Friday, 5 July
Crusaders v Chiefs
5:35 PM AEST, AMI Stadium (Addington), Christchurch
This is the best game of the round as both teams have only lost once in their last seven games. The Crusaders’ last defeat came against the Chiefs in Round 15 and they will be keen to avoid being swept in 2013. Both sides were missing key front row players in that clash so it will be interesting to see how they match up with both packs closer to full strength. After looking rusty in the third Test against France Dan Carter was immense last week as the Crusaders saw off the Highlanders 40-12 in Dunedin. He will be looking to make amends for a sub-par performance in his last outing against the Chiefs. Tighthead prop Owen Franks and hooker Corey Flynn have recovered from their respective injuries and return to the squad after missing out last week. The Crusaders have reverted back to their best available squad after starting a number of All Blacks on the bench against the Highlanders. With Richie McCaw due back for the playoffs the men from Canterbury are again peaking at the right time.
The Chiefs are undefeated against New Zealand sides this season however this will be their sternest test. The Waikato side will back themselves given they have won three of their last four against the Crusaders – including a 24-19 win in Christchurch last year. With Aaron Cruden outshining Dan Carter in the France Tests it will be interesting to watch the two fly-halves go head-to-head. The Chiefs have certainly been a 1-12 team this season. In their last twelve games they have won by 1-12 nine times and lost by 1-12 three times.
Betting: both the Crusaders and Chiefs are in solid form and I can see this going either way in a tight contest. The Crusaders are too short in the head-to-head market so I would back them to win by 1-12 at 2.75 (Centrebet).
Saturday, 6 July
Hurricanes v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
After enjoying a 5-1 run earlier in the year the Hurricanes have since faded badly, with just two wins in their last eight and one win in their last six. They pushed the Chiefs most of the way in a spirited performance last week but their playoff chances are now over after they lost 22-34. The Wellington side has actually been playing decent rugby in the last few weeks, however that good form coincided with a trip to the Australian conference leading Brumbies and two fixtures against the New Zealand conference leading Chiefs. With a visit to Christchurch looming next week this will be the Hurricanes’ best chance to pick up another win before the season’s end. They will have to be at their best, however, as the Highlanders have won their last two visits to Wellington.
The Highlanders fought valiantly but were eventually outclassed as the Crusaders ran out 40-12 victors in Dunedin last week. Combined with Ma’a Nonu’s three-week suspension for a dangerous tackle, any fond memories of their upset win over the Blues in Round 16 will have quickly faded. The Highlanders are now 2-12 for the season which is really unacceptable given the calibre of players in their squad. The best they can hope for now is to pick up more wins to avoid the franchise’s worst season in Super Rugby history.
Betting: both teams have lost four of their last five, however the Hurricanes have been a much better team than the Highlanders this season. I would back the Hurricanes to win by 1-12 at 2.65 (Centrebet).
Cheetahs v Blues
11:00 PM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
The Cheetahs have a bye next week so this is their final game of the regular season. Their playoff chances remain strong however they would have to rely on other results going their way if they don’t win this week. The side that is best placed to deny them a playoff spot is actually the Blues, so the timing of this fixture from a neutral’s perspective is excellent. The pressure of making the playoffs for the first time may be hampering the Cheetahs efforts, with South African media suggesting the pressure is curtailing the Cheetahs’ enterprising style of play. They were competitive in their 25-30 loss to the Bulls in Round 17 but were comprehensively beaten 28-3 by the Stormers last week in what was their worst performance of the season. The Blues terminated the Brumbies’ playoff chances last year and the Cheetahs will be wary of being their next victim.
With the Cheetahs picking up four points for a bye next week the Blues know that their season will be over if they don’t win on Saturday. They have been dealt a hammer blow leading into this game, with scrum-half Piri Weepu and fly-half Chris Noakes ruled out with injury. Their season seems to be falling to pieces as they have now lost their last four games, including an inexplicable loss to the Highlanders. They made a second half comeback last week and fell just short against the Sharks, however the Cheetahs will be a step up from the injury-ravaged Durban side.
Betting: historically this fixture has always been won by the home team and I anticipate that trend will continue. The last two games between the two have been relatively tight so I would back the Cheetahs 1-12 at 2.70 (Centrebet). Keep an eye on the over/under market as historically this fixture has been a high scoring affair. In their three meetings to date the totals have been 58 (in 2009), 68 (in 2010) and 51 (in 2011).
Sunday, 7 July
Kings v Stormers
1:05 AM AEST, Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
The Kings are now 0-9 against South African opposition after being thumped 48-18 by the Bulls last week. They were completely outclassed in the first half but enjoyed decent periods of possession in the second spell. This will be their final home game of the season but their hopes of going out on a high are remote as the Stormers come to Port Elizabeth in need of the maximum five points. The Kings have no new injury concerns and have named an unchanged line-up for this week.
Four weeks ago the Stormers knew they needed to win their last five fixtures to have any hopes of making the playoffs. They have since won three straight. Their defence continues to suffocate the opposition as they kept the Cheetahs to just 3 points last week. With the side finishing strongly other teams will be hoping their last-ditch efforts to make the playoffs fall short.
Betting: the Stormers are 7-7 at the line this season but only 2-5 at the line on the road and 0-3 at the line as the road favourite. I would add the Stormers in the head-to-head to your multis and consider taking the Kings +18.5 at 1.93 (Pinnacle Sports).
Bulls v Sharks
3:10 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
The Bulls’ rampage continues as their 48-18 win over the Kings extends their unbeaten streak to eight games. The win underlined their squad depth after they lost four Springboks to injury during the international Tests. With the Chiefs playing the in-form Crusaders this round the Bulls know a win here could propel them to the top of the leaderboard with a round to play. The Bulls are 8-0 straight up and 5-2 at the line at home this season, however you have to wonder whether their injury toll will come back haunt them in the playoffs. The latest casualty is fly-half Louis Fouche, who ruptured his ACL against the Kings last week. Given the Sharks have even worse injury concerns, however, I anticipate the home side will be too strong this week.
Like the Stormers, the Sharks’ playoff hopes hang by a thread, however the Sharks face a much tougher task to pick up points. They survived a second half comeback from the Blues to win 22-20 last week, however they have only won two of their last eight games with an atrocious run of injuries the main cause for their struggles. Patrick Lambie will be hoping for a better night with the boot as his misses last week almost cost them the game.
Betting: in recent years the Bulls haven’t blown the Sharks away when they’ve won so I would take the Bulls 1-12 at 2.70 (Centrebet).