Friday, 11 April
Highlanders v Bulls
5:35 PM AEST, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
View a detailed form guide for Highlanders v Bulls
The Highlanders rebounded from their hammering in Auckland to beat the Rebels 33-30 in Dunedin last week. The result takes them to 3-3 for the season, just two points off a playoff spot. Their current form doesn’t suggest they are a playoff contender this season, however, with a number of messy possessions and indiscipline keeping the Rebels in touch. The Highlanders will be without winger Kurt Baker for six weeks after he was suspended for a dangerous tackle, however they welcome back suspended loosehead prop Kane Hames. Brad Thorn returns to the starting line up to take on fellow veteran lock Victor Matfield.
The Bulls lost 20-25 to the Hurricanes last week to continue their winless streak away from home. They were outplayed for most of the game but their defence held up well to prevent the Hurricanes from building a sizable lead. The Bulls were let down in the end by conceding two late penalties, but they will be pleased with their gutsy display. The loss has added to their injury count, however, with Dewald Potgieter and Deon Stegmann returning to South Africa. This has forced them to name Victor Matfield in the starting line-up despite previous intentions for him to play a coaching role during the tour.
Head-to-head pick: Highlanders
Line pick: Bulls +4.5
Conservative betting: the Bulls are banged up at the moment and they’re on a four-game losing streak away from home, but the Highlanders haven’t looked convincing this season. I don’t see either team blowing the other off the park so I would back both the Highlanders 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportsbet) and the Bulls 1-12 at 3.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Highlanders haven’t beaten a team by more than 10 points since Round 6 in 2012. I would back the Highlanders 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportsbet).
Reds v Brumbies
7:40 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
View a detailed form guide for Reds v Brumbies
After failing to beat the Force last year the Reds tripped up again, losing 29-32 in Brisbane. The result leaves them sitting 4th in the Australian conference with one win from their last four. The Reds weren’t overly convincing with their win over the Stormers two weeks ago and they will be displeased with their performance last week. Their only tries came when the Force were a man down and the breakdown was likely an area of focus during the week after the pressure applied by the visitors forced them to commit too many numbers to rucks, which stymied their ability to attack with numbers. The Reds welcome back winger Chris Feauai-Sautia to the starting XV and hooker Saia Fainga’a to the bench. Inside centre Mike Harris is in doubt, although he could start from the bench. After missing last week’s game against the Force, winger Lachie Turner has been ruled out for five weeks after undergoing surgery on his ankle. Other casualties currently on the sideline are Liam Gill (five weeks), Ben Daley (two weeks), Samu Kerevi (two weeks), Chris Kuridrani (five weeks), Dom Shipperley (two weeks) and Aidan Toua (12 weeks).
Pat McCabe took centre stage as the Brumbies suffocated the Blues to win 26-9 last week. It was the first time in franchise history that the Brumbies had kept the Blues tryless. Coach Stephen Larkham will be pleased with the elevation in intensity after their disappointing loss to the Rebels, however the dour exhibition of rugby won’t have won the club any new fans. In the Australian conference the Brumbies maintain one- and three-point leads over the the Waratahs and Force, respectively, however both the Waratahs and Force have a game in hand. This fixture is a rematch of the Round 1 clash in Canberra when the Brumbies fell 17-27, so they will be looking for some payback on Friday. The Brumbies welcome back hooker Stephen Moore for this clash.
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Brumbies -1.0
Conservative betting: the Reds haven’t been at their best in recent weeks. They failed to beat the Lions on tour before labouring to a five-point win over the banged up Stormers. This was followed by the home loss to the Force. Both teams will be fired up, but with revenge on their minds I tip the Brumbies to win in a low scoring affair. The Brumbies have only lost two of their last six away fixtures when they’ve been installed as the underdog. I would back the Brumbies +3.5 at 1.50 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: it’s been years since the Reds last lost at home by more than 12 points. I would back the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.75 (Palmerbet).
Saturday, 12 April
Chiefs v Rebels
5:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
View a detailed form guide for Chiefs v Rebels
For the second time in as many weeks the Chiefs scored a last minute try to rescue a draw in South Africa. After drawing the Bulls 34-all in Round 7 the Chiefs drew the Cheetahs 43-all last week after the Cheetahs led 34-10 at halftime. While the spirited nature of their comebacks is impressive, coach Dave Rennie will be frustrated by their slow starts. The three-point draw came at a significant cost, with fly-half Aaron Cruden ruled out for six to eight weeks with a broken thumb. Such is their depth that the Chiefs do have Gareth Anscombe as back up, but this is a massive blow as Cruden had been enjoying an excellent season.
The Rebels showed a lot of fight but fell 30-33 in Dunedin last week to remain without an overseas win in franchise history. They weren’t helped by the loss of fly-half Bryce Hegarty in the first minute although replacement Angus Roberts slotted in nicely. Captain Scott Higginbotham continues to have a strong season as does Kiwi fullback Jason Woodward. With the Chiefs returning home after a winless three-game tour of Perth and South Africa, the Rebels have stated their aim to win overseas for the first time this weekend. They will need to cut down on the number of penalties conceded if they are to succeed. At the time of writing Bryce Hegarty is expected to start.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Rebels +12.5
Conservative betting: the Chiefs are known for being strong finishers. In all of their six games this season they scored last, so I would back the Chiefs to score last at 1.58 (Unibet).
Aggressive betting: the last time the Rebels visited Waikato they were hammered by 28 points, but they’re a much stronger team since 2011 and the Chiefs have been struggling with injuries all season. I would back the Chiefs 6-10 at 5.00 and 11-15 at 5.50 (Sportsbet).
Force v Waratahs
7:40 PM AEST, NIB Stadium, Perth
View a detailed form guide for Force v Waratahs
The Force are fast becoming a bogey team for the Reds after defeating them 32-29 in Brisbane to extend their record-breaking winning streak to four games. There now appears to be some real belief within the side that they can mix it with the best. Much of their success last week came from the pressure they applied at the breakdown, which forced the Reds to commit more players to the rucks than they would have liked to. The Sharks beat the Waratahs two weeks ago in a similar fashion, by disrupting the clearance of the ball from rucks. No doubt a similar blueprint will be applied this weekend as the Force look to make up for their opening round 21-43 loss to the Waratahs in Sydney. All four of their recent wins came with the Force installed as the underdog and with the Waratahs starting as 4.5 point favourites the home side will once again relish the chance to take another scalp. Last week’s victory game at a cost, with centre Junior Rasolea suffering a suspected broken wrist and lock Sam Wykes limping off.
It wasn’t a pretty victory, but excellent goal kicking performances from Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale saw the Waratahs defeat an under-strength Stormers 22-11 in Cape Town last week. While the Stormers have struggled all season, this was a fantastic result for a team that has under-performed on the road in recent years. The forwards will be pleased to have dominated a South African side on their own soil, with the scrum in particular looking solid. Wingers Peter Betham and Alofa Alofa are out injured however the Waratahs welcome back Israel Folau. Wycliff Palu has failed to recover from an ankle injury and has returned to Sydney. UPDATE: Israel Folau has since been ruled out of this clash.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Waratahs -4.0
Conservative betting: while the Force have been a thorn in the side of the Reds, the Waratahs have consistently dominated the Perth franchise in recent years, winning their last four straight, including their last three visits to Perth. While the Waratahs do generally struggle on the road – with just two away wins in each of 2012 and 2013 – they beat the Force in Perth in both of those years. I would back the Waratahs in the head-to-head at 1.54 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: the Force are full of confidence and should prove to be much sterner opponents for the Waratahs than they were in Round 1 when they lost by 22 points. I would back the Waratahs 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet).
Sunday, 13 April
Cheetahs v Crusaders
1:05 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
View a detailed form guide for Cheetahs v Crusaders
The Cheetahs will be ruing what could have been after failing to capitalise on a 34-10 halftime lead against the Chiefs last week. The game ended 43-all as the Chiefs drew level with a converted injury-time try. The Cheetahs attacked well and were dangerous with ball in hand in the first half, but were guilty of trying to defend their lead, picking up only nine points in the second spell. The draw leaves them with a 1-1-5 record for the season, which is the second worst in the competition. They have no new injury concerns and have named an unchanged line-up for this week.
The Crusaders were boosted by a much needed 28-7 win over the Lions last week. The Crusaders attack failed to penetrate in the first half – much like it has been all season, but they were able to kick into gear with three second half tries despite taking a conservative approach to the game. The result sees them move to 3-3 for the season, 4 points off a playoff spot. The Crusaders will hope they can continue to build on their second half offensive effort this weekend when they take on an atrocious Cheetahs defence that has conceded 36 points per game this season. The Crusaders welcome back captain Kieran Read for this clash.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Crusaders -3.5
Conservative betting: this fixture sees the second worst offensive side visit the team with the worst defensive record. In recent years this match-up has been dominated by the home team, with neither side having won in each other’s back yard in years. The problem for the Cheetahs, however, is their poor defence this year has seen them win just one game all season. While the Crusaders haven’t been spectacular this year, they were able to find some rhythm last week to comfortably see of the Lions. A positive trend for the Canterbury side is that in each of their last three games they’ve scored more points than they previously had this season. With the Cheetahs conceding over 44 points per game over the last six rounds, the Crusaders back line should find a bit of form this weekend. I would back the Crusaders in the head-to-head at 1.63 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Cheetahs have fared well against the Crusaders in Bloemfontein in recent years so I don’t expect them to get blown away. I would back the Crusaders 1-12 at 2.78 (Palmerbet).
Lions v Sharks
3:10 AM AEST, Ellis Park, Johannesburg
View a detailed form guide for Lions v Sharks
The Lions were handed their first home loss of the season when they fell 7-28 to the Crusaders last week. They fared well to limit the visitors to 6 points in the first half, but were left to rue missed opportunities in what was arguably their poorest performance of the season. The Lions now sit 7th in the overall standings, just a point out of the playoffs, however the hardest part of the season lies ahead, with a four-game overseas tour beginning in Round 12.
The Sharks are sitting pretty with a seven point lead at the top of the South African conference despite playing one fewer game than their fellow countrymen. They have yet to leave South Africa, however, and have only played one away game all season. Prior to their bye last week they saw off the Waratahs 32-10 in a fiercely physical contest to move to 5-1 for the season. The Sharks will be pleased by the faultless kicking performance of Fred Zeilinga in the absence of Pat Lambie, who has been ruled out for the season. The Shark’s enviable squad depth is highlighted by the fact that they also have François Steyn as a kicking option.
Head-to-head pick: Sharks
Line pick: Sharks -7.5
Conservative betting: bookmakers fancy the Sharks here, however it’s worth noting they are only 1-5 on the road in the last 12 months. Despite being relegated out of Super Rugby at the end of 2012 the Lions did beat the Sharks at home that year. The bye seemed to have disrupted the Lions rhythm last week as they stuffed a number of scoring opportunities. I expect them to be sharper this week so I would back the Lions +12.5 at 1.55 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: despite the Sharks’ poor away record they should have too much quality for the Lions. They beat the Lions by 14 points in Durban in Round 4 and with home advantage reversed for this fixture, I expect a closer contest. I would back the Sharks 1-12 at 2.75 (Sportsbet).