Friday, 21 March
Highlanders v Hurricanes
5:35 PM AEDT, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
View a detailed form guide for Highlanders v Hurricanes
The Highlanders will be dismayed by their 29-31 home loss to the Force, which was their 6th consecutive loss to the Perth side. An 80th minute try gave Hayden Parker the opportunity to tie the game but his conversion hit the posts. The Highlanders were their own worst enemy at times, putting in clumsy errors at crucial moments. Despite having not won since Round 2 their season is very much still alive, however, as they have they have picked up a bonus point in every game. Lock Brad Thorn and winger Patrick Osbourne return for this match.
By hammering the Cheetahs 60-27 last week, the Hurricanes have at long last snapped their losing streak which dated back to May last year. The result will take some heat off coach Mark Hammett, however questions still remain over their defence, which has been awfully soft at times. On the bright side, the Hurricanes received a number of players back last week and this sparked their offence as they ran in nine tries in total. They sit at the foot of the New Zealand conference but have an excellent opportunity to leapfrog the Highlanders and Crusaders this weekend. The Hurricanes won’t be at full strength for this fixture, with James Marshall and Cory Jane out injured and Jeremy Thrush unavailable due to a personal commitment.
Head-to-head pick: Hurricanes
Line pick: Hurricanes +2.0
Conservative betting: the last eight fixtures between these two sides were won by 7 points or less. I would back both the Highlanders 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet) and the Hurricanes 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: I give the edge to the Hurricanes because they will have their tails up after hammering the Cheetahs. Having said that the Highlanders don’t often get beaten heavily. Strangely enough, seven of the last eight games between these two have been won by the away team. I would back the Hurricanes 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Waratahs v Rebels
7:40 PM AEDT, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
View a detailed form guide for Waratahs v Rebels
Last week the Waratahs fell victim to a superior forward pack and a well-executed plan by the Brumbies to deny their mid-fielders time in possession by rushing up on defence. Israel Folau was kept out of the game for the most part, although he did enjoy a typical barnstorming run in the second half to set up his 6th try in three games. I mentioned last week that the Waratahs were 6-2 at home last season but only 2-6 on the road. It was always going to be a tough trip to Canberra, but they need to replicate their home form on the road if they are to secure top seed in the Australian conference. Waratahs assistant coach Nathan Grey was the assistant coach with the Rebels from 2011-13, so he will no doubt be imparting his intimate knowledge of the Rebels players to the Waratahs. His insight will be constrained to some extent, however by the higher player turnover and change of head coach since 2013. The Waratahs also have former Rebels Nick Phipps and Kurtley Beale in the dressing room, with Beale in particular having a point to prove against his former club. Coach Michael Cheika was frustrated by referee Jaco Peyper’s handling of the scrums last week. Peyper will referee this match as well, but Cheika says he has had a productive talk with him since the loss.
The Rebels fell 19-25 at home to the Crusaders last week in dour affair, marred by mistakes, penalties and scrum resets. The Crusaders have been poor this season so the Rebels will view the result as a lost opportunity. After starting the season so promisingly against the Cheetahs the Rebels now face the prospect of a third consecutive defeat when they take on the Waratahs, who have won five out of six against them. The Rebels will likely use the Brumbies performance last week as a template for how to constrain the dangerous Waratahs backline. The Rebels defeated the Waratahs in pre-season after beating them at the breakdown, so they will feel capable of causing an upset on Friday. With Jason Woodward and Laurie Weeks out injured, Angus Roberts and Paul Alo-Emile will start at fullback and tighthead prop, respectively.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Rebels +13.5
Conservative betting: the odds look to be spot on for this clash, so instead of a match result wager, I would back Israel Folau to score a try at 1.70 (Sportingbet). Folou has averaged two tries per game in 2014. He has also scored the first try in two of this three games so you may want to consider a small wager on Folou in the first try scorer market as well at 7.00 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the Rebels have failed to fire since their opening game and they now take on a Waratahs side that has been particularly strong at home. I would back the Waratahs 6-10 at 4.75 (bet365) and 11-15 at 4.50 (bet365).
Saturday, 22 March
Blues v Cheetahs
5:35 PM AEDT, Eden Park, Auckland
View a detailed form guide for Blues v Cheetahs
The Blues’ shocking away form continued with a 39-36 loss to the Lions. By my count they’ve now lost ten away games in a row. The Blues actually outscored the Lions five tries to three, but poor discipline enabled the Lions to keep their score ticking over through the boot of Marnitz Boshoff. The Blues continue to struggle with slow starts. Last week I recommended a wager on the Lions to score first and they duly did, leading the Blues 17-0 at the break. The Blues finally did click into gear in the second half, but they were down by 23 points by that point and left themselves too much to do. Time will tell whether this will be another year of frustration for Blues fans. They have plenty of playmakers, they just need to sort out their discipline. The Blues have received a boost for this clash, with Ma’a Nonu, Jerome Kaino and Hayden Triggs added to the bench, however Patrick Tuipulotu is out for two weeks. Simon Hickey and Jackson Willison get the start at fly-half and inside-centre, respectively, with Chris Noakes and Pita Ahki dropping out of the squad. Peter Saili returns from injury to take the No. 8 jersey.
The Cheetahs have clearly left their defence in South Africa after they conceded 60 points in their 60-27 hammering at the hands of the Hurricanes. They’ve now conceded 46 points on average in their three overseas games. The Cheetahs missed too many tackles and conceded far too many turnovers last week to give themselves any chance. Fullback Willie le Roux was brilliant, but the Cheetahs lacked sufficient attacking flair from other players, something that was particularly evident when le Roux was yellow-carded. The Cheetahs have received a blow in the lead up to the game with vice-captain and centre Francois Venter returning to South Africa with a shoulder injury.
Head-to-head pick: Blues
Line pick: Blues -9.5
Conservative betting: everything about this fixture suggests it will be a high scoring affair. I would back over 54.5 in the total score market at 1.91 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: the Cheetahs’ defensive performances have deteriorated each week, conceding 35 points against the Rebels, 43 against the Reds and then 60 against the Hurricanes. The Blues have attacking talent all over the park and should have a field day against such a feeble defence. I would back the Blues 13+ at 2.20 (Sportingbet).
Brumbies v Stormers
7:40 PM AEDT, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
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The Brumbies put in arguably their best performance of the season to defeat the high flying Waratahs 28-23 to move to the top of the Australian conference. Their dominant forward pack and physicality on defence won the game as they showed fantastic line speed to deny Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley time on the ball. Matt Toomua and Pat McCabe in particular were excellent in that department, while Michael Hooper hounded his former club at the breakdown. The victory came at a cost, however, with with prop Scott Sio, lock Leon Power and winger Henry Speight ruled out for up to six weeks. In addition, outside centre Tevita Kuridrani will miss the match to attend a funeral. Fellow winger Joseph Tomane has recovered from a foot injury to make a timely return to the squad.
Despite a second half come back the Stormers conceded two late tries to fall 36-20 in Hamilton. It was another spirited performance but they were let down by a few too many errors and a slow start. The now head to Australia with a high injury count. Locks De Kock Steenkamp and Rynhardt Elstadt, hooker Scarra Ntubeni and prop Pat Cilliers have all flown home with various injuries while Eben Etzebeth, Manuel Carizza and Cheslin Kolbe are already sidelined with long-term injuries. In addition, Jaco Taute will sit out this week with a shoulder niggle. There is some positive news, however, with Frans Malherbe, Michael Rhodes and Juan de Jongh returning from injury. Peter Grant will pull the strings at fly-half this week with Demetri Catrakilis dropping to the bench.
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Brumbies -6.5
Conservative betting: while they have enjoyed an extra day’s rest after last Friday’s loss, the bruising tour will likely start to take its toll on the Stormers. Meanwhile the Brumbies have rebounded well from their opening round loss. There isn’t too much value in the head-to-head market however, so I would back the Brumbies -2.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Stormers are a strong defensive unit that rarely suffers big defeats. Last week they were only 4 points down in the final minutes against the Chiefs before conceding two late tries. I would back the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet).
Force v Chiefs
10:00 PM AEDT, NIB Stadium, Perth
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After two humbling defeats, the Force have now beaten the Rebels and Highlanders to get their season very much back on track. It wasn’t always pretty against the Highlanders, with the Force having to scramble to defend their lead, however they will be pleased by their ability to convert possession and territory into points regularly. Sias Ebersohn had a stand out performance at fly-half and No. 8 Ben McCalman is continuing to have an excellent season. They now return to Perth where they can enjoy the role of the underdog against the two-time defending champions. The Force have received a major blow for this clash, however, with Ben McCalman suspended for two weeks for a dangerous tackle. Fortunately they have a bye next week so McCalman will only miss one game.
The Chiefs along with the Sharks remain the only two undefeated teams in the competition. As I wrote last week, they’ve done well to avoid defeat given the high injury count. Their offensive structure appears to be kicking into higher gears as the competition progresses. Last week they showed willingness to spread the ball wide to both wings and they made good inroads through the middle of the park. The Chiefs also effectively used their kicking game to get in behind the Stormers defensive live. The victory came at a high price, however, with Charlie Ngatai and James Lowe both ruled out for 4-6 weeks with calf and knee injuries, respectively. More of a concern is Robbie Fruean, who was taken off the field last week with heart flutters. He is listed as returning in 4-8 weeks, however Fruean has previously undergone two heart surgeries so his career could be in doubt. These injuries are in addition to Robbie Robinson (likely out for the season), Bundee Aki, Ross Filipo and Hika Elliot. On the positive front, Ben Afeaki, Sam Cane and Augustine Pulu are off the injured list.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Force +9.5
Conservative betting: the Chiefs are far from being full strength but they do enjoy a fantastic squad depth. They should be too strong, however the Force will give them a good fight. In 2013 the Chiefs only just pipped the Force 22-21 in Hamilton and the Force won both home games against Kiwi sides last year (Crusaders & Highlanders). I would back the Force +14.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Chiefs should be too strong but the Force are a fast improving side. I would back the visitors in a close one. I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportsbet).
Sunday, 23 March
Lions v Reds
2:05 AM AEDT, Ellis Park, Johannesburg
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The Lions continue to exceed expectations after spending a year out of Super Rugby. Their 39-36 win over the Blues takes them to 3-2 for the season with a 2-0 home record. They were outscored five tries to three last week but through the boot of Marnitz Boshoff the Lions are highly efficient at accruing points in groups of three. Boshoff continues to be a revelation this season. He put in a 9/10 performance with the boot last week, which included to successful drop goals. On the injury front, Andries Coetzee, Alwyn Hollenbach, Lionel Mapoe and Michael Bondesio have returned to the squad, while hooker Robbie Coetzee is out with a knee injury.
The Reds were competitive against the Sharks last week but blew three clear try scoring opportunities to fall 35-20. In the end they were no match for the Sharks at the breakdown and the Reds couldn’t keep up with the Patrick Lambie / Francois Steyn goal kicking machine. Winning in Durban is arguably the toughest assignment in Super Rugby at the moment, however, and the Reds know that this weekend will provide a good opportunity to break their five-game losing streak in South Africa. One stat that the Reds have the dubious honour of topping is the number of penalties conceded. They’re averaging 14.5 penalties per game, most of which are conceded at the breakdown. With Lions sharpshooter Marnitz Boshoff doing the kicking, the Reds must improve their discipline if they are to get a result this weekend. On the injury front, prop Ben Daley and centre Chris Feauai-Sautia have returned to Brisbane with knee and hamstring injuries, respectively.
Head-to-head pick: Lions
Line pick: Lions +3.5
Conservative betting: the Reds have won their last two visits to Johannesburg, however they will need to put in a strong performance if they are to overhaul the Lions and their goal kicking machine, Marnitz Boshoff. I would back the Lions +7.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: this should be really close. I would back the Lions 1-12 at 3.35 (Sportingbet).
Bulls v Sharks
4:10 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
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The final game of the Round is also the best, with the fast-improving Bulls taking on the undefeated Sharks. The Bulls’ turnaround in form has a lot to do with the selection of Jacques-Louis Potgieter to fly-half. He added another attacking dimension to the side against the Lions and he was immense against the Blues, contributing 21 points with a try, two conversions, three penalties and a drop goal. Potgieter’s play has enabled the Bulls to play a more expansive game than we’re used to, with Potgieter apparently given licence to improvise. The bye has been timely for the Bulls, with Jono Ross, Jurgen Visser, Grant Hattingh and Jan Serfontein all overcoming niggles to be available for selection. The squad has been further bolstered by the acquisition of former Bulls captain Dewald Potgieter after he received a release clearance from his club in Japan. Potgieter will start this week at No.8. One other change sees Sampie Mastriet get his first start of the season on the wing with Akona Ndungane away on compassionate leave. Update: captain Flip van der Merwe has been ruled out with injury. He has been replaced by Paul Willemse with Victor Matfield taking over the captaincy.
The Sharks hold a six point lead at the top of the South African conference, however they have yet to play away from home. They put in another strong performance last week against the Reds, dominating the breakdown and accruing steady points through the unerring boots of Patrick Lambie and Francois Steyn. This is only Round 6, but these two sides have already played this year, with the Sharks winning 31-16 in Durban. The Bulls are vastly improved since then, however, which makes this a fascinating clash.
Head-to-head pick: Sharks
Line pick: Sharks -2.0
Conservative betting: the last three matches played between the two sides in Pretoria have been settled by 1, 5 and 3 points. I would back both the Bulls 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365) and the Sharks 1-12 at 2.80 (Palmerbet).
Aggressive betting: the Bulls won this fixture by a solitary point last season but the Sharks are much improved since then. This should be a fantastic contest, but I give the edge to the visitors. I’m not anticipating a blowout so I would back the Sharks 1-12 at 2.80 (Palmerbet).