Friday, 28 February
Blues v Crusaders
5:35 PM AEDT, Eden Park, Auckland
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The Blues were a shambles as they were blown away 24-0 in the first half against the Highlanders last week. They fought back in the second spell but ultimately lost 29-21. Combining this season and last, the Blues have now lost their last seven, which is the worst active streak in the competition. They remain without Ma’a Nonu (ankle) while Francis Saili (foot) is out for possibly six weeks. All Blacks Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu return to the squad after being rested last week and will both start from the bench. In a surprising move, flyhalf Chris Noakes has been dropped to the match-day squad in favour of rookie Simon Hickey.
Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor combined for 1/8 in penalty kicks last week as the Crusaders fell 10-18 to the Chiefs in Christchurch. The result breaks a 20-month unbeaten streak at home. While they failed to achieve notable line breaks, the Crusaders actually played reasonably well, forcing the Chiefs to concede numerous penalties, which is the Crusaders’ famed way of accruing points. But with their starting kicker going 0-5 with the boot they were unrewarded for their territory and possession. The Crusaders welcome back Kieran Read, who will take over the captaincy after being rested last week. Israel Dagg has been dropped to the bench in favour of Colin Slade while Tom Taylor will start at flyhalf with Tyler Bleyendaal dropped from the match-day squad.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Blues +5.5
Conservative betting: this could go either way as neither team has started the season well. The Crusaders were undone by terrible place kicking and a solid Chiefs defence, while the Blues simply didn’t show up in the first half. With Tom Taylor taking over the kicking duties I expect the Crusaders to be too strong given the Blues defensive frailties. With that being said I feel the 1.50 head-to-head odds aren’t worth the risk. I would back the Blues +9.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: Eden Park hasn’t been the happiest of grounds for the Crusaders in recent years. Also, their backline doesn’t look nearly as strong on paper as it has been in previous seasons. If they do win I expect it to be by a small margin. I would back the Crusaders 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).
Rebels v Cheetahs
7:40 PM AEDT, AAMI Park, Melbourne
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The Rebels finally get their season underway after receiving an unwanted bye last week. They finished 12th last year and lost numerous key players during the off-season, including Gareth Delve, Nick Phipps, James O’Connor, Cooper Vuna and, Kurtley Beale, however there is cause for optimism. They have picked up some handy players, including Tamati Ellison from the Highlanders. Also, the Rebels have looked good in pre-season under new head coach Tony McGahan, beating the Waratahs, Hurricanes and Reds. After struggling defensively in previous seasons, they’ve shown a good work rate on defence and at the breakdown in pre-season, which is a promising sign.
The Cheetahs bounced back from their disappointing home loss to the Lions by beating the Bulls for the first time in franchise history. It wasn’t pretty, with the game played in wet conditions, but Johan Goosen was the star as the Cheetahs kicked their way to a 15-9 victory. They have fared well on the injury front so far this season, with coach Naka Drotske naming the same squad for the third straight week. The Cheetahs won three of their four fixtures in Oceania last season, making them the best overseas travellers out of the South African sides in 2013.
Head-to-head pick: Cheetahs
Line pick: Cheetahs -1.5
Conservative betting: like the bookmakers, I’m having a hard time separating the two sides. The Cheetahs have an undefeated record against the Rebels, however the Rebels have impressed in pre-season. The only thing that scares me from the Rebels perspective is they have no regular season games under their belts, so they may be a bit under-cooked – especially given the extensive player turnover in the off-season. Looking back at recent years, there’s a strong trend for teams to lose their opening fixture after getting a first round bye (just as the Stormers did last week). For this reason I would back the Cheetahs in the head-to-head at 1.82 (Luxbet).
Aggressive betting: the Cheetahs haven’t exactly set the world alight in their first two fixtures. If they do win I don’t expect a blow out, so I would back the Cheetahs 1-12 at
Saturday, 1 March
Stormers v Hurricanes
4:10 AM AEDT, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
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The Stormers were stunned last week by a 34-10 thumping at the hands of the Lions. They’ve struggled offensively in recent years but have a proud defensive record, however they had no answer to Marnitz Boshoff’s flurry of long-range drop goals and 7/7 record from spot kicks. The most disappointing aspect of the performance was their inability to get on the score sheet in the second half. The result goes some way towards confirming suspicions that they are weaker after the departures of Elton Jantjies, Bryan Habana and Joe Pietersen. The Stormers welcome back fullback Jaco Taute for this clash.
The Hurricanes were comprehensively beaten last week as their scrum was completely dominated by the Sharks in Durban. They defended valiantly to limit the hosts to two tries but they were hanging on for dear life at times. The Hurricanes were often their own worst enemy on attack, with numerous forward passes as they accumulated only 9 points, but they can take heart from the fact that they were able to stay in the match for most of the game, with 78th and 80th minute tries bloating the score line. This week John Schwalger replaces Jeffery Toomaga-Allen at tighthead prop while Mark Reddish replaces Mark Abbott in the second row as the Hurricanes try to shore up their scrum.
Head-to-head pick: Stormers
Line pick: Hurricanes +5.5
Conservative betting: the Stormers have only lost once at home in each of 2013 and 2012, however I am wary given their poor showing last week. I would tentatively back the Stormers in the head-to-head at 1.42 (Sportsbet) – they’re as low as 1.33 with other bookmakers.
Aggressive betting: the Hurricanes will cause problems for the Stormers as they have an excellent backline. I don’t see the Stormers blowing them away so I would back the Stormers 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).
Chiefs v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEDT, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
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While the Crusaders kicking game did themselves no favours, the Chiefs did well to pull out a gutsy win last week in Christchurch. The icing on the cake was the last minute try to deny the Crusaders a bonus point. The Crusaders enjoyed plenty of possession but the Chiefs scrambled well to starve the hosts of try scoring opportunities. It wasn’t a perfect performance by the Chiefs, with the line out going awry and their scrum coming off second best, but they’ll take the win. The victory did come at a cost, however, with several players picking up injuries.
The appointment of former Highlander Tony Brown as attacking coach has paid immediate dividends for the Highlanders as they upset the Blues 29-21 last week after shooting out to a 24-0 lead at halftime. The victory came at a cost, however, with veteran Brad Thorn not expected back for four weeks after injuring a rib in the first half. This is a major blow for a side that lost so many All Blacks during the off-season. After perhaps trying to change too much too quickly last season the Highlanders are back to being an unheralded site this year, which I think actually suits their culture. They will do their best to be a thorn in the side of New Zealand’s top teams this season.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Chiefs -7.5
Conservative betting: both sides will be buoyed by last week’s wins, although the Highlanders will be wary of the fact that they lost the second half 5-21 against the Blues. I would back the Chiefs -4.5 at 1.52 at 1.52 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: the Chiefs are still missing numerous players so they are far from being the finished product at the moment. I think the Highlanders could make this interesting. I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportingbet).
Waratahs v Reds
7:40 PM AEDT, ANZ Stadium, Sydney
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With the Templeton Cup and top spot in the Australian conference on the line this is definitely the match of the round for Australian rugby fans.
The Waratahs have got off to a solid start with an emphatic 43-21 win over the Force. Israel Folau scored a hat-trick as the Waratahs crossed the try line six times to the Force’s two. While winger Alofa Alofa was prodigious on debut as the Waratahs were rewarded for their attacking intent, it was actually a team performance that was riddled with mistakes as the midfield combination of Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale struggled to get into sync. The Waratahs have certainly fired a warning shot, however, that they could be a force to be reckoned with this season.
The Reds clung on in the second half to secure a crucial away victory over the Brumbies last week. Adding insult to injury was the late try to deny the hosts a bonus point. Their defence won the day as they withheld relentless pressure late in the second half to keep the Brumbies off the score sheet. It wasn’t a complete performance, with some unnecessary penalties conceded, but a win’s a win and – like the Waratahs – they have the opportunity this week to assert themselves as the dominant force in the Australian conference.
Head-to-head pick: Reds
Line pick: Reds +6.5
Conservative betting: the Reds have won the last five straight games against the Waratahs and the generous score line for the Waratahs last week glossed over their high error count. I would back the Reds +6.5 at 1.92 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: I feel the Reds have a chance of sneaking a win here. Their previous wins in Sydney have been by 2 and 4 points, so if they can win I don’t expect it to be by much. I would back the Reds 1-12 at 3.75 (Sportingbet).
Force v Brumbies
10:00 PM AEDT, NIB Stadium, Perth
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The Force appear to have their work cut out for them this season after they were humbled 43-21 last week as the Waratahs outscored them six tries to two. It may take further time for the team to gel after 16 players departed after last season and with a massive overseas contingent – including eight South Africans – in the current side.
The Brumbies will be looking to bounce back from a demoralising 17-27 home loss to the Reds last week. With the scores at 17-20 they dominated territory and possession for much of the second half but couldn’t add to their score sheet, only to concede a late try to deny them a bonus point. They now take on a Force team that beat them the last time they played.
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Force +6.5
Conservative betting: the Brumbies have openly talked about the desire for revenge after being upset by the Force last season. I expect them to be fully focused for this one so I would back the Brumbies in the head-to-head at 1.422 (Pinnacle Sports).
Aggressive betting: the Brumbies have never beaten the Force by more than 12 in Perth so I would back the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).
Sunday, 2 March
Bulls v Lions
2:05 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
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The Bulls came off second best in a kicking duel with the Cheetahs last week, losing 15-9 in Bloemfontein. Morne Steyn’s departure has certainly left a hole in the squad, with Louis Fouché and Handré Pollard combining for 3/6 in penalty attempts. The wet conditions didn’t help, but it was a poor performance from the Bulls, who were guilty of too many handling and in-play kicking mistakes. The side has been dealt a severe blow since the loss, with captain Pierre Spies now ruled out for the entire season after suffering a bicep injury against the Sharks. The Bulls are also without Arno Botha for the season after he injured his ACL in pre-season. Flyhalf Louis Fouché has paid the price for his performance last week by being dropped out of the 23-man squad in favour of Jacques-Louis Potgieter.
The Lions could be this year’s surprise package after they beat the Stormers 34-10 last week to go 2-0 for the season. After being the hero in round 1, Marnitz Boshoff continued to impress as he slotted three drop goals to go with this 7/7 record from six penalties and a conversion. Coach Johan Ackermann will have a welcome selection dilemma once Elton Jantjies recovers from injury. Another positive from the performance was the Lions work rate on defence, which kept the frustrated Stormers scoreless in the second half. On the injury front, vice-captain Derick Minnie is out with a fractured cheekbone while loose forward Willie Britz is available after recovering from a hip injury.
Head-to-head pick: Bulls
Line pick: Lions +7.5
Conservative betting: the Bulls come into this fixture having lost their last four straight against South African opponents. Given their struggles and the Lions ability to accrue points through the foot of Boshoff, I would back the Lions +7.5 at 1.91 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: given the Bulls form struggles and injury woes, I don’t think a Lions victory is out of the question. I would back the Lions 1-12 at 4.10 (Sportingbet).