The following are previews and betting tips for Round 18 of the 2013 Super 15 Rugby competition.
Friday, 29 June
Chiefs v Hurricanes
5:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
The Chiefs come into this fixture having won their last five in a row. They are also undefeated against New Zealand sides this season. The Hurricanes are a tricky opponent, however, because there will be little pressure on the visitors and the Chiefs have only won two of their last six encounters against the Wellington side. The Chiefs will be pleased that the All Blacks rested Aaron Cruden for the third Test against France. He looked great in the second Test which raises the question of whether he is actually New Zealand’s best fly-half at the moment. The Chiefs have received a boost with lock Brodie Retallick returning from injury sooner than expected. Prop Ben Afeaki is also back.
The Hurricanes still have a small chance of making the playoffs but they would need to win their last three games and hope other results go their way. It’s hard seeing them getting anything out of this game as they have lost four of their last five. They were competitive in their 12-17 loss to the Chiefs earlier in the season, however, so I don’t expect them to get blown away on Friday. The Hurricanes have a number of absences this week, with Andre Taylor, Tim Bateman, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and Motu Matu’u out with injury and Ardie Savea away with the NZ U20s. This has forced them to call on Matt Proctor and James Marshall to make their debuts on the wing and at fullback, respectively. In better news, all of their All Blacks came through the three Tests against France unscathed and have been named in the starting line-up.
Betting: the Chiefs have an excellent home record, however they’re only 2-4 at the line in Hamilton. Both sides will be a touch rusty so I’m going to play it conservatively and back the Chiefs in the head-to-head at 1.35 (IASbet).
Saturday, 29 June
Highlanders v Crusaders
5:35 PM AEST, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
The Highlanders put together their best performance of the season when they upset the Blues 38-28 prior to the international break. They came out of the blocks like a rocket and blew the Blues away in the first half before the men from Auckland fought back for a more respectable score line. When you add the strong performances of their All Blacks in the Tests against France, Highlanders supporters will be wondering why they couldn’t get things going this season. The Highlanders love to play the Crusaders and will relish the chance to play the spoilers on Saturday.
As is so often the case, the Crusaders are peaking at the right time, with six wins from their last seven. They were arguably lucky to get past the Waratahs in their last game, however, and Dan Carter looked rusty in the third All Blacks Test against France, so I wouldn’t rule out an upset here. This time last year the Crusaders were beaten by the unfancied Hurricanes after the international break, so they may be vulnerable this week. Added to the mix is the Highlanders have a 2-1 record as the home underdog this season. Also, the Crusaders are 3-6 on the road in 2013. Lock Dominic Bird is out for the rest of the season after picking up a shoulder injury against the Waratahs while hooker Corey Flynn is out with a hamstring injury.
Betting: I think the Crusaders are a touch short in the head-to-head market. I would back both the Highlanders and Crusaders to win by 1-12 at 4.00 and 2.70 odds, respectively (Sportingbet).
Sharks v Blues
11:00 PM AEST, Kings Park, Durban
Like a number of sides, the Sharks need to win every remaining game and hope other results go their way if they are to make the playoffs. They have only won once in their last seven games, however, as injuries have disrupted their season. Head coach John Plumtree left the team with immediate effect during the week so their preparations have not been ideal. Cobus Reinach, Jacques Botes and Ryan Kankowski are back from injury and are available for selection, however the Sharks are still without Wiehahn Herbst, Tim Whitehead, Craig Burden, Frans Steyn, Meyer Bosman, Francois Kleinhans, Jandre Marais and JP Pietersen.
The Blues didn’t show up in the first half against the Highlanders in Round 17 and were punished. They fought back to bring some respectability to the scoreline but their fans will be frustrated with the side’s inconsistency. They are still very much in playoff contention, but with three tough fixtures to come (away vs. Sharks, away vs. Cheetahs, home vs. Chiefs), they face an uphill challenge to make the finals. Keven Mealamu and Rene Ranger will start on the bench after arriving in South Africa late following their All Blacks Tests.
Betting: the Sharks have won their last four against the Blues, both home and away. Given they are only averaging 22 points scored per game I don’t expect them to blow the visitors away so I would take the Sharks 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportingbet). Because the Sharks have struggled for form of late, I recommend you pair this bet with a wager on the Blues in the head-to-head at 3.14 (Pinnacle Sports).
Sunday, 30 June
Bulls v Kings
1:05 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
The Bulls are the hottest team in the competition at the moment, with seven straight wins. They are undefeated this season on South African soil and they pummeled the Kings 34-0 in Port Elizabeth in Round 10. With the Brumbies sitting the next two rounds out (Australian sides won’t receive bye points), the Bulls will be aiming for nothing less than home advantage in the playoffs. They have been hit by numerous injury blows, however, with captain Pierre Spies ruled out for the rest of the year after tearing a bicep in the Springboks Test against Samoa. Lionel Mapoe and Arno Botha’s seasons are also over after picking up injuries against the Cheetahs and Scotland, respectively. Jano Vermaak is out this week after injuring his hamstring against Italy three weeks ago. In better news, Springbok fullback Zane Kirchner is back in the starting fifteen after a long injury lay-off. All in all, the Bulls have made eight changes to the squad that played the Cheetahs in Round 17.
The Kings continue to put in respectable performances, going down 11-19 against the Stormers in Round 17. They have exceeded expectations for most of the season, as evident by their 8-1-4 record at the line and 4-1-1 line record away from home. The Bulls, however, have a highly potent offence and I think the Kings could be in for a bashing this round. They will be without captain Luke Watson for the rest of the year after he opted to undergo an ankle operation, however I don’t think that’s a major loss as Watson has struggled with injuries and form this season.
Betting: the Bulls will be aiming for five points this weekend. Given the Kings are so strong at the line and the Bull’s injury woes I will stay clear of the Bulls in that market and instead take the Bulls 13+ at 1.40 (Sportingbet).
Stormers v Cheetahs
3:10 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
The Stormers’ finals hopes hang by a thread. Like the Hurricanes and Sharks, they must win their remaining fixtures and hope other results go their way. The Stormers have an excellent record against the men from Bloemfontein, although they did lose to them earlier this season (24-26). The Stormers have an excellent home record, driven primarily by their stingy defence, however I’m concerned by their inability to put points on the board. They will also have to be wary of a Cheetahs side that is 4-2 as the away underdog this season. The Stormers will be without captain Jean de Villiers who is being rested with an injured sternum. Juan de Jongh will start in his place with Deon Fourie taking over the captaincy.
The Cheetahs have been surprisingly competitive this season. They lost a number of players during the off-season and had been expected to go backwards. As I alluded to earlier, much of their success has come away from home, having lost only twice on the road this year. They currently sit 5th on the table and will receive a bye for the final round. If they can pick up a win here then a playoff place will be close to cemented.
Betting: the Stormers have struggled to score this season. If they do manage to win I don’t expect it to be by much. I would use the pick-your-own-line market and back the Cheetahs +7.5 at 1.65 (IASbet).