Friday, 2 May
Blues v Reds
5:35 PM AEST, Eden Park, Auckland
View a detailed form guide for Blues v Reds
The Blues secured a vital win over the Waratahs last week to remain within touch of a playoff spot. They continue to be a Jekyll and Hyde team, however, with a perfect 4-0 home record and a 12-game losing streak away from Eden Park. After two disappointing losses the Blues weren’t convincing last week. While they did defend aggressively and were able to keep Israel Folau quiet, much of their success was thanks to the inept performance of the Waratahs. The Blues have suffered a major blow for this clash, with captain Luke Braid ruled out. He has been replaced by Brendon O’Connor with Keven Mealamu assuming the captaincy duties. The Blues will be acutely aware that they have lost their last four straight fixtures against the Reds.
The Reds come into this fixture having won just one of their last six games – which was a Round 7 home victory over the hapless Stormers. They led 14-10 at halftime against the Hurricanes last week but paid the price for their mistakes as they were blown away in the second spell to lose 21-35. The Reds seem to blow hot and cold during games, with their performances characterised by the mercurial fly-half Quade Cooper, who made a number of costly second half errors after a strong performance in the first half. The Reds need to regroup quickly, as this is a winnable fixture against a Blues side that has been less than stellar in recent weeks. To add some spark to the fullback position, with Aidan Toua and Lachie Turner out, the Reds have opted for Mike Harris over Ben Lucas for this clash. The Reds have received a major lift with flanker Liam Gill returning to the squad. Will Genia will start despite his sore ankle.
Head-to-head pick: Blues
Line pick: Reds +7.5
Conservative betting: The Reds will be grateful to have flanker Liam Gill back while the Blues will suffer from the absence of Luke Braid. Given the Reds’ strong record against the Blues, I would back the Reds +12.5 at 1.53 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the Blues offer terrible value in the head-to-head market, but there is a bit of value in taking them 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet). I don’t see the Reds getting blown away by a side that they typically dominate.
Rebels v Sharks
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
View a detailed form guide for Rebels v Sharks
Prior to their bye last week the Rebels returned to winning ways by beating the in-form Force 22-16. They were rewarded for being the more desperate side, showing greater intensity at the breakdown as they dominated possession for most of the match. The Rebels will feel the win was overdue after suffering two close losses in New Zealand. They now take on the wounded Sharks who suffered a shock defeat last week. Coach Tony McGahan has opted for Luke Burgess at halfback due to his strong kicking game and physicality around the ruck. In one other change, prop Toby Smith is out with a shoulder injury and has been replaced by Cruze Ah-Nau.
Despite a number of players feeling the strain of the long season, coach Jake White opted not to rotate his players last week so that they could embark on their overseas tour on a winning note. The Highlanders put paid to that plan, however, running out 34-18 winners in Durban after being installed as +11.5 underdogs. The Sharks had previously lost only once this season but were outclassed in almost every department by the visitors, who outscored them four tries to nil. They weren’t helped by the late withdrawals of captain Bismarck du Plessis and Jean Deysel last week, but the absence of fly-half Pat Lambie is really hurting them because much of their game plan was centred around him. The Sharks still hold a commanding nine point lead at the top of the South African conference, however that lead may dissipate over the next few weeks with their four-game overseas tour commencing and the Bulls now back in South Africa. The Sharks continue to experiment with the fly-half position, opting for Frans Steyn this week. Fred Zeilinga will provide cover from the bench with Tim Swiel dropping out of the side. Both Jean Deysel and Bismarck du Plessis return for this clash.
Head-to-head pick: Rebels
Line pick: Rebels +3.5
Conservative betting: remarkably, South African teams remain winless in Australia and New Zealand this season. Bookmakers expect the Sharks to finally end that streak this weekend, however they will have their work cut out against a Rebels team that will feel they have under-performed so far this season. The only previous time the two sides played in Melbourne was during the Rebels’ inaugural season with the Rebels falling just short, losing 32-34. The Rebels are a much better side these days and with the Sharks struggling in Lambie’s absence, I would back the Rebels +7.5 at 1.50 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: I’m not comfortable backing the Sharks given their form slump and the woes of travelling South African sides this season. The Rebels don’t typically blow teams off the park when they win, so I would back the Rebels 1-12 at 3.25 (Sportingbet).
Saturday, 3 May
Crusaders v Brumbies
2:35 PM AEST, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
View a detailed form guide for Crusaders v Brumbies
After a typically slow start to the season, the Crusaders come into this fixture on the back of three wins, having beaten the Chiefs prior to their bye last week. All of their points against the Chiefs came from the boot of Colin Slade, but they will be immensely proud of their defensive performance after making the long trip back from South Africa. The timing of their bye last week would have suited the Crusaders, with lock Dominic Bird suspended, Kieran Read recovering from a concussion and Luke Romano sidelined with a calf injury. Bird and Romano are available for this clash, however Read remains out, which is a big loss for the Crusaders. That bad news will have been dampened to some extent by the return of Richie McCaw, who is back from a thumb injury.
The Brumbies come into this fixture on the back of a dominant performance over the Chiefs. It was a slick, organised and professional performance which underlined the Brumbies’ title credentials. The Waratahs’ loss last week means only the Force remain within touching distance of the Canberra side, who currently top the Australian conference and sit just one point behind the competition-leading Sharks. The Brumbies haven’t won in Christchurch in 14 years but will feel they have a genuine opportunity to win on Saturday. They have named an unchanged starting line-up for this clash.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Brumbies +5.5
Conservative betting: the Crusaders will be fresh after last week’s bye and they will be desperate to return to winning ways at home after losing to the Hurricanes in Round 7. The Brumbies showed ominously good form last week, however. This should be a close, fierce contest, so I would back both the Crusaders 1-12 at 2.62 (bet365) and the Brumbies 1-12 at 3.70 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the Crusaders are a smart team that know how to win close contests. They beat the Brumbies 30-23 in Canberra last year, which was the Brumbies’ only home defeat of 2013, so they match up well against the Canberra side. I would back the Crusaders 1-12 at 2.62 (bet365).
Chiefs v Lions
5:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
View a detailed form guide for Chiefs v Lions
The injury count is beginning to take its toll on the Chiefs, who are in the midst of their worst slump in four years, with just one win from their last six fixtures. The 23-41 losing score line to the Brumbies actually flattered the Chiefs, who trailed 9-36 at one stage before scoring two late consolation tries. Despite this they still sit 5th in the overall standings, largely thanks to their strong start at the beginning of the year. They will be a major threat if they can get more players back and will back themselves to return to winning ways against the struggling Lions. The Chiefs welcome back Tanerau Latimer for this clash.
After starting the season so well the Lions are now struggling, with three consecutive losses coming into this fixture. They now commence a daunting tour, which will be a new experience for many of the squad members. The Lions boast very little depth so injuries are hurting them more than they would other teams. Coach Johan Ackermann acknowledges that there’s no quick fix for the Lions, who have been regularly letting points scoring opportunities go astray in recent weeks. The Lions have opted for Elton Jantjies at fly-half this week, with Marnitz Boshoff dropping to the bench. Captain Warren Whiteley has recovered from injury and will start at No.8.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Chiefs -15.0
Conservative betting: the Chiefs are a wounded side at the moment, but they should be too strong for the inexperienced Lions. I would back the Chiefs -10.5 at 1.50 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the 15.0 line looks to be spot on. I would back the Chiefs 11-15 at 6.50 and 16-20 at 7.00 (Sportsbet).
Waratahs v Hurricanes
7:40 PM AEST, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
View a detailed form guide for Waratahs v Hurricanes
The Waratahs continue to disappoint on the road this season. Like the Blues they’re a Jekyll and Hyde team, with a 4-0 home record and a 1-5 away record. Last week they were their own worst enemy, putting in an attacking performance that was punctuated with handling errors. In all they conceded 26 turnovers to repeatedly let the Blues off the hook. At home I expect them to be much stronger, but the Waratahs will be concerned by their offence, which has gone backwards in recent weeks. After averaging 32.5 points per game in Rounds 1-6, the Waratahs have averaged just 16 points per game since. Seeking to address their offensive slump, the Waratahs have made a number of changes for this clash. Wycliff Palu returns to the starting line-up to start at No.8, shifting Dave Dennis shifts to blindside flanker and Jacques Potgieter into the second row at the expense of Will Skelton.
After enduring a horrific eight-game losing streak that spanned the last five weeks of last season and the first three of 2014, the Hurricanes now top the New Zealand conference courtesy of their current five-game winning streak. As I wrote last week, they have benefited from the return of key All Blacks, with winger Cory Jane scoring a hat-trick against the Reds. The Hurricanes are known for their intimidating backline, but the forwards have muscled up well in recent weeks and they now boast the highest points scored per game. The Hurricanes have only won once away from home this year, however, and they take on a Waratahs side that is undefeated at home.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Hurricanes +5.5
Conservative betting: the Waratahs should win this fixture, but the Hurricanes are the most in-form of the Kiwi sides at the moment and the last time they visited Allianz Stadium they ran away 33-12 victors. The Waratahs haven’t looked convincing since Round 6 so I would back the Hurricanes +9.5 at 1.54 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: I give the Hurricanes a genuine chance of winning this. There’s a great vibe in the squad at the moment and they’re scoring freely. I would back the Hurricanes 1-12 at 3.70 (Sportingbet).
Stormers v Highlanders
11:00 PM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
View a detailed form guide for Stormers v Highlanders
The Stormers fell 22-35 to the Cheetahs last week to move to 2-7 for the season. They now sit bottom of the competition table with their playoff chances surely up in smoke. The upshot, if any, is they’ve only played three times at home this season and won two of them. They now have five home fixtures and two domestic away games for the remainder of this season. The Stormers conceded a number of scrum penalties last week, which will be an area of concern as the Highlanders pack held up very well against the Sharks. The injury toll, particularly at the lock and hooker positions, is largely to blame for the Stormers’ demise this season, which has hit their set-piece performance in particular. The Stormers have received a timely boost, with hooker Scarra Ntubeni and winger Sailosi Tagicakibau returning to the starting line-up, however fly-half Demetri Catrakilis and fullback Cheslin Kolbe are another week from returning. Kurt Coleman gets his first start of the season at fly-half this week.
The Highlanders enter this fixture full of confidence after upsetting the table-topping Sharks 34-18 in Durban last week. They outscored the hosts by four tries to nil to extend their winning streak to three games. The nightmare that was their 2013 season now appears to be long behind them as only points difference now separates them from a playoff spot. The Highlanders have suffered a double injury blow ahead of this clash, with Patrick Osborne and Craig Millar returning home with injuries.
Head-to-head pick: Highlanders
Line pick: Highlanders +4.5
Conservative betting: Stormers fans have every reason to be worried given their side, which is known for its strong defence, gave up five tries to the struggling Cheetahs last week. The Highlanders are a well balanced team that will pose the Stormers problems all over the park on Saturday. I would back the Highlanders +8.5 at 1.54 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the Stormers have dominated the Highlanders in recent seasons, but I give the visitors a fighting chance of sneaking an upset win this weekend. I would back the Highlanders 1-12 at 3.50 (Sportingbet).
Sunday, 4 May
Bulls v Cheetahs
1:05 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
View a detailed form guide for Bulls v Cheetahs
The Bulls will be relieved to be back on home soil after picking up four bonus point losses in their four-game Australasian tour. Their 9-15 loss to the Force would have been particularly frustrating as they made numerous handling errors in the wet conditions. Their finishing touch has let them down in recent weeks, with the Bulls failing to score a try in their last two games – a first in their Super Rugby history. The Bulls now sit nine points behind South African conference leaders the Sharks, however with the Sharks now embarking on a four-game overseas tour the Pretoria side will look to close the gap, knowing that South African teams are winless in Australasia this season. The Bulls remain without captain Flip van der Merwe who is suspended and Piet van Zyl, who is still recovering from a knee injury. They have made a number of rotational changes for this clash, one of which being Handre Pollard getting the start ahead of Jacques-Louis Potgieter at fly-half.
The Cheetahs picked up their first win since February by seeing off the struggling Stormers 35-22 last week. The win moved them off the bottom of the table but with ten points separating them from a playoff spot, post-season rugby looks highly unlikely. After failing to close out games from winning positions late in games they will be pleased by their strong finish last week. They will harbour genuine hopes that they can record their first ever back-to-back wins of the season when they take on the battered and bruised Bulls who have just returned from Australia. The Cheetahs retain the same starting XV as last week with fly-half Johan Goosen returning from injury to start from the bench.
Head-to-head pick: Bulls
Line pick: Cheetahs +5.5
Conservative betting: last year the Bulls returned home to South Africa after a bruising and disappointing overseas tour, but bounced back with a home win over the Cheetahs. They had a bye after their tour in 2013, however, while this year they will be playing their seventh game in as many weeks. The Bulls have historically dominated the Cheetahs but the Cheetahs snapped their losing streak to the Pretoria side earlier this season. While I’m not convinced they’ll win, the Cheetahs will pose a lot of problems for the travel-weary home side so I would back the Cheetahs +9.5 at 1.56 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the last three meetings between the two sides have been won by 6, 5 and 6 points and I don’t anticipate either side blowing the other away this weekend. Given the Bulls 6-1-1 home record and the Cheetahs 1-7 away record over the last 12 months, I would back the Bulls 1-12 at 2.62 (bet365).