Friday, 18 April
Hurricanes v Blues
5:35 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
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The Hurricanes will be hoping their bye last week hasn’t disrupted their good run of form which saw them upset the Crusaders in Christchurch then beat the Bulls for the first time since 2008. After enduring so many close losses they will be pleased to be finally winning the games that could go either way. Fly-half Beauden Barrett continues to have a brilliant season. His form will be welcomed by All Blacks selectors, who will likely to head into the June Tests without Aaron Cruden or Dan Carter. It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, coach Mark Hammett’s announcement to leave at the end of the season will have on the rest of the Hurricanes’ campaign. The Hurricanes will be without prop Ben Franks and loose forward Brad Shields for this clash.
Prior to their bye last week the Blues extended their losing streak away from home to eleven games with a listless performance which saw them lose 9-26 in Canberra. They got sucked into a dour contest, with neither team really chancing their arm, which runs very much against the Blues brand of rugby. In all this is shaping up to be a very typical Blues season: full of promise but providing plenty of frustration for their fans. To absolutely dominate the Highlanders one week and then go out with a whimper the next is typical of the mercurial nature of the Auckland side. The Blues welcome back seven players from injury to the squad, with Keven Mealamu, Patrick Tuipulotu, Peter Saili, Kane Barrett, Tom Donnelly, Jamison Gibson-Park and Jackson Willison all returning to training during the week. The Blues may be taking a tactical kicking approach to this fixture, having opted for Chris Noakes at fly-half this week with Simon Hickey dropping out of the squad.
Head-to-head pick: Hurricanes
Line pick: Blues +4.0
Conservative betting: like most Hurricanes vs. Blues fixtures, this could go either way with the final score line hard to predict.. The Hurricanes are 4-4 against the Blues in recent years and 2-2 at Westpac Stadium. Interestingly, five of the last seven head-to-heads have been won by 13 points or more. Both sides have 4-3 records for the season however the Hurricanes carry better momentum into this clash. With that being said, the Blues welcome numerous players back and the last team they beat on the road was the Hurricanes in Round 2 last year. I expect both teams to throw the ball around on Friday and five of the last seven head-to-heads have seen more than 50 points scored. Providing the conditions aren’t too wet, I would back over 44.5 in the total score market at 1.91 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: with his odds as short as 2.25 elsewhere, there’s a bit of value in taking Beauden Barrett to score a try at 4.50 (Sportsbet).
Rebels v Force
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
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The Rebels fought back well from 0-19 down against the Chiefs last week, but ultimately fell 16-22 to remain winless on overseas soil. They now sit seven points adrift of a playoff spot with a 2-5 record for the season. Statistically it’s the lack of points scored that are costing the Rebels, with their average of 21 points scored per game the second lowest in the competition. There are positives, however. The 22 points conceded against the Chiefs was the first time in eight matches that the Rebels conceded fewer than 30 points in New Zealand, so their away performances are improving. They only have to look at the Force to see that the leap from bonus point losses to winning in spades isn’t huge.
Winger Nick Cummins scored three tries as the Force defeated the Waratahs 28-16 last week to notch their fifth consecutive win. The winning streak is a franchise record, made all the more remarkable by the fact that they only won four games in 2013 and just three in 2012. Last week’s win was the first home victory over the Waratahs in seven attempts, so they have been tearing up the record books in recent weeks. The Force now sit 4th in the overall standings, just three points off the conference leading Brumbies. After enduring a number of seasons of enjoying good possession and territory but failing to capitalise on it, the Force now appear to have a cutting edge that was previously missing. The Waratahs enjoyed most of the possession last week yet the Force outscored them three tries to one. Defensively the Force are also much improved, conceding just one try in their last three home games as they continue to be rewarded for the consistent pressure they apply at the breakdown.
Head-to-head pick: Force
Line pick: Force +2.0
Conservative betting: the Force are playing the better rugby at the moment. The Rebels have lost their way a bit, while the visitors will feel they can beat anyone. The only risk is the Force could underestimate Rebels like the Rebels did with the Force in Round 4. Nevertheless, I would back the Force +6.5 at 1.51 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: I don’t see the Rebels getting blown away here. I would back the Force 1-12 at 3.05 (Sportingbet).
Saturday, 19 April
Chiefs v Crusaders
5:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
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After starting slowly and finishing strongly in South Africa, the Chiefs shot out to a 19-0 lead after 24 minutes last week only to be dominated by the Rebels in the second half. The Waikato side held on for a 22-16 victory, but once again they have failed to put together an 80-minute performance. They will be pleased, however, by their ability to pick up points from close encounters – something that has been a hallmark of their 2012 and 2013 title winning seasons. The Chiefs will also feel reassured by Gareth Anscombe’s performance at fly-half in the absence of Aaron Cruden. The Chiefs enjoy a 5-point lead at the top of the New Zealand conference but they will be wary of conceding points to a Crusaders outfit that is finally showing some form. The Chiefs will be relieved to have Brodie Retallick fit for this clash, however Mils Muliaina has been ruled out for the rest of the season.
With Colin Slade now cemented as their first-choice fly-half, the Crusaders finally appear to be waking from their offensive slumber, scoring six tries last week to beat the Cheetahs 52-31 in Bloemfontein. Granted, the Cheetahs have been defensively atrocious this season, but that hit out may have been just the tonic to get the Crusaders attack back into gear after a sluggish start to the season. They have extended their streak to four games for scoring more points than they previously had in a game this season. The Crusaders are also the first team in 2014 to cross the Indian Ocean and win both their matches. Their back line has come under much criticism this season but their nine tries scored in the two-game tour of South Africa came from seven different backs. The signing of the Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo appears to being paying dividends, with Nadolo scoring a hat-trick last week.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Crusaders +4.5
Conservative betting: the Chiefs have won their last three home matches against the Crusaders, but the visitors bring better form into this fixture. It’s hard to pick a winner, but I expect a close encounter with many players competing against their opposite number for All Blacks jerseys. Given their underdog status, I would back the Crusaders +8.5 at 1.50 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: it’s hard to pick a winner, but I’ll go with the value and back the Crusaders 1-12 at 3.50 (bet365). If they do manage to win I don’t anticipate it will be by much.
Waratahs v Bulls
7:40 PM AEST, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
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The Waratahs’ poor away form continues as they fell 16-28 to the Force last week. The Waratahs really had no answer to the pressure applied by the Force’s defence and they will be seething from the ARU’s late decision to prevent Israel Folou from playing. Nevertheless, the Waratahs still sit 5th in the overall standings and will back themselves against the Bulls, who remain winless away from Pretoria this season. The Waratahs welcome back Israel Folou and Wycliff Palu for this clash. Folou will start at fullback while Palu will start from the bench.
The Bulls fell 20-27 to the Highlanders in Dunedin last week to remain undefeated at home and winless on the road in 2014. While they haven’t been helped by injuries, the Bulls were their own worst enemy at times last week, making 11 second-half handling errors which saw them fail to take advantage of good territory and a dominant scrum. They now face an even sterner test against a Waratahs side that has won five of their last six home games. The Bulls continue to be plagued by injuries on tour, with Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha and Frik Kirsten on the long-term injury list.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Waratahs -7.5
Conservative betting: the Bulls have dominated the Waratahs in recent years, both in Pretoria and in Sydney, however they’re struggling at the moment with a mounting injury list and the Waratahs are much stronger than they have been in recent seasons, especially at Allianz Stadium. I would back the Waratahs -3.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Waratahs’ average winning margin at home is over 24 points so far this season. With Israel Folou back in the mix, this tired Bulls outfit could be in for a tough night. I would back the Waratahs 13+ at 2.62 (bet365).
Sharks v Cheetahs
-1:00 PM AEST, Kings Park, Durban
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The Sharks continue to dominate the South African conference, with their 25-12 win over the Lions in Johannesburg giving them a whopping nine-point lead over the second placed Bulls. They were made to work against the Lions last week. Despite dominating both territory and possession, the Sharks failed to take many of their opportunities and were only able to pull away late, but they will be relieved to have picked up their first away win of the season. Having only played twice away from home this season, the Sharks may need all of their nine-point advantage over their rivals, with only three more home games and a four-game overseas tour to come. The Sharks have received a blow for this clash, with second choice fly-half Fred Zeilinga picking up a hamstring injury to join Pat Lambie on the sideline. Lambie is ruled out for the season. They will be relieved to have Frans Steyn in the squad, who is arguably the best long-range kicker in the competition.
The Cheetahs continue to score plenty of points and tries, but once again their defence was found wanting as they conceded six tries to lose 31-52 to the Crusaders last week. The Cheetahs are now conceding 38 points per game this season, with 45.5 points conceded on average over their last six fixtures. They weren’t helped by the early loss of fly-half Johan Goosen to concussion, but they continue to gift opponents possession and they continue to pay the price for defensive lapses of concentration. Elgar Watts replaces the injured Goosen for this clash, while the Cheetahs have been boosted by the return of flanker Heinrich Brussow after a lengthy absence with a toe injury.
Head-to-head pick: Sharks
Line pick: Sharks -12.5
Conservative betting: while they are struggling at the fly-half position, the Sharks overall boast a much stronger squad than the Cheetahs. With the Cheetahs defence as poor as it is I would back the Sharks -7.5 at 1.50 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: with the exception of a shock loss last year, the Sharks have dominated the Cheetahs in recent seasons. I would back the Sharks 11-15 at 6.00 and 16-20 at 6.50 (Sportsbet).
Sunday, 20 April
Stormers v Lions
1:05 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
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The Stormers’ miserable year continued with a 11-22 home loss to the Waratahs which puts them at the bottom of the overall standings with a 1-6 record. They continue to let themselves down by poor decision making, which will be frustrating coach Allister Coetzee. To highlight their fall in fortunes, the Stormers lost only two regular season games in 2012. They’ve lost numerous Springboks to overseas clubs and their lack of squad depth is telling, with the persistent injuries hampering efforts to build continuity within the squad. The Stormers have only played two home games all season, however, and their loss to the Waratahs came on the back of a tortuous four-game overseas tour. The bye last week will have helped to recharge their batteries, but they now face a daunting prospect of needing to win the rest of their fixtures to have any chance of a nicking a playoff spot. Injuries continue to plague the team, with locks Rynhardt Elstadt and De Kock Steenkamp now ruled out for the season. Scarra Ntubeni, Tiaan Liebenberg, Kobus van Wyk, Eben Etzebeth and Manuel Carizza remain unavailable, however captain Jean de Villiers, prop Pat Cilliers and lock/flanker Jurie van Vuuren have returned to the squad.
The Lions sit just three points off a playoff spot, but they have lost a lot of momentum in recent weeks with consecutive home losses to the Crusaders and Sharks. They fought gallantly in both fixtures, but lacked the quality to keep up with the visitors in the second half, with the scoreline blowing out late in each game. The Lions have a strong opportunity to get their season back on track this week when they take on the struggling Stormers.
Head-to-head pick: Stormers
Line pick: Lions +7.5
Conservative betting: this should be a close contest, with both sides fancying their chances for a win. The Stormers’ solitary victory this season was by a single point and I don’t see them racking up a huge margin against the Lions this weekend. I would back the Lions +11.5 at 1.50 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: I wouldn’t blame you for taking the Stormers 1-12 at 2.60, but given the Lions beat the Stormers 34-10 earlier in the season, I would take the value by backing the Lions in the head-to-head at 3.25 (Luxbet).