Friday, 31 May
Crusaders v Waratahs
5:35 PM AEST, AMI Stadium (Addington), Christchurch
The Crusaders will have to aim for a lower seeded playoff spot after their 19-28 loss to the Chiefs last week. They were undone by a ferocious Chiefs defence and two charged down kicks that resulted in tries. The result leaves them 10 points behind the men from Hamilton but still sixth place on the overall standings. While the defeat was a big setback, the Crusaders are 7-3 in their last ten games and have three home games plus a visit to Dunedin to finish off the regular season. In team news, injured lock Sam Whitelock will be replaced by Dominic Bird. Tighthead prop Owen Franks remains out while hooker Corey Flynn returns from a hamstring injury.
Going into last weekend the Waratahs were on a three-game winning streak with the local press talking about finals rugby. Their away form continues to haunt them, however, as they slumped to a 22-24 loss to the Rebels in Melbourne. The Waratahs appear to have gone into last week’s game thinking the win was in the bag because they failed to match the intensity and enthusiasm of the hosts. The Waratahs are now 6-1 at home and 1-5 on the road this season. They now take on a Crusaders side with a 5-0 home record. Dave Dennis will start at No. 8 this week in the absence of Wycliff Palu. Berrick Barnes recovered from his knock last week and will start on the bench.
Betting: the stats all point to the home team. The Crusaders are 8-1 at home in the last 12 months while the Waratahs are 1-6 away from Allianz Stadium and 0-5 as the road underdog. Furthermore, the Crusaders are 4-1 at the line at home while the Waratahs are 1-5 at the line on the road and 0-4 at the line as the away underdog. Added to the mix is the fact that the Crusaders have won their last ten matches against the Waratahs and the Crusaders’ average winning margin in Christchurch this season is 19.4 points. Based on the above I would back the Crusaders -11 at 1.971 (Pinnacle Sports).
Brumbies v Hurricanes
7:40 PM AEST, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
The Brumbies’ destiny is in their own hands after they beat the Blues 20-13 in wet and windy conditions at Eden Park last week. It was a scrappy game where their superior scrum and discipline saw them through. The win was critical as it came on the back of successive losses to the Crusaders and Waratahs. The Reds’ loss to the Stormers sees the Brumbies’ lead at the top of the Australian conference increase to five points, however victory this weekend is still vital because the Reds will pick up four points for a bye next round.
The Hurricanes’ bye last week was timely as they look set to welcome back captain Conrad Smith and fellow All Black Dane Coles into the squad for this clash. They’ve lost three of their last four but their playoff hopes are still alive courtesy of a 5-1 run from Rounds 4 to 10. Interestingly, as an article in New Zealand pointed out, the Hurricanes tend to be strong finishers in Super Rugby. They won their last four games in 2012, four of their last five in 2010 and five of their last six in 2009. Even in 2011 they managed a respectable two wins and a draw from their final four games.
Betting: the Hurricanes should be competitive, especially with key players returning to the tight five, but the Brumbies rarely lose at home. The head-to-head odds on the Brumbies aren’t worth the risk so I prefer the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.80 (Centrebet).
Saturday, 1 June
Highlanders v Blues
5:35 PM AEST, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
The Highlanders were kept tryless in their 18-19 loss to the Force last week. It was a pretty listless performance summed up by a series of costly errors at the end. They look set for the wooden spoon with an 1-11 record for the season and some tricky fixtures to come. Visiting teams have historically struggled in Dunedin however the Blues have won two of their last three away from home against the Highlanders.
The Blues’ playoff chances took a major hit with successive losses to the Crusaders and Brumbies. They have overseas fixtures against the Sharks and Cheetahs to come followed by a clash with the Chiefs so this may be their best chance to pick up more points. It was an ill-disciplined performance in their 13-20 loss to the Brumbies last week. The game was dominated by wet and windy conditions so they’ll look forward to the opportunity to play expansive rugby in an indoor venue. Winger George Moala has been replaced by Waisake Naholo for disciplinary reasons.
Betting: the Highlanders will be counting down the weeks until their nightmare of a season ends while the Blues must win this game to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. I would back the Blues in the head-to-head at 1.67 (Centrebet).
Reds v Rebels
7:40 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
The Reds return from South Africa where they lost 13-27 to the Cheetahs and 15-20 to the Stormers. They are now 2-2-2 in their last six games and have likely lost the chance to top the Australian conference. They will be feeling the effects of their travel schedule and now have to host the Rebels who are riding high after seeing off the Stormers and Waratahs. Quade Cooper will be looking to make a point against his opposite number given the latest Wallabies selections. When the Reds last hosted the Rebels they scraped through with an 11-6 win and I expect another close contest this weekend.
Until two weeks ago the Rebels had never beaten a South African side nor had they beaten the Waratahs. They have now ended both of those unwanted records and they did so without Kurtley Beale or James O’Connor. Skipper Scott Higginbotham has been immense for them, particularly in the last few games. Fullback and former New Zealand U20 player Jason Woodward is also in good form, going 5/6 with the boot after a 6/7 performance the week before. The Rebels out-enthused the Waratahs last week and will eye an unprecedented third successive victory when they take on the travel weary Reds. The Rebels have been boosted by the return of James O’Connor for this clash.
Betting: I expect the Rebels to be competitive but the Reds should be too strong. They won’t treat the Rebels as lightly as the Waratahs did so they should be fully focused. The head-to-head odds are too low so I would back the Reds 1-12 at 2.75 (Centrebet).
Sunday, 2 June
Stormers v Kings
1:05 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
The Stormers bounced back from their 1-3 record on tour by beating the Reds 20-15 with an under-strength squad. They scrambled well to nullify the Reds’ strategy of chip kicking behind the defence as they kept the Queensland side tryless. This fixture will be the Stormers’ first against the Kings with the return fixture in Round 19. The Stormers are slowly returning to full strength, welcoming back forwards Deon Fourie and De Kock Steenkamp for this fixture after reintroducing hooker Tiaan Liebenberg in the previous round. I expect them to finish the season strongly which could spell trouble for the Bulls and Cheetahs.
The Kings fell away in the second half in their 22-34 loss to the Cheetahs last week. They led 12-6 after 39 minutes before the Cheetahs ran in four tries for a comfortable victory. While they have exceeded expectations in their debut season, the Kings remain without a win against South African teams with four more domestic fixtures to finish the season. They will be without winger Siyanda Grey for three weeks and lock Steven Sykes for four weeks after they picked up injuries last round.
Betting: the Stormers should be too strong however they rely on their stingy defence to win games rather than by scoring a lot of points. The line bet could go either way while the 1-12 vs. 13+ mark is marginal so I would take the Stormers in the head-to-head at 1.10 (Pinnacle Sports) and add it to your multis.
Cheetahs v Bulls
3:10 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
This is arguably the best fixture of the round as it sees the 4th placed Cheetahs host the 2nd placed Bulls. A victory for the Bulls would pretty much cement the South African conference while a victory for the Cheetahs could bring the fight for the conference down to the wire. The Cheetahs’ loss to the Hurricanes in Round 13 appears to be just a blip as they have seen off the Reds and Kings since then. They have won four of their last five and nine of their last eleven and there is a small chance this fixture will be a preview of the tournament final.
The Bulls enter this clash on the back of six wins. Their streak actually kicked off in Round 9 with a 26-20 home win over the Cheetahs. They picked up a crucial away victory over the Sharks last week with six penalties from Morne Steyn enough to see off the Durban side 18-16. The Bulls will back themselves to make it seven on the trot having won their last ten fixtures against the Cheetahs. Zane Kirchner will make his comeback off the bench this weekend after recovering from a finger injury.
Betting: the Bulls have a fantastic record against the Cheetahs however they will have their work cut out for them this weekend. I would back both the Cheetahs and Bulls to win by 1-12 at 2.80 and 3.20 (Centrebet), respectively.