Friday, 14 March
Chiefs v Stormers
5:35 PM AEDT, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
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The Chiefs have done well to get through the first few rounds undefeated because they have been carrying numerous injuries. They were starved of possession against the Highlanders two weeks ago yet they outscored the visitors three tries to one, which highlights the Chiefs’ potency when they do have the ball. The come from behind victory also showed the Chiefs still have that ability to close out those tight games that can go either way. There’s still room for improvement, however, namely their line outs and ball retention. The Chiefs welcome back Brodie Retallick and Gareth Anscombe for this fixture, while Augustine Pulu and Sam Cane remain out.
The Stormers’ tour of hell (Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies & Reds) continues with a tough fixture against a fresh Chiefs side that is coming off a bye. After a come-from-behind victory over the Hurricanes in Round 3, the Stormers led 13-3 with just over ten minutes to go against the Crusaders but fell 13-14 as the hosts rallied late. It was definitely a case of the one that got away, but the Stormers can take positives from the team’s strong character and the impressive performance of Schalk Burger on his return from injury. The physical encounter against the Crusaders came at a cost, with the Stormers making three injury enforced changes in the forwards for this clash.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Stormers +8.5
Conservative betting: given their 9-1 home record over the last 12 months and the Stormers’ 2-6 away record, all indications are the Chiefs will win this, however the line betting tells a different story. The Chiefs are 2-6 at the line as the home favourite over the last year while the Stormers are 3-1 at the line as the road underdog. The Chiefs will play the game at too high a tempo for the visitors to keep up, but the Stormers’ strong defence will prevent this game from being a blowout. I would back the Stormers +12.5 at 1.52 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Chiefs should be too strong but the Stormers rarely suffer double-digit losses. I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.70 (Palmerbet).
Rebels v Crusaders
7:40 PM AEDT, AAMI Park, Melbourne
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After an impressive 35-14 win over the Cheetahs in their first match, the Rebels may have gotten ahead of themselves. New head coach Tony McGahan made six changes for the sake of rotation against the Force and paid the price, with his side going down 32-7 after trailing 32-0 by the 27 minute mark. The Rebels’ only points of the game came as the final hooter sounded. McGahan has expressed his desire to utilise his full squad, but that heavy defeat may force a rethink. With the Rebels having dominated the Force in recent seasons it was also a case of under-estimating their opposition. If the Rebels can re-find their pre-season form they should give the struggling Crusaders a real fight, but they’re going to have to put last week’s disaster behind them very quickly. Interestingly, the Rebels have reverted back to the starting XV that beat the Cheetahs in Round 3. They welcome back Tom English after he sat out last week with a virus.
The Crusaders picked up their first win of the season with a come-from-behind victory over the Stormers, but having scored just 3 points in the first half and 14 points by full-time, questions still remain over the potency of the Crusaders attack. As backs coach Aaron Mauger has pointed out, there’s plenty of desire and heart in the squad, but they lack a physical presence in the midfield. The decision to let Robbie Fruean go to the Chiefs appears to have hurt them. In an attempt to reignite the back line, Colin Slade will start at fly-half with Tom Taylor shifting to inside centre, Ryan Crotty to outside centre and Israel Dagg starting at fullback. New recruit Nemani Nadolo has been added to the bench with Rey Lee-Lo dropping out of the squad.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Rebels +6.5
Conservative betting: this fixture could genuinely go either way, but the Crusaders are vastly more experienced, so I envisage them nicking a win. With that being said the Rebels are 4-0 at the line as the home underdog over the last 12 months while the Crusaders are 1-4 at the line as the road favourite. I would back the Rebels +10.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Rebels received a major reality check with last week’s loss. Prior to last week they had shown a great work rate on defence and at the breakdown. If they can rediscover that form they should give the Crusaders a real fight. As a value bet I would back the Rebels in the head-to-head at 3.05 (Pinnacle Sports).
Saturday, 15 March
Hurricanes v Cheetahs
2:35 PM AEDT, Venue TBC
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Coach Mark Hammett is under immense pressure in Wellington after a listless Hurricanes performance against the Brumbies saw them fall to their 8th consecutive defeat. Their three defeats so far this season have been to quality sides, but the ice beneath Hammett’s feet will start to crack should they lose to the Cheetahs. While the Hurricanes were only able to put together five or more phases on four occasions last week, those four occasions resulted in three penalties and a try. If the Hurricanes can remove basic errors from their game then they certainly have the firepower to turn their fortunes around. They welcome back Faifili Levave and Hadleigh Parkes for this fixture, however Cory Jane is out with a broken nose.
While they scored 33 points in a hectic game last week, the Cheetahs defence has been abysmal over the last two weeks as they have conceded 78 points in two games. Their defensive structure has been found wanting and they have missed numerous tackles, which is a far cry from their defensive effort against the Bulls three week ago. They now take on another side that loves to throw the ball around so this has the makings of a high scoring game. The last three fixtures between the two sides have averaged 85 total points.
Head-to-head pick: Hurricanes
Line pick: Cheetahs +6.5
Conservative betting: Westpac Stadium certainly isn’t a fortress for the Hurricanes, where they have gone 1-6 at the line over the last 12 months. With the Cheetahs holding a respectable 4-2 line record as the road underdog, I would back the Cheetahs +11.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet). The total score market hadn’t been released at the time of writing, but conditions permitting we could see something around the 60 mark.
Aggressive betting: while the most recent fixtures between the two sides have been high scoring affairs, they haven’t featured blow outs. I would back the Hurricanes 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportingbet).
Highlanders v Force
5:35 PM AEDT, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
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The Highlanders have been impressive this season, beating the Blues in Dunedin before falling 19-21 in Hamilton to the Chiefs. Lima Sopoaga has impressed in the absence of Colin Slade and their back line has looked threatening. It appears for now that the Highlanders have put the nightmares of 2013 behind them. On paper they’re much weaker than last season, but they appear to be more at ease when there are lower expectations.
The Force have rebounded from their poor showings against the Waratahs and Reds by thrashing a sleepy Rebels outfit 32-7. The damage was done in the opening 27 minutes, with the Force racing out to a 32-0 lead. They will be disappointed by their inability to add to the score sheet in the second half, but they already had the bonus point victory in the bag and they can be proud of a much improved defensive performance, with no points conceded until the 80th minute.
Head-to-head pick: Highlanders
Line pick: Force +8.5
Conservative betting: the Highlanders appear to be well a balanced team this year, however they will be wary of a Force side that they have a five-game losing streak against. The Highlanders should win, but given their historical struggles against the Force and the visitors’ 4-2 road line record over the last 12 months, I would back the Force +13.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Force caught the Rebels napping last week but weren’t able to score any points past the 27th minute. They should be competitive, but I would back the Highlanders 1-12 at 2.70 (Palmerbet).
Brumbies v Waratahs
7:40 PM AEDT, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
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The Brumbies played with good patience and composure to pick up a bonus point win over the Hurricanes in Wellington last week. They’re having to make do without David Pocock (again) but they will be relieved to have Pat McCabe match fit. He was a late addition to the starting XV last week and had a big impact in midfield. The Brumbies have avoided further injuries after last week and have named an unchanged starting line-up for this clash. Christian Lealiifano is aiming to return in Round 7.
Having thrashed the Force 43-21 and the Reds 32-5, the Waratahs now have the opportunity to cement themselves as the top dog in the Australian conference. They will be hoping that last week’s bye doesn’t impact their momentum as they have been let down by inconsistency in recent years. It was a record-breaking win over the Reds two weeks ago. They completely dominated the Queensland side and took good advantage of their opportunities. They will be especially pleased by their defensive efforts that limited the visitors to one try and a solitary penalty attempt. The caveat to their good form this season, however, is they have yet to hit the road. The Waratahs were 6-2 at home in 2013 but only 2-6 away from Allianz Stadium. They will have to lift their away form this season if they are to be title contenders. With a visit to Canberra looming, we will learn a lot about their title credentials this weekend. The only change to the starting XV from the Reds clash sees captain Dave Dennis return from a knee injury.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Waratahs +1.0
Conservative betting: the Brumbies are a well-drilled outfit, but the Waratahs back line should have too much firepower for them. I would back the Waratahs +4.5 at 1.55 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: both Waratahs victories so far this season have been by over 13 points, but their away form in recent years has been poor. I don’t expect the Brumbies to get blown away in Canberra, so I would back the Waratahs 1-12 at 2.87 (bet365).
Sunday, 16 March
Lions v Blues
0:00 AM AEDT, Ellis Park, Johannesburg
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The Lions put in the brave performance against the Sharks last week but didn’t have the quality to match them. Most of the damage was done in the first half, with the Lions resurgence only starting after the Sharks were 30-9 up and had made early substitutions. The Lions have now lost their last two games but they were both tough fixtures on the road. A return to Ellis Park should buoy them as they previously put in their best performance of the season (beating the Stormers 34-10) in their only other home game this season. The Lions will be pleased to have Elton Jantjies back in the mix. Jantjies’ return saw Marnitz Boshoff shifted from fly-half to fullback last week, with the arrangement working well. Boshoff rewarded the Lions’ decision to continue with him as the place kicker by putting in a 5/5 record with the boot.
The Blues headed to South Africa full of confidence after beating the Crusaders in Auckland, but they were brought back down to Earth with a 22-38 loss to the Bulls. The Blues weren’t able to showcase their flair last week, instead opting for a more direct approach. They gave away too many penalties and were the victims of an imperious performance by Bulls fly-half Jacques-Louis Potgieter. The loss extends their miserable away record to 0-9 over the last 12 months. The Blues have had to fly in development hooker Gafatasi Su’a after Keven Mealamu returned to New Zealand with a calf injury. Rugby league fans should note that Benji Marshall will get his first start of his Super Rugby career at fullback.
Head-to-head pick: Lions
Line pick: Lions +4.5
Conservative betting: I understand why bookmakers have installed the Blues as the favourites, however I couldn’t possibly back them given their atrocious away record. I would back the Lions +8.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet). As a small side bet, the Blues have started every game slowly this season, so you may want to look at the Lions to score first at 2.02 (Luxbet).
Aggressive betting: the score line against the Bulls last week was a tad harsh, with a contentious try awarded to the hosts at the end. The Blues should be much more competitive against the Lions, but I fancy they will fall victim to the kicking prowess of Marnitz Boshoff. I would back the Lions 1-12 at 3.45 (Palmerbet).
Sharks v Reds
2:05 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
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The Sharks’ impressive season continued with a 37-23 win over the Lions. Their depth at fly-half was highlighted last week. Frans Steyn went 7/7 with the boot in the absence of Patrick Lambie, which included two penalties from over 50 metres. The score line slightly flattered the visitors as the Sharks made early second half substitutions with a 30-9 lead. They will be keen to pick up another win this weekend ahead of their first away fixture of the season, which is a tough trip to Pretoria against a fast improving Bulls. JP Pietersen is available for selection after joining the squad from Japan and Patrick Lambie is fit again after being ill last week. Winger Odwa Ndungane is away on compassionate leave while Paul Jordaan is out for a month with a knee injury.
It was an erratic performance, particularly from Quade Cooper, but the Reds rebounded from their heavy defeat to the Waratahs by beating the Cheetahs 43-33 at Suncorp Stadium. The Reds lost all four of their away fixtures in South Africa over the last two years and they now face the toughest test possible. They haven’t won in Durban since 2004 and this is the strongest the Sharks have been in years. Lachie Turner returns from injury for this clash while James Slipper and Saia Fainga’a have been brought back in after starting from the bench last week.
Head-to-head pick: Sharks
Line pick: Sharks -8.5
Conservative betting: Sharks coach Jake White spent two seasons with the Brumbies so he knows the Australian sides well. The Sharks should be too strong at home so I would back the Sharks -4.5 at at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: three of the last four Reds away losses have been by 13 points or more, while the Sharks have won their last four straight at home by 13 points or more. I would back the Sharks 13+ at 2.37 (bet365).