Friday, 9 May
Chiefs v Blues
5:35 PM AEST, Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth
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The Chiefs recovered from a slow start to dispatch the Lions 38-8 last week. The visitors dominated possession and territory early before the Waitako side ran out 6 tries to 1 winners. While fans will welcome their return to winning ways, since Round 4 the Chiefs haven’t beaten a team inside the top 10 so questions still remain over their title credentials. A major issue is their continual struggle at set-pieces this season, with the Lions dominating the scrums and line-outs last week. Despite these concerns the Chiefs still top the New Zealand conference, however, and have an excellent opportunity to cement their lead when they take on the Blues, who have been terrible on the road over the last 1 1/2 seasons. On the injury front, Halfback Augustine Pulu is out for the next three matches while Lock Ross Filipo picked up a hamstring injury against the Lions and could miss up to 10 weeks.
The Blues maintain their undefeated run at home after thrashing the Reds 44-14 last week. Their 5-0 home record is in stark contrast to their 12-game losing streak on the road, however.
Ma’a Nonu continues to have an excellent season, playing a key role in three tries last week. The Highlanders will be wondering why he couldn’t show this kind of form for them last season.
After trying numerous players at the fly-half position, Blues management will be pleased with the performance of Simon Hickey, who went 7/7 with the boot last week. Recent signing Ihaia West also had a strong game off the bench. The victory did come at a cost, however, with midfielders Francis Saili and Jackson Willison ruled out for around six weeks. Captain Luke Braid remains a week away from returning.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Chiefs -7.0
Conservative betting: the Chiefs are 9-1 over the last 12 months while the Blues are 0-9 away from home and 1-8 at the line during this period. Also, the Chiefs have won their last five straight against the Blues. Until the Blues can turn around their chronic away form, I just can’t back them. I would back the Chiefs -2.5 at 1.51 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: this fixture tends to be brutal in intensity, with a total score that is often lower than what you’d expect. Six of the last seven encounters have been settled by 10 points or less, so I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).
Rebels v Hurricanes
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
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The Rebels paid the price for turning over possession to the Sharks last week when they fell 16-22. The defeat means the Melbourne side has yet to record back-to-back wins this season. In mixed injury news, halfback Nic Stirzaker is unavailable however prop Toby Smith may return for this clash.
The Hurricanes’ four-game winning streak came to an end with a 30-39 loss to the Waratahs in Sydney last week. They played breathtaking rugby between the 10th and 30th minutes, but paid the price for poor defence and game management. The Hurricanes will have to be fully focused for this fixture because this is one they will feel they should win, yet the Rebels pose more than enough threat to win this clash themselves. Lock Jeremy Thrush picked up a neck injury against the Waratahs next week so he may not feature this week.
Head-to-head pick: Hurricanes
Line pick: Hurricanes -2.5
Conservative betting: this is a tricky fixture to pick. The Hurricanes have been playing the better rugby, however they are just 2-7 away from home over the last twelve months while the Rebels are 6-2 at home. The two previous occasions these two sides met the total scores were 90 and 67. With the Hurricanes attacking as well as they have while defending as poorly as they have been, I would back the over in the total score market if the total is 50.5 or below. It’s worth noting that the Hurricanes have gone over the total in six of their last nine away games and eleven of their last sixteen games over the last 12 months.
Aggressive betting: while the Rebels have lost three of their last four games, none of those results were blowouts, with losing margins of 3, 6 and 6 points. I would back the Hurricanes 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).
Saturday, 10 May
Highlanders v Lions
5:35 PM AEST, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
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While the Highlanders will be disappointed not to have beaten the Stormers last week, they do return to New Zealand having accumulated seven points during their two-game tour of South Africa, which has enabled them to stay right in the playoff mix. They will be without reserve hooker Brayden Mitchell, who has been suspended for three weeks for a dangerous tackle. UPDATE: fly-half Lima Sopoaga has been ruled out with an ankle injury. Hayden Parker gets the start in his place.
The Lions started promisingly last week, dominating possession and territory early to lead at the 20-minute mark, however the Chiefs’ quality showed through in the end as they ran out 6 tries to 1 winners. This condemned the Lions to their fourth consecutive loss, which sees them drift ever further from the playoff race after making such a promising start to the season. The Lions continue to pay the price for their lack of squad depth this season. With so many squad members playing in their first ever overseas tour, they will do well to pick up any points on this tour.
Head-to-head pick: Highlanders
Line pick: Lions +11.5
Conservative betting: of all the South African sides, only the Sharks have crossed the Indian Ocean and won this season. The Highlanders boast a quality back line that will pose the Lions a lot of problems this weekend. Given the inexperience of the Lions squad away from South Africa, I would back the Highlanders -6.5 at 1.54 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: given (Highlanders halfback) Aaron Smith’s fantastic try scoring form of late, I would back Aaron Smith to score a try at 2.75 (Sportingbet). Aaron Smith (not to be confused with fullback Ben Smith) has scored in three of his last four games, including the last two fixtures against South African teams.
Brumbies v Sharks
7:40 PM AEST, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
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In what is unquestionably the match of the round, the top two sides in the competition face off as the Brumbies take on their former coach in Jake White. The Brumbies’ lead at the top of the Australian conference is just one point over the Waratahs, however the NSW side have a bye this week, which gives the Brumbies a chance to re-establish some breathing room.
The Brumbies forward pack came off second best last week as they fell 20-40 to the Crusaders in Christchurch. The loss extends the Brumbies’ losing streak against the Crusaders to four games, so the Canterbury side is certainly one the Brumbies will hope to avoid should they both make the playoffs. The Brumbies must now regroup quickly for this clash, because it may well end up determining who gets the coveted top seed for the playoffs. The struggles of overseas travelling teams this season highlight the importance of this home advantage. With the Springboks-laden Sharks visiting this weekend, the Brumbies forwards will need to improve on their performance from last week, which saw them out-muscled at scrum time and out-enthused at the breakdown. The Brumbies have been buoyed by the return of flanker Fotu Auelua for this clash.
By beating the Rebels 22-16 in Melbourne last week, the Sharks became the first South African team to win in Australasia this season. It wasn’t a pretty performance, but with points hard to come by overseas, coach Jake White will be happy to take them anyway he can. With tough visits to the Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues coming up, the result was crucial as the Durban side tries to maintain their gap over the Bulls, who remain in South Africa for the rest of the regular season. The Sharks continue to struggle at the fly-half position, with Fred Zeilinga ruled out for the rest of the tour. Marcell Coetzee has also been sent home injured.
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Brumbies -4.5
Conservative betting: I expect this to be an intense, physical encounter. The Brumbies must improve on their discipline form last week as the Sharks will be more than happy to accumulate points through the boot of Francois Steyn as the Crusaders did through Colin Slade last week. From a line betting perspective this clash is fascinating, because the Brumbies are 5-2 at the line at home over the last twelve months while the Sharks are 4-1 at the line on the road. Given the importance of home advantage this season, especially within one’s own country, I would back the Brumbies in the head-to-head at 1.56 (Pinnacle Sports).
Aggressive betting: the Sharks are well adept at accumulating points through penalties, much the same way that the Crusaders did to the Brumbies last week. If the Brumbies do win, I don’t see them doing so by a blowout margin. I would back the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.62 (bet365).
Sunday, 11 May
Cheetahs v Force
1:05 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
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The Cheetahs put in a lively performance but fell 21-26 to the Bulls in Pretoria last week to leave them with just two wins and a draw from eleven games. They sit bottom of the table but the good news is the Cheetahs have been playing better rugby over the last three weeks, with their defence averaging 22 points per game during this stretch compared to almost 48 points per game from Rounds 4-9. They have a dynamic back line and have scored over 36 points per game over their last three home fixtures, so the Cheetahs will be a tough assignment for the Force this weekend. The Cheetahs will be without flanker Jean Cook for this clash, however they welcome back fly-half Johan Goosen and prop Coenie Oosthuizen to the starting XV after they came off the bench against the Bulls.
After their five-game winning run was derailed by the Rebels in Round 10, the Force bounced back well to see off the Bulls 15-9 to remain very much in the playoff hunt. The wet conditions weren’t conducive to an expansive game, but the Force defended well to see off the Bulls’ late surge. The Force line-out regularly went astray, however, which is something they need to address as they commence their two-game tour of South Africa, where sides are known for their strong set-pieces.
Head-to-head pick: Cheetahs
Line pick: Cheetahs -3.5
Conservative betting: the Force don’t have a strong record in South Africa. Last year they even managed to lose 10-22 to the Kings, a team that struggled badly all season. The Cheetahs have a strong record against the Force and can take heart from their improvement in form in recent weeks. I would back the Cheetahs in the head-to-head at 1.62 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: the last two clashes between these two sides have been tight, low scoring affairs. The Force should be fresh given their bye last week so I expect them to be a real handful this weekend. I don’t anticipate the Cheetahs winning easily so I would back the Cheetahs 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportsbet).
Bulls v Stormers
3:10 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
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The Bulls will be thinking “home sweet home!” after they ended a run of four losses with a 26-21 victory over the Cheetahs in Pretoria. Like many sides, the Bulls have a lopsided home and away record this season, with a 4-1-0 record at Loftus Versfeld and a 0-6 record away from Pretoria. After returning home from a four-game overseas tour last week, the Bulls were a bit flat-footed in the first half, trailing the Cheetahs 9-18 at the break, but will be pleased with their dominant second half performance to stay within touch of the playoffs. The Bulls will be mindful that last year, and with the playoffs out of reach, the Stormers finished the season on a five-game winning streak. The Stormers were much more expansive against the Highlanders last week than they had previously been all season. It may be the case that the Stormers are at their most dangerous when they have nothing to play for.
The Stormers edged out the Highlanders 29-28 last week to bring their home record to 3-1 for the season. The bad news is the Stormers are 0-6 away from Cape Town this season and they now take on the Bulls, who are undefeated at home in 2014. The Stormers will be pleased by their offensive endeavours last week, which saw them score four tries for the first time all season. The question now is whether they will attempt the same enterprising rugby against a fellow South African side. The Stormers are ranked dead last in points scored this season, which is the main reason why they languish 14th on the table. They paid a heavy price for their win over the Highlanders, with Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Oli Kebble, Jurie van Vuuren, Michael Rhodes, Louis Schreuder, Jean de Villiers and Kobus van Wyk all dropping out with injuries. This has forced the Stormers to name three debutantes in the matchday 23.
Head-to-head pick: Bulls
Line pick: Bulls -6.5
Conservative betting: for both the Bulls and Stormers this season, their fixtures have been dominated by the home side, with both teams faring well at home but terribly on the road. The Stormers have suffered more than most on the road, with a 1-7 line record away from home over the last twelve months. Another factor is the Bulls are coming into this fixture on the back of a win and they have been a streaky side of late, with a 7-1-1 record on the back of a win and a 2-6 record on the back of a loss over the last 12 months. With the Bulls coming into this game on the back of a win, and with this fixture being played in Pretoria, I would back the Bulls -2.5 at 1.55 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: as with many South African derbies, clashes between the Bulls and Stormers tend to be close, low scoring affairs. Only once in the last seven clashes did one of the two win by more than ten points. I do have concerns for the Stormers, however, given they’re without eight members of last week’s squad (four starters & four reserves). I would back the Bulls both to win by 6-10 at 5.00 and 11-15 at 7.50 (bet365).
Reds v Crusaders
4:05 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
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The Reds’ dismal season continues after a 14-44 thrashing at the hands of the Blues last week in Auckland. They were unlucky with a few disallowed tries, but ill-discipline continues to cost the Reds this season, with two tries conceded with James Slipper in the sin bin. The loss extends their winless streak to four games, with the Queensland side winning only one of their last seven fixtures. To add insult to injury, prop James Slipper has received a three-week suspension for a lifting tackle while outside back Chris Feauai-Sautia and flankers Liam Gill & Eddie Quirk have picked up injuries. Gill and Quirk are out for a couple weeks while Feauai-Sautia’s is out for six months. Worryingly for the Reds, they have lost their last two games at Suncorp Stadium, which has been a fortress for them in previous seasons. Also, their losing margins are starting to grow. The Reds lost to the Force and Brumbies by 3 points each, before losing by 14 points to the Hurricanes and 30 points to the Blues. In one piece of good news, winger Dom Shipperley is available for selection after recovering from a hip injury which has kept him sidelined since round seven.
The Crusaders notched their fourth consecutive win by hammering the Brumbies 40-20 in Christchurch last week. After a typically slow start to the season the Canterbury side has now only lost once in seven games. Much of their turnaround is due to the stability at the fly-half position, with Colin Slade now the clear first choice for the No. 10 jersey. Slade went 7/8 with the boot to accumulate 23 points last week, matching Andrew Mehrtens’ team record. Their success against the Brumbies, however, was built around their dominant forward pack, which forced the visitors to cough up a consistent stream of penalties. Richie McCaw was impressive on his return from injury, winning a number of turnovers. McCaw’s return from injury is timely, with captain Kieran Read still out with concussion and openside flanker Matt Todd ruled out for four weeks with a calf injury. In other injury news, centre Kieron Fonotia is out for a month with a hamstring injury while Tom Taylor is in doubt due to a concussion.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Crusaders -7.5
Conservative betting: the way this season has been panning out, you have to be bold to take the away team this year, however the Crusaders may be an exception to this rule, having won their last four straight away games. The Red have a strong record against Kiwi sides, but given their struggles with form and injuries, I would back the Crusaders -2.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Crusaders haven’t won in Queensland for years, but the Reds have been consistently disappointing this season. Given the Reds’ strong home record against New Zealand teams I would be surprised if they were to be blown off the park on Sunday, so I would back the Crusaders 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet).