Friday, 16 May
Hurricanes v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
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After starting the season with three back to back losses the Hurricanes have moved into sixth overall with a 25-15 win over the Rebels in Melbourne. It wasn’t a dominant performance, but the win is all that counts and they have been hard to come by for away teams this season. With the squad close to full strength after early season injuries, the Wellington side has now lost just one of its last six games. With the Blues and Chiefs sitting this round out, there is an opportunity for both them and the 7th placed Highlanders to make a move this week in what is turning out to be an incredibly competitive New Zealand conference. The Chiefs have 35 points, with the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Highlanders and Blues on 31, 30, 30 and 25 points, respectively. In two changes from the starting line up from last week, hooker Motu Matu’u comes in for the injured Dane Coles while inside centre Tim Bateman gets the start ahead of Alapati Leiua.
The Highlanders nearly blew a 23-0 halftime lead last week to win 23-22 against the fast-finishing Lions in Dunedin. Fatigue may have played a role as the Highlanders had just returned from their tour of South Africa, however they will be disappointed by the drop in second half performance which saw them fail to pick up a bonus point after scoring three first half tries.
Head-to-head pick: Hurricanes
Line pick: Highlanders +8.5
Conservative betting: I expect the Hurricanes to be too strong, however they will be wary of the Highlanders who have won their last three straight visits to Wellington. The last seven clashes between the two sides have all been settled by 7 points or less, so this may be closer than bookmakers are predicting. The Highlanders are 6-2 at the line away from home over the last twelve months, so I would back the Highlanders +13.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: given the average winning margin over the last seven clashes between these two sides has been 4.7 points, I would back the Hurricanes 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet).
Saturday, 17 May
Crusaders v Sharks
5:35 PM AEST, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
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After starting the season in an offensive slump, the Crusaders have become a points accumulating machine, scoring 40 points against the Brumbies then 57 points against the Reds. As I’ve written before, their early season woes centred around their back line which was failing to fire, but since they gave Colin Slade the No. 10 jersey in Round 8, they’ve won five consecutive games, four of which were on the road. Slade went 11/11 with the boot last week and is arguably in the best form of his career. The Crusaders have also benefited from the injection of their new signing, over-sized Fijian winger, Nemani Nadolo. Nadolo has scored six tries in his last four games. On the injury front, the Crusaders will be buoyed by Richie McCaw’s 80-minute performance last week, however they have lost lock Luke Romano for an extended period with a knee injury while Kieran Read remains out with a concussion. Israel Dagg is being rested this week so Tom Taylor gets the start at fullback.
The Sharks were beaten at their own game in wet conditions last week as the Brumbies employed a kicking-based game to defeat them 16-9 in Canberra. With the Sharks and Crusaders likely to trade penalties this weekend, coach Jake White will be hoping third-choice fly-half François Steyn can find more accuracy with the boot after going 3/6 against the Brumbies. Steyn was also off target with his in-play kicking. He will be going up against Colin Slade, who went 11/11 against the Reds in Round 13.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Crusaders -9.0
Conservative betting: the Crusaders are the masters at forcing opposition sides into coughing up penalties. With Colin Slade’s radar as accurate as it has been in recent weeks, I don’t see the Sharks keeping up with the Crusaders’ point-accumulating machine. While the Sharks do top the overall standings, they have played the bulk of their matches at home and have yet to beat a top-ten team on the road this year. My only concern for the Crusaders is the absence of Israel Dagg at fullback. Given the Sharks’ propensity for in-play kicking, the Crusaders will miss Dagg’s assurance under the high ball and his ability to carve off territory with his strong boot. Nevertheless, I would back the Crusaders -4.5 at 1.52 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Sharks have a miserable record in Christchurch, having lost their last three visits by an average of over 24 points, however they are a more formidable opponent this year than in previous seasons. I would back the Crusaders to win by 11-15 at 6.00 and 16-20 at 8.50 (Sportsbet).
Reds v Rebels
7:40 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
View a detailed form guide for Reds v Rebels
The Reds’ 2014 season continues to go from bad to worse as they were thumped 57-29 by the Crusaders at Suncorp Stadium last week. The Reds have been known for their strong home form in recent seasons and had not lost at home to the Crusaders in six years, but they have now lost their last three straight home games. As I mentioned last week, a worrying sign for the Reds is the scale of their recent defeats. After losing by three points in both Rounds 8 and 9, they have since lost by 14, 30 and 28 points. Defence has been their Achilles heel, conceding 35 points in Round 11, then 44 in Round 12 and 57 in Round 13. While I don’t expect the Rebels to put up a cricket score this weekend, the Brisbane side will provide them with plenty of opportunities. Prop James Slipper remains out with a suspension for this clash.
The Rebels fell 15-25 to the Hurricanes at home last week to slip to 12th in the overall standings. They defended well to keep the potent Hurricanes offence at bay, but paid the price for Jason Woodward’s 2/6 night with the boot and repeat penalty infringements. The Rebels have been boosted by the likely return of Lopeti Timani and Toby Smith for this clash. Halfback Nic Stirzaker’s injury isn’t as severe as was initially feared, so he looks likely to return to the squad sometime after the June Tests. Male Sau and Shota Horie are away to play in a World Cup qualifier for Japan this weekend.
Head-to-head pick: Reds
Line pick: Rebels +3.5
Conservative betting: while the Reds are coming off a heavy loss, they can take heart from the fact that the Crusaders put 40 past the usually defensively strong Brumbies a week earlier. The Rebels have yet to win on the road this season, but they will view the wounded Reds as an opportunity to rectify that statistic. The Rebels will likely have prop Toby Smith back for this clash, who will be happy to see James Slipper viewing this game from the sideline. I can’t separate these two sides, so I would back both the Reds 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet) and the Rebels 1-12 at 3.35 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: given the Reds are undefeated against the Rebels and given the Rebels’ poor away form, if the Reds can snap their five-game losing streak, I don’t anticipate it being by a blowout margin. I would back the Reds 1-12 at 2.70 (Sportingbet).
Sunday, 18 May
Stormers v Force
1:05 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
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The injury-hit Stormers shot out to a 12-0 lead against the Bulls last week, but were slowly strangled out of the game thanks to the game control of halfback Francois Hougaard and the 100% kicking performance of Handre Pollard. It was actually a decent performance from the Stormers given the side had been hit by eight new injuries leading up to that fixture, which forced them to name three debutantes in the matchday 23. The result leaves them winless on the road, however the Stormers are 3-1 at home this season. They held off the Highlanders 29-28 two weeks ago, but given their significant injury list, they will have their hands full against the in-form Force. The Stormers have suffered yet another injury blow ahead of this match, with hooker Scarra Ntubeni out for up to at least eight weeks with a broken foot. In better news, lock Michael Rhodes and winger Kobus van Wyk return to the starting XV. Peter Grant shifts from inside centre to fly-half this week, with Kurt Coleman dropping to the bench.
The Force maintain their 100% record against foreign sides this season by beating the Cheetahs 23-16 in Bloemfontein last week. They will be pleased by the performance of their forwards, who dominated the Cheetahs in the scrum and at the breakdown in the first half. The force will also be proud of their defensive effort that conceded just one try despite the Cheetahs’ dominance of territory and possession. The Perth side has now lost just one of its last eight games to sit 5th in the overall standings. Given the Stormers’ injury woes this season, the Force will certainly view this fixture as one they can win.
Head-to-head pick: Force
Line pick: Force +3.0
Conservative betting: the Force will pose the Stormers a lot of problems here. They’ve already beaten the Bulls and Cheetahs this season so they know how to play South African sides. I would back the Force +7.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: I give the Force a fighting chance of winning this. I would back the Force 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Cheetahs v Brumbies
3:10 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
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The Cheetahs dominated possession last week but paid the price for two breakout tries to lose 16-23 at home to the Force. They are playing exciting rugby at the moment but continue to suffer from turnover possession this season. The result leaves them 14 points outside the playoffs, so post-season rugby is virtually out of reach for the Bloemfontein side. The Cheetahs have no new injury concerns ahead of this clash.
The Brumbies ground out an important 16-9 home win over the Jake White-led Sharks last week to maintain their lead in the Australian conference. It was a terrible game for the neutral, with both sides relying heavily on in-play kicking, but the Brumbies will be pleased to have beaten the Sharks at their own style of rugby ahead of their two-game tour of South Africa. Winger Joe Tomane is in doubt for the tour due to a cheekbone injury he picked up against the Sharks. With the Cheetahs not your typical South African side due to their more enterprising play, hopefully for the sake of the neutral the Brumbies will opt to keep ball in hand this week!
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Brumbies -4.0
Conservative betting: my initial instinct was to back the Brumbies, but this fixture could go either way because the Cheetahs’ form has picked up recently, even if they aren’t getting the results. Two costly turnovers resulted in their defeat last week, so they will feel unlucky not to have won. I would back both the Cheetahs 1-12 at 3.50 (Sportingbet) and the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.68 (Palmerbet).
Aggressive betting: while I feel a Brumbies win is more likely, of the two above 1-12 wagers, I will take the value and back the Cheetahs 1-12 at 3.50 (Sportingbet).
Waratahs v Lions
4:05 PM AEST, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
View a detailed form guide for Waratahs v Lions
Prior to their bye last week the Waratahs outlasted the Hurricanes in a helter-skelter points-scoring duel to win 39-30 in Sydney. The result stretches the Waratahs’ lopsided home and away records to 5-0 and 1-4 this season. Given the potency of the Waratahs attack this could be a tough afternoon for the visitors, however the Lions’ second half performance against the Highlanders will have provided a reality check to anyone who expects them to roll over as they did against the Chiefs. While the Waratahs did put 39 points past the Hurricanes in their last outing, it should be noted that they only averaged 16 points per game over their five preceding fixtures.
After being blown out 8-38 by the Chiefs in Round 12, the Lions were unlucky not to beat the Highlanders in Dunedin last week, losing 22-23 after being down 0-23 at the break. They paid the price for a poor performance with the boot, with Elton Jantjies and Marnitz Boshoff combining for just one successful conversion of their four tries. To be fair, Elton Jantjies was entitled to a second attempt for the fourth try conversion because the Highlanders had charged early, however referee Angus Gardner controversially declined him a second attempt.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Waratahs -17.5
Conservative betting: the Waratahs’ point scoring machine finally found some form against the Hurricanes after going through a subdued five-game stretch. With the Lions holding one of the worst defensive records in the competition, the Waratahs will be looking to put in another entertaining performance on Sunday. They will have to put in a genuine shift, however, because the Lions are a physical, hardworking team. I would back the Waratahs -11.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Waratahs will be fresh after a bye so they should be too strong on Sunday. I would back the Waratahs 16-20 at 6.00 and 21-25 at 6.50 (Sportsbet).