Friday, 4 April
Highlanders v Rebels
5:35 PM AEDT, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
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The Highlanders will be looking for a quick turnaround after an error-strewn performance saw them comprehensively beaten by the Blues. They were guilty of trying too hard at times and failed to take their early opportunities. Despite sitting 4th in the New Zealand conference the Highlanders’ season is very much still alive, with five points separating them from a playoff spot. They will be without injured centre Phil Burleigh and suspended prop Kane Hames this week.
The Rebels snapped a three-game losing streak by coming back from 6-17 down to upset the Brumbies 32-24 in Melbourne last week. Fullback Jason Woodward starred as he scored a try to go with his 8/8 night with the boot. With just two wins for the season, the Rebels sit bottom of the Australian conference but the win last week will have installed confidence that they can rediscover the promising form they showed in pre-season. The Rebels welcome back prop Toby Smith for this clash after he recovered from a head knock that kept him out last week. They will be without back rower Colby Fainga’a and winger Tom Kingston, however. The Rebels will be hoping they can avoid another let down this week after their impressive win over the Cheetahs earlier in the season was backed up by an atrocious performance against the Force. The Rebels will be mindful that they have never won outside Australia.
Head-to-head pick: Highlanders
Line pick: Rebels +7.0
Conservative betting: the Rebels beat the Highlanders 38-37 in Melbourne last year but the Rebels have always poor on the road, having never beaten anyone other than the Force away from home. Based on last round’s performance you would expect the Rebels to win, however they have been inconsistent this year while the Highlanders will be keen to make amends for last week’s showing. I don’t anticipate either team blowing the other away on Friday. I would back both the Highlanders 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet) and the Rebels 1-12 at 4.20 (Palmerbet).
Aggressive betting: given the Rebels’ miserable away record, I feel more comfortable with the Highlanders 1-12 than the Rebels 1-12. I would back the Highlanders 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet).
Brumbies v Blues
7:40 PM AEDT, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
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The Brumbies may have gotten ahead of themselves last week when they squandered a 17-6 second half lead to lose 24-32 to the Rebels. They were guilty of making too many mistakes, conceding 26 turnovers, 12 handling errors and 22 missed tackles. The Brumbies still sit top of the Australian conference, however only three points now separate them from the 4th placed Reds. They have suffered a blow for this clash, with hooker Stephen Moore ruled out with a knee injury.
The return of All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Jerome Kaino to the Blues starting line-up had a massive impact last week as they dominated the Highlanders to win 30-12. Defence was the Blues’ most improved area as they limited the Highlanders to four penalties after previously conceding 32-points on average. Forwards Jerome Kaino and Steven Luatua dominated their opposite numbers while the Blues defended with a much clearer defensive pattern. Fly-half Simon Hickey continues to have a strong season while Bryn Hall had a solid game in the absence of Piri Weepu. The victory came at a cost, however, with veteran Tom Donnelly ruled out this week with a calf strain. With Culum Retallick ruled out for the season and Patrick Tuipulotu currently sidelined, the Blues now are painfully light on locks. Captain Luke Braid also picked up a knock and will start from the bench. One positive is that Francis Saili will make his return from a six-week injury layoff from the bench.
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Brumbies -5.5
Conservative betting: Jesse Mogg and Robbie Coleman have scored five tries apiece in the first six games of the Brumbies’ season. I would back both Mogg and Coleman to score a try at 2.75 each (bet365). In all six games at least one of them has scored a try. In three of their six games both players got on the score sheet so both picks could get up this weekend.
Aggressive betting: if both teams were at full strength I would back the Blues here, however their double-digit injury list and atrocious away record scares me off. The Brumbies should be fully focused for this one after tripping up last week. They also won’t have forgotten their final round home loss to the Blues in 2012 which buried their playoff chances. With Jerome Kaino back in Super Rugby, the Blues are a much tougher proposition than they were just a few weeks ago. They should be competitive, but with the side on a 10-game losing streak away from home, I’m going to have to side with the Brumbies. Since 2013, seven of the Blues’ ten away losses were 12 points or less, so I would back the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.66 (Palmerbet).
Saturday, 5 April
Hurricanes v Bulls
5:35 PM AEDT, Venue TBC
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The Hurricanes got their season back on track last week with a shock 29-26 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch. In a see-sawing contest the Hurricanes squandered leads in both halves before winger Alapati Leiua blew past five defenders to score the winning try. While the game was marked by numerous handling errors, turnovers, poor tactical kicking and defensive lapses, it was played at a hectic pace and was intensely physical. The win was coupled with the good news that loose forwards Victor Vito and Brad Shields, winger Cory Jane and prop Reggie Goodes are fit and available to play this weekend. Unfortunately, midfielder Tim Bateman has been ruled out after he picked up a shoulder knock. Bateman has been one of the Hurricanes’ best players this season.
The Bulls drew the Chiefs 34-all in Pretoria but the result would have felt like a loss after they squandered a 16-point lead with 10 minutes to play. The Bulls controlled the territory and set pieces for most of the game but fell victim to the Chiefs’ vaunted counter-attack. The Chiefs only scored three points between the 19th and 70th minutes, but when they did gain the ascendancy they scored points quickly. The Bulls can only blame themselves, having gifted the visitors too much turnover ball through handling errors and wayward kicks. They also paid the price for opting for the posts rather than go for the corner late in the game. Coach Frans Ludeke may also regret the six 63rd minute tactical substitutions, which arguably disrupted the Bulls’ rhythm. The Bulls have been boosted by the return of captain Flip van der Merwe for this clash, however Victor Matfield is unlikely to play on this tour.
Head-to-head pick: Hurricanes
Line pick: Bulls +4.5
Conservative betting: it’s hard to tip the Bulls here because no team has crossed the Indian Ocean for an away win this season. By my tally the travelling team has gone 0-1-15 in 2014, with South African sides combining for 0-8. The Bulls have dominated the Hurricanes in recent years, however, having won their last four encounters, including their last two meetings on New Zealand soil. The game could go either way so I would back both the Hurricanes 1-12 at 2.74 (Palmerbet) and the Bulls 1-12 at 3.50 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: Hurricanes fly-half Beauden Barrett has had a solid season thus far, with four tries to his name in six games. There’s decent value in backing Barrett to score a try at 5.00 (bet365).
Reds v Force
7:40 PM AEDT, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
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The Reds rebounded from their two losses in South Africa by beating the Stormers 22-17 at Suncorp Stadium. The Reds were outscored two tries to one, but Quade Cooper steered them home with 17 points from a conversion, four penalties and a drop goal. The game was played in slippery and humid conditions, with the Reds cashing in on penalties from Stormers’ mistakes. The Reds will be pleased to have picked up the result after a shortened week and the trip back from South Africa, but they must refocus quickly for the Force, who are proving to be a banana skin for many teams.
For the first time in franchise history the Force are on a three-game winning streak after defeating the Rebels, Highlanders and Chiefs. After two poor defeats to start the season, they are now very much in playoff contention, sitting just three points off the top of the Australian conference. The win over the Chiefs was particularly impressive as the Force held the visitors tryless on Australian soil for the first time since 2001. They were rewarded by the pressure they applied on defence, which forced the the Chiefs into numerous handling errors. The Force will also take pride out of beating the Chiefs without suspended No. 8 Ben McCalman, who has been one of their best players this season. The bye in Round 7 was timely for the Force, with both Ben McCalman and Alby Mathewson serving suspensions last week. Both players are able to return for this clash.
Head-to-head pick: Reds
Line pick: Force +7.5
Conservative betting: the Force have been a thorn in the Reds’ side in recent seasons, having picked up two wins and a draw in their last three clashes. The Reds have a fantastic home record so I expect them to get the win, but given their strong record against the Queenslanders, I would back the Force +11.5 at 1.51 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Force should keep the Reds honest on Saturday. I would back the Reds 1-12 at 2.66 (Palmerbet).
Sunday, 6 April
Cheetahs v Chiefs
0:00 AM AEDT, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
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The Cheetahs will have appreciated their bye last week after enduring a miserable Australasian tour which saw them concede 44.5 points on average in their four losses. Defensively they have been a shambles, but their offence also struggled in their last fixture, committing too many errors to let the Blues out of jail. They will now have to regroup to put their season back together, however they face arguably the toughest overseas visitors in Super Rugby this weekend. The Cheetahs will certainly take an interest in the Chiefs’ struggles against lineout mauls over the past couple weeks. The Cheetahs will be without No. 8 Philip van der Walt for up to eight weeks after breaking his hand.
The Chiefs pulled off a remarkable comeback to secure a bonus point draw against the Bulls last week. They were seemingly dead and buried at 31-15 down with ten minutes to play but roared back with three tries and an 80th minute sideline conversion to bring the scores to 34-all. The Bulls dominated much of the fixture, but the Chiefs repeatedly punished their hosts from turnover ball, with their highly rated counter-attack living up to its reputation. Prop Ben Afeaki has returned to New Zealand with a concussion that he picked up in training before the Bulls clash.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Cheetahs +7.5
Conservative betting: the Chiefs have won their last two visits to Bloemfontein. Their backs should be too strong for the struggling Cheetahs defence so I would back the Chiefs -1.5 at 1.51 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Cheetahs have the hardest part of their season out of the way, so you could make a case that their season can be resurrected with a win this weekend. Now that they’re back at home and rested after a bye, I expect a much improved performance from what we’ve seen in previous weeks. The Chiefs should win but not by a blowout margin. I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet).
Lions v Crusaders
2:05 AM AEDT, Ellis Park, Johannesburg
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The Lions’ strong start to the season continued with a second half comeback to beat the Reds 23-20 at Ellis Park. They trailed 6-20 at halftime but finally clicked into gear in the second spell to score 17 unanswered points. Cynics may argue the Lions were helped by the lopsided 19-4 penalty count, but they can be proud of their never-say-die attitude. The Lions are now 3-0 at home this campaign and sit 4th in the overall standings. The win over the Reds came at a cost, however, with lock Franco van der Merwe ruled out for the season with an ankle injury.
The Crusaders’ poor season has gone from bad to worse with a demoralising home loss to the Hurricanes last week. They’ve looked unconvincing in attack all season, as highlighted by the low number of clean breaks achieved. They have also been found wanting on defence at times, with the Hurricanes and Blues punishing them for poor tackling efforts. The Crusaders spoke of addressing their listless attack during their bye in Round 6, and while their 26 points scored was a season best, they simply aren’t looking like title contenders at the moment. The Crusaders have been dealt a blow leading up to this fixture, with lock Luke Romano ruled out. He’s a key part of their line out and is one of their stronger ball runners so his absence will hurt them. Also of concern is captain Kieran Read, who is struggling to overcome a head knock.
Head-to-head pick: Lions
Line pick: Lions +4.5
Conservative betting: the Crusaders have a strong record against South African teams, but given the odds, the value lies with backing the home team here. The Lions are 5-1 at the line this season with a 3-0 line record at home, while the Crusaders are 2-4 in the head-to-head as the road favourite. I would back the Lions +9.5 at 1.52 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Crusaders may be struggling, but I don’t see them losing by double digits here. I would back the Lions 1-12 at 3.50 (Sportsbet).
Stormers v Waratahs
3:10 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
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The Stormers return to South Africa after a tortuous overseas campaign which saw them lose four straight games to move to 1-5 for the season. They were competitive in most of their matches, however, and they’ve only played one home game this season, so it’s too early to put a line through their playoff chances. If they are to turn their fortunes around, the Stormers will have to limit their mistakes and poor decision making which have cost them at crucial junctures in recent weeks. A worrying sign, however, is they have been making the same mistakes over and over again. Perhaps a return to Newlands Stadium will turn their fortunes around. The loss to the Reds last week was costly, with winger Gio Aplon ruled out for six to eight weeks with a dislocated elbow and captain Jean de Villiers also ruled out for this week. In better news, Ruan Botha returns from an ankle injury to start at lock.
The Waratahs’ poor away record extended to 2-8 since 2013 after they lost 10-32 to the Sharks in a spiteful encounter. Defensively they weren’t too bad, but they were ill-disciplined in attack and struggled to clear the ball from rucks, with their only consolation try coming two minutes from time. The Waratahs also came off second best at the set piece, particularly at scrum time. Israel Folau’s absence was telling as the Waratahs failed to build pressure. The Waratahs were also hurt by a 19-9 penalty count against them. Winger Rob Horne is suspended this week for a dangerous tackle, while Wycliff Palu and Israel Folau are out with injury. It was a physical encounter last week, but one would imagine the Waratahs will be marginally fresher than the Stormers, who return battered and bruised after their four-game overseas tour. Kurtley Beale and Jono Lance have switched positions for this clash, with Beale starting at fullback.
Head-to-head pick: Stormers
Line pick: Stormers -1.5
Conservative betting: as much as I would like to back the Waratahs, I’m unable to do so until they can prove they can match their home form on the road. They are 2-8 on the road since 2013 while the Stormers are unbeaten at home in the last 12 months. I would back the Stormers in the head-to-head at 1.82 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: this should be very close, so if the Stormers do manage a win I don’t expect it to be by much. I would back the Stormers 1-12 at 2.76 (Palmerbet).