Friday, 24 May
Chiefs v Crusaders
5:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
The Chiefs continue to beat teams without blowing them away and they now sit top of the overall standings courtesy of the Brumbies’ loss to the Waratahs. They are unbeaten against Kiwi opposition this year however this will be the first time they have played the Crusaders. The Chiefs remain decimated in the midfield however they gained plenty with the return of fullback Robbie Robinson last week. Robinson’s return was timely given Gareth Anscombe’s foot injury. Tighthead prop Ben Afeaki is out with a calf strain so Ben Tameifuna will start in his place.
After a traditional slow start the Crusaders are starting to hit their straps and have showed ominous form over their past two games. They beat the Brumbies 30-23 in Canberra then suffocated the Blues 23-3 last week. The Crusaders played the Chiefs three times last year. They lost 19-24 at home then won 28-21 in Hamilton before losing 17-20 in Hamilton in the playoffs. They have been installed as the favourites for his game however the Crusaders are only 3-5 away from home this year and 1-4 in their last five away games when installed as the favourites. They will be without prop Owen Franks and hooker Codie Taylor will make his first start of the season in the absence of Corey Flynn and Ben Funnell.
Betting: this clash could determine who tops the New Zealand conference so there’s a lot on the line on Friday. The scrum will be a test of squad depth with both sides missing their first choice tighthead prop. It should be close as both sides share identical form since Round 4 (won 3, then lost 2, then won 4). Given the depleted Chiefs backline and the Crusaders improving form with Carter and Read back in the squad, I back the Crusaders to nick this in a tight contest. I would back the Crusaders 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet).
Rebels v Waratahs
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
The Rebels did well to see off the Stormers 29-21 without James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale last week. It was their third win of the season and their first ever over a South African opponent. Given their previous four losses were by 3, 4, 6 and 4 points I’m sure they felt they were due a win. The Rebels have played the Waratahs five times and have lost five times, however they have gradually improved each game. The losing margins have been 43, 19, 16, 9 and 5 points. Nick Phipps and Luke Jones return to the squad with James O’Connor out for at least another week.
The Waratahs remain very much in the playoff hunt after they beat the Brumbies 28-22. They were down 6-13 at the break but stormed back with three second half tries to deny the visitors. Much of the Waratahs resurgence in that game was on the back of Berrick Barnes’ introduction at half time. The victory did come at a cost, however, with Tatafu Polota-Nau leaving the field with a broken arm. Berrick Barnes and Matt Lucas will start this week with Brendan McKibbin and Rob Horne dropping to the bench. John Ulugia will start at hooker in place of Polota-Nau while prop Sekope Kepu returns with Paddy Ryan named on the bench.
Betting: the Waratahs have good momentum with a 6-2 record over the past eight games and they will feel very capable of making the playoffs. My only concern is they are only 1-4 away from Allianz Stadium this season. I would back the Waratahs 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportingbet), but I won’t be putting my house on it.
Saturday, 25 May
Blues v Brumbies
5:35 PM AEST, Eden Park, Auckland
The Blues had played well over the preceding five Rounds, but they were simply outclassed by the Crusaders in their 3-23 loss in Christchurch last week. The Blues started well and dominated early territory and possession, but were slowly forced out of the game by the home team. Flanker Steven Luatua is out with a neck injury and has been replaced by Brendon O’Connor. Francis Saili returns at inside-centre with Jackson Willison dropping to the bench.
The Brumbies led 13-6 at halftime last week but Berrick Barnes took control of the match in the second half as the Waratahs pulled away to win 28-22. The Brumbies have now lost their last two games which leaves the door open for the Reds and Waratahs to take the Australian conference. The injuries to George Smith and Pat McCabe during the game weren’t as serious as initially thought, however Smith will still be out for at least six weeks while McCabe won’t be available until next week at the earliest.
Betting: the Brumbies won’t need reminding that they were in the box seat to win the Australian conference going into the final round last season. They only needed a point from the final game but were beaten 16-30 at home by a Blues side that had nothing to play for. Revenge will be in mind, however they are a touch vulnerable with consecutive defeats and the losses of Smith and McCabe. I expect the Brumbies to keep this tight so I would back both the Blues and Brumbies 1-12 at 2.75 and 3.30, respectively (Sportingbet). Based on previous history I expect a fairly high scoring game (conditions permitting) so I would consider the over if the over/under mark is 45.0 or below.
Force v Highlanders
7:40 PM AEST, NIB Stadium, Perth
The Force will be bitterly disappointed to have lost to an injury-depleted Sharks side last week. They fought hard and led 10-7 at halftime but fell 13-23 to extend their winless run to five games. They now face the Highlanders in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon in what is unquestionably their best chance to win another game before the end of the season. The Force will be buoyed by the fact that they have never lost to the Highlanders.
The Highlanders remain at the foot of the overall standings after they were beaten 35-18 by the Bulls. They trailed 23-6 at the break and were never really in the game, which is disappointing given they had a good recent record against the men from Pretoria. The result moves the Highlanders to 1-10 for the season and 1-10 at the line. They have received a boost with the return of Ma’a Nonu from injury, however he hasn’t had much of an impact for them this season. Prop Bronson Murray and fly-half Trent Renata will also be available.
Betting: the Highlanders are 0-5 at the line away from home however the Force have struggled to close out games in recent weeks. I would back the Force in the head-to-head at 1.63 (Pinnacle Sports).
Kings v Cheetahs
11:00 PM AEST, Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
The Kings continue to exceed expectations after they bounced back from a mauling at the hands of the Waratahs to beat the hopeless Highlanders 34-27 prior to their bye last week. They were more physical and much better organised than the week before and will hope they can be more consistent in those areas. The Kings are now 2-1-1 against Australian teams and 1-3 against Kiwi sides. The challenge, however, is they are winless against South African sides and have five straight domestic fixtures to end the season. The Kings have been boosted by the returns of flanker Jacques Engelbrecht and fullback SP Marais. Andries Strauss has recovered from the shoulder injury he picked up against the Highlanders and will start.
The Cheetahs kept their playoff hopes alive by beating the in-form Reds 27-13 last week to end a three-game losing streak to the Queensland side. They were made to defend for long stretches but were able to keep the Reds at bay whilst accumulating points almost every time they entered the Reds’ half. The victory means the Cheetahs have swept all four Australian teams this season.
Betting: I find the margin hard to predict for this fixture so I would simply take the Cheetahs in the head-to-head at 1.30 (Sportingbet). The Kings’ three victories this season have been against the Force, Rebels and Highlanders – all of whom are ranked 12th or lower. The Cheetahs currently sit just a point off the playoffs and should have too much class for the home side.
Sunday, 26 May
Stormers v Reds
1:05 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
The Stormers return to South Africa having picked up only one win in their four-game overseas tour. They will rue the four chances they passed up on to kick for goal in their 21-29 loss to the Rebels last week. They now sit 4th in the South African conference with their playoff chances virtually extinguished. Injuries continue to disrupt them with both tighthead props, Pat Cilliers and Frans Malherbe, unavailable. Hooker Deon Fourie, centre Juan de Jongh and lock Andries Bekker are also casualties of the tour. Hooker Scarra Ntubeni remains unavailable however they do have Tiaan Liebenberg back for this game.
The Reds were denied on four occasions by the Television Match Official in their 13-26 loss to the Cheetahs last week. They had plenty of the ball but were repeatedly let down by errors at the breakdown after long periods of possession. Nevertheless that was only their first loss in eight games and the Brumbies’ loss to the Waratahs leaves the Reds just two points behind the Australian conference leaders. The Reds will be without winger Digby Ioane for this clash after he picked up a knee injury against the Cheetahs.
Betting: while the Stormers have lost seven times this season, six of those losses were on the road. I expect them to be much stronger at home however given their injury toll I fancy the Reds 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Sharks v Bulls
3:10 AM AEST, Kings Park, Durban
The Sharks finished their torturous overseas tour on a high by beating the Force 23-13 last week. The win snapped a five-game losing streak and no doubt the men from Durban will be happy to be back on South African soil where they are 5-2 this season. Two of their remaining four fixtures are against the conference leading Bulls, however, so their playoff chances are incredibly bleak.
The Bulls come into this fixture on the back of five straight wins, which is the longest active winning streak in the competition. They have no new injury concerns after beating the Highlanders 35-18 and, worryingly for opposition teams, they have averaged almost 37 points scored over the past four games. If they can avoid travelling overseas for the playoffs then the Bulls will be in an excellent position to take out this year’s title.
Betting: given the Sharks’ injury toll and their recent travel schedule I give the edge to the Bulls. I would back the Bulls in the head-to-head at 2.00 (Pinnacle Sports).