PM AEST, ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Berrick Barnes and Israel Folau were the heroes as the Waratahs scored a late try to see off the Stormers 21-15 last week. They did well to pick up the win after making the long trip back from South Africa – particularly given they were playing a side with a fantastic record against Australian teams. The win keeps the Waratahs’ season alive, although they will have their work cut out for them when they hosts a Brumbies side that is coming into the game on the back of a home loss then a bye.
The Brumbies were quite simply out classed by Dan Carter and the Crusaders prior to their bye last week. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead but were kept scoreless for almost an hour as the Crusaders steadily accumulated points. Coach Jake White will at least be pleased his side picked up late points to pick up the bonus point. Every point will be critical this year with just four points separating the top five teams.
Betting: when it came to separating the two sides most bookmakers have thrown in the towel and set equal 1.91 odds. The Brumbies thumped the Waratahs 35-6 in Round 4, but the NSW side has improved in leaps and bounds since then, winning five of their last seven. You could make a case for either team, so I would back both the Waratahs and Brumbies to win by 1-12 at 2.85 and 2.95 odds respectively (Sportingbet).
Sunday, 19 May
Bulls v Highlanders
1:05 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
After losing three straight between Rounds 5 and 7 the Bulls have won their last four to take command of the South African conference. Prior to their bye last week they hammered the Hurricanes 48-14 after roaring out to a 27-0 lead. Despite earlier reports, they will be without fullback Zane Kirchner who hasn’t recovered from a finger injury. The squad is relatively fit, with only Paul Willemse, Cornell Hess, Frans Venter and Wiaan Liebenberg on the long-term injury list. They welcome back scrum-half Francois Hougaard and centre Jan Serfontein for this game.
Otago and Southland rugby fans would have hoped their side had turned a corner when they held off the Sharks 25-22 in Dunedin two weeks ago, but the Highlanders fell 27-34 to the Kings last week to maintain their position at the foot of the table. Interestingly, while the 14th placed Force are 8-4 at the line this season, the 15th placed Highlanders are 1-9, which highlights the fact that bookmakers still haven’t come to grips with how poor they have been this year.
Betting: on paper the Highlanders should be easy pickings for the Bulls. Colin Slade continues to struggle with the boot to I can’t see the visitors keeping up with Morne Steyn. I would back the Bulls 13+ at 1.65 (Sportingbet). The last two times the Bulls hosted the Highlanders the combined scores were 85 and 63 points, which is worth keeping in mind when the over/under mark is released.
Cheetahs v Reds
3:10 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
The Cheetahs will be disappointed to have fallen 34-39 at home to the Hurricanes last week. They had won seven of their last eight prior to that game and are still very much in the playoff hunt, sitting just two points behind the 6th placed Crusaders. The Cheetahs are 3-0 against Australian sides so far this season however they were comprehensively beaten the last two times they faced the Reds.
The Reds saw off the Sharks comfortably last week with the 32-17 scoreline flattering the visitors. The Reds secured the four-try bonus point on the 34 minute mark then coasted home. They were deadly from turnover ball and will be relieved to have put some tries on the board after scoring 12 and 11 points in their previous two games. The Reds are actually only the 11th highest scoring team in the competition. Their 4th place standing is courtesy of their dominant defence. Only the Brumbies have averaged fewer points scored per game.
Betting: in their last two meetings the Reds won 31-10 in Bloemfontein and 41-8 in Brisbane. The Cheetahs play a relatively open style of rugby for a South African team which plays into the hands of sides with strong backlines, such the Reds and Hurricanes. I would back the Reds in the head-to-head at 1.91 (Sportingbet).