Friday, 7 March
Hurricanes v Brumbies
5:35 PM AEDT, Venue TBC
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The Hurricanes will be lamenting what could have been after a 77th minute Stormers try derailed their chance of a first win since May last year. The Wellington side led for most of the game but have now lost seven on the trot. They can take positives from the fact that it was an improved performance from last week, however they may struggle on Friday against a side that has dominated them in recent years. The Hurricanes lack a bit of punch at the moment with Brad Shields and Victor Vito still out, although they do have Ardie Savea as an option on the bench.
The Brumbies bounced back from a disappointing first up loss by beating the Force convincingly in Perth last week. Their defence was immense, as highlighted by the fact that the Force didn’t register a line break until the 62nd minute. There will be concerns, however, over the Brumbies’ inability to kick on for a bonus point after three early tries. The Brumbies have welcomed the news that Pat McCabe’s neck injury turned out to be minor, however they have been dealt a massive blow with David Pocock ruled out for the season with a re-ruptured ACL.
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Brumbies +2.5
Conservative betting: this one’s tough to pick, but I’ll take the Brumbies given they’ve won the last three against the Hurricanes. Also, the home side are on a seven-game losing streak spanning this season and last. The long distance the Hurricanes have had to travel after two weeks in South Africa doesn’t help their cause. I would back the Brumbies +5.5 at 1.62 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: while they’ve dominated recent head-to-heads, the Brumbies have never blown the Hurricanes away in recent years. I would back the Brumbies 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Reds v Cheetahs
7:40 PM AEDT, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
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After picking up a promising away win over the Brumbies in their opening game, the Reds were hammered 32-5 by the Waratahs in Sydney last week. There were really no positives for the Reds to take out of the game, which they’ll try to put behind them as they prepare for the Cheetahs. Coach Richard Graham has made five changes for this clash. Winger Rod Davies returns from a knee construction to replace the injured Lachie Turner. Mike Harris replaces Anthony Fainga at inside-centre after Harris missed last week with ankle soreness. He will join Chris Feauai-Sautia in the centres, with Ben Tapuai dropping to the bench. In the forwards, Saia Fainga’a and James Slipper suffered corks last week and will start from the bench with James Hanson and Ben Daley getting the starts.
Like the Reds, the Cheetahs are also licking their wounds after being comprehensively beaten 35-14 by the Rebels. They fought back to 14-24 after trailing 0-17 at the break but the Rebels pulled away in the final ten minutes. The Cheetahs looked lethargic and were comprehensively beaten at the breakdown in that game, conceding 25 turnovers in total. Coach Naka Drotske has targeted more respect for the ball when in possession and discipline as their main targets for improvement this week.
Head-to-head pick: Reds
Line pick: Cheetahs +9.5
Conservative betting: while they have a strong home win/loss record, the Reds are only 2-4 at the line at home in the last 12 months while the Cheetahs are 6-1 at the line as the road underdog. I would back the Cheetahs +12.5 at 1.63 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: in the last two years the Cheetahs have struggled in their opening overseas fixture only to bounce back with a win. I think they’ll be competitive, but I don’t see them getting past a Reds side with such a strong home record. I would back the Reds 1-12 at 2.74 (Palmerbet).
Saturday, 8 March
Crusaders v Stormers
5:35 PM AEDT, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
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It’s only round 4, but the Crusaders will be under heavy pressure to get the win here. They have yet to pick up a point this season and their reputation for being hard to play in Christchurch will be on shaky ground if they were to lose back to back home games. While it’s not unusual for the Crusaders to start the season slowly, they’re looking notably short on firepower this season, with a back line that appears to lack game breakers. They enjoyed plenty of possession last week against the Blues but weren’t able to achieve enough with it. Another worrying sign is their vulnerability to the counter attack, with the both the Chiefs and Blues hurting them against the run of play. The Crusaders’ tackling in general this season leaves a lot to be desired. Their cause hasn’t been helped by the loss of Richie McCaw for eight weeks with a broken thumb, although he looked a yard off the pace in open play last week.
The Stormers picked up their first win of the season with an unconvincing 19-18 win over the Hurricanes at Newlands Stadium. The Stormers trailed for most the game and were outscored by two tries to one, however they can take positives from their composure late in the game to pick up the win. The Stormers will be without forwards Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi and Manuel Carizza, but they do get back fit-again De Kock Steenkamp and Schalk Burger. The Stormers also welcome back fly-half Peter Grant, who will start from the bench.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Stormers +11.5
Conservative betting: this is an interesting fixture because neither side has looked convincing this season. I think it will be tight, but I tip the Crusaders because they will be the more desperate side plus they have dominated the Stormers in recent years. The head-to-head odds of 1.20 are too low, however, so I would back the Stormers +15.5 at 1.55 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Crusaders back line appears to lack individual game winners at the moment, so I don’t see them blowing the Stormers away. I would back the Crusaders 1-12 at 2.76 (Palmerbet).
Force v Rebels
7:40 PM AEDT, NIB Stadium, Perth
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The Force continue to struggle this season after they were comfortably beaten by the Brumbies last week. They failed to register a line break until the 62nd minute and a point until the 78th minute, with two late tries adding some respectability to the 14-27 score line. While the Force were much more competitive in the second half – conceding only 3 points – their offensive forays repeatedly came undone by handling errors. This is nothing new for the side that was ranked dead last for points scored in 2013.
The Rebels have backed up their promising pre-season form with a bonus point victory over the Cheetahs. While they did lose plenty of playmakers in the off-season, the team looks rejuvenated under new head coach Tony McGahan. They have shown an excellent work rate on defence and at the breakdown, which bodes well for the season.
Head-to-head pick: Rebels
Line pick: Rebels -3.5
Conservative betting: the Rebels have won the last four straight against the Force and their comparative forms indicates the visitors are a good chance of making it five from five. I would back the Rebels in the head-to-head at 1.62 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: previous Force v Rebels fixtures have all been settled by 7 points or less. I would back the Rebels 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).
Sunday, 9 March
Bulls v Blues
2:05 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
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The Bulls’ 25-17 win over the Lions was their first victory of the season after losses to the Sharks and Cheetahs. The Bulls were rewarded for starting Jacques-Louis Potgieter at fly-half as he went 6/8 from penalties and conversions to go with a successful drop goal. His inclusion has also added another attacking dimension to the side. The Bulls will be hoping he can be the man to replace the departed Morné Steyn as the side rebuilds after losing over half of their starters from last season.
After a slow start that saw them down 3-17, the Blues clicked into gear to score four tries in the space of 14 minutes to comfortably beat the Crusaders 35-24 at Eden Park. The win snapped a seven-game losing streak spanning this year and last. The damage was done by the Blues back line, with the wingers Frank Halai and Tevita Li and centres George Moala and Jackson Willison crossing the try line. Rookie fly-half Simon Hickey impressed on debut as he went 6/7 with the boot. The Blues are still a work in progress, however, as they came off second best in the set-pieces. They were guilty of kicking possession away too often the last time they played the Bulls and captain Luke Braid has said they will take a different approach this time. Talk across the Tasman is that the Blues will win both this game and their next against the Lions, so there’s plenty of confidence within the side.
Head-to-head pick: Bulls
Line pick: Blues +4.5
Conservative betting: the Blues should be in with a chance here, as their back line features numerous game breakers and they won their most recent trip to Pretoria. Their set-piece isn’t convincing, however, which doesn’t bode well against South African sides. I would back the Bulls in the head-to-head at 1.645 (Pinnacle Sports).
Aggressive betting: the Blues should put on a good show, but with the Bulls finding better form with Jacques-Louis Potgieter at fly-half I would back the Bulls 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportingbet).
Sharks v Lions
4:10 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
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The Sharks had a bye last week after picking up convincing wins over the Bulls and Hurricanes. They completely dominated the Hurricanes in the set-pieces and were strong defensively, however their finishing let them down at times, which could have cost them against stronger sides.
The Lions picked up their first loss of the season when they fell 17-25 to the Bulls in Pretoria last week. They didn’t adapt as well to the wet conditions and were tactically outsmarted by the Bulls. Both of the Lions’ tries came against the run of play from charged down kicks, with Marnitz Boshoff unable to impose himself on the game as he did in Rounds 1 and 2. The Lions now face a daunting task against a Springboks-laden Sharks team that has looked impressive under new coach Jake White.
Head-to-head pick: Sharks
Line pick: Sharks -13.5
Conservative betting: this Sharks squad is flush with Springboks so they should be too strong for the Lions. Francois Steyn has talked about “putting in a big one” against the Lions to assert themselves as the dominant force in South Africa. I think they’ll win and win comfortably. The line looks to be spot on and there’s little value in the head-to-head market, so I would back the Sharks -9.5 at 1.51 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: I expect a winning margin somewhere between 10 and 20, so I would back the Sharks 11-20 at 3.75 (Sportsbet) .