Friday, 23 May
Blues v Sharks
5:35 PM AEST, North Harbour Stadium, Albany
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Prior to their bye last week the Blues lost 20-32 to the Chiefs in New Plymouth to extend their winless streak on the road to 13 games. The Blues were their worst enemy as they repeatedly let themselves down with handling errors. As is typically the case for the Blues on the road, they were also out-enthused at the breakdown. I’ve written this a number of times before, but the Blues are a different beast at home, however, where they have trounced the Reds and Highlanders as well as beaten the Waratahs and Crusaders. They are undefeated at Eden Park this season, however this game will be played at North Harbour Stadium and the Blues have lost their last eight straight games against the Sharks. On the injury front the Blues welcome back captain Luke Braid however Charles Piutau, Piri Weepu, Francis Saili and Jackson Willison are out.
The Sharks have all but wrapped up the South African conference after they upset the Crusaders 30-25 in Christchurch to become the first South African side to inflict a home defeat on the Crusaders since 2001. The result was all the more remarkable given the Sharks lost flanker Jean Deysel to a red card offence in the 16th minute. This left them a man short for most of the match and two men short for 10 minutes of the second half after Willem Alberts was yellow carded. It was a messy game, with both teams giving away too many scrum penalties, but the Sharks will be delighted to have extended their lead at the top of the overall standings to five points. Jacques Botes get his first start of the season this week in place of Jean Deysel, who has been suspended for three weeks.
Head-to-head pick: Sharks
Line pick: Sharks +1.5
Conservative betting: the Sharks have won their last eight matches against the Blues, however the Blues have been dominant at home this season. Prior to last week the Crusaders scored nine tries in two games, but the 14-man Sharks limited them to just one try. Despite the Blues’ potent back line I don’t see them blowing the Sharks off the park due to the Sharks’ strong, well organised defence. At the same time, the Blues have been impressive at home so I don’t see them getting hammered either. I would back both the Blues 1-12 at 2.80 and the Sharks 1-12 at 3.00 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: this could easily go either way, but if I had to pick one team I’d side with the Sharks due to their historical dominance over the Blues. Also, the Blues have lost four of their last five games the week following a bye. I would back the Sharks 1-12 at 3.00 (Sportingbet).
Rebels v Waratahs
7:40 PM AEST, AAMI Park, Melbourne
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The Rebels maintain their small playoff hopes after beating the struggling Reds 30-27 in Brisbane, which was their first ever win over the Queensland franchise. Jason Woodward kicked a controversial late penalty for an eye-gouging offense that has left the Reds seething, but the Rebels will not care one bit. They now take on another team that has dominated them in recent seasons, with the Waratahs winning six of the last seven clashes between the two. The Waratahs thumped the Rebels 32-8 in Round 6, however the hosts can take heart from the fact their their only previous win over the Waratahs was last year in Melbourne. The Waratahs have been poor on the road this season so the Melbourne side will harbour genuine belief that they can pull off an upset. The Rebels are currently struggling at the halback position with Luke Burgess ruled out for six to eight weeks with a knee fracture. Nic Stirzaker is out with an ankle injury so Ben Meehan will get his starting debut this weekend.
After leading 17-13 at half time, the Waratahs pulled away from the Lions in the second half last week to win 41-17. It was by no means a clinical performance, with the Waratahs conceding 27 turnovers – 14 of which came from handling errors, however the crucial thing is they picked up the bonus point win. Fly-half Bernard Foley’s strong performance last week was timely given Quade Cooper’s injury and the Wallabies squad announcement for the June Tests. The Waratahs will be the favourite for this weekend’s clash, however they will have to lift their away form, which has seen them lose four out of their five road games this season.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Rebels +6.5
Conservative betting: the Waratahs started the season with strong home wins over the Force, Reds and Rebels, however they haven’t been as dominant since. They should be too strong for the Rebels, however I’m wary of backing them away from Allianz Stadium. Recall that the Waratahs dominated the Force at home in Round 1 but lost 16-28 in Perth in Round 9. I would back the Rebels +11.5 at 1.53 (Luxbet).
Aggressive betting: while I expect a Waratahs victory, I’m going to take the value by backing the Rebels 1-12 at 4.15 (Luxbet). Until the Waratahs can start winning consistently on the road I just can’t back them. I’m also weary of their high turnover count last week.
Bulls v Brumbies
3:10 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
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Prior to their bye last week the Bulls saw off a spirited Stormers side to win 28-12. The Stormers shot out to a 12-0 lead but the Bulls strangled the visitors out of the game through the control of halfback Francois Hougaard and 7/7 kicking performance of Handre Pollard. The South African conference has been virtually secured by the Sharks, however the Bulls remain in playoff contention, sitting 4 points behind the 6th placed Crusaders. After this week they have a relatively straight-forward set of fixtures to finish the season, however a loss this Round may leave them with too much ground to make up. The Bulls lost at home to the Brumbies in the playoffs last year so there will be an element of revenge this week. They welcome back captain Flip van der Merwe for this clash.
The Brumbies put in an off-colour performance against the Cheetahs last week, losing 21-27 in Bloemfontein to enable the Waratahs to move to one point behind them in the Australian conference. Last week they were left to rue a sub-par kicking effort from Christian Lealiifano, who missed two first half penalty attempts before handing the kicking tee to Nick White, who also missed two shots at goal. The Brumbies will also have to sort out their discipline on defence, which led to numerous penalties and a yellow card, because the Bulls are more than happy to accumulate their points three at a time.
Head-to-head pick: Bulls
Line pick: Bulls -3.5
Conservative betting: the Bulls are undefeated at home this season while the Brumbies have lost three of their last four away games. The Bulls are looking stronger by the week and should be refreshed after their bye, which came at the end of an arduous eight-game stretch that included a four-game overseas tour. I would back the Bulls in the head-to-head at 1.61 (Palmerbet).
Aggressive betting: the Brumbies are a well organised outfit that rarely get blown off the park. I would back the Bulls 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).
Saturday, 24 May
Highlanders v Crusaders
3:35 PM AEST, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
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After a forgettable 2013 the Highlanders continue to exceed expectations this year, beating the Hurricanes 18-16 in Wellington to move up into 5th on the table. They’ve lost just one of their last six games and boast a 5-1 home record this season. Their recent form is made all the more impressive by the fact that they were missing nearly a dozen players through injury and suspension last week, including their first-choice fly-half, Lima Sopoaga. As it happens, Hayden Parker has been a more than capable substitute, going 5/5 in penalty kicks to go with a successful drop goal to score all of the Highlanders points last weekend. The Highlanders have an uphill battle if they are to make the playoffs, however, with two fixtures against the Crusaders, as well as games against the Chiefs and Waratahs to come. Lima Sopoaga returns for this clash.
The Crusaders blew an excellent chance to move top of the New Zealand conference when they fell 25-30 at home to a 14-man Sharks last week in Christchurch. The loss broke a five-game winning streak and it was their first home defeat to a South African side since 2001. Sharks flanker Jean Deysel picked up a red card in the 16th minute and the visitors were reduced to 13 men for ten minutes in the second half, yet they still managed to outscore the Crusaders three tries to one as the home side bizarrely chose to stick to a kicking game despite their numerical advantage. The Crusaders now sit 3rd in the New Zealand conference, however they still sit inside the playoff spots, however, so their destiny remains in their own hands. The Crusaders have made six rotational changes to the starting squad from last week. They remain without captain Kieran Read, who is still battling to overcome a concussion.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Crusaders -4.5
Conservative betting: the Crusaders will be keen to make amends for last week and they come into this clash having won their last three straight games against their South Island rivals. The Crusaders also boast the best away record of the competition, going 5-0 on the road since their Round 3 loss at Eden Park. I am concerned, however, by their squad rotations, with the entire front row from last week dropped to the bench. While the Crusaders should win, I don’t expect it to be by the same comfortable margins that we have seen in their last three head to heads. I would back the Crusaders in the head-to-head at 1.58 (Pinnacle Sports).
Aggressive betting: as I wrote above, the Crusaders have made six rotational changes to the starting XV this week. They have opted for a more experienced back line, but have rotated out their starting front row. With South Island bragging rights at stake, the Highlanders will throw the kitchen sink at the Crusaders, however I predict the visitors will sneak away with a win. I would back the Crusaders 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).
Hurricanes v Chiefs
5:35 PM AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
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The Hurricanes’ playoff hopes took a hit with a 16-18 home loss to the Highlanders last week in a low quality affair. They paid the price for Beauden Barrett’s leg injury, with Andre Taylor going 1/3 from penalties in his place. The Hurricanes were also left to rue their mistakes, which undid their dominance in possession and territory. Like the Highlanders, the Hurricanes have a tough run of fixture to end the season, with two games against the Chiefs, plus clashes against the Blues and Crusaders to come. Beauden Barrett looks unlikely to play this weekend.
Prior to their bye in Round 13 the Chiefs saw off the Blues 32-20 to remain top of the New Zealand conference. They out-muscled the Blues forward pack and were rewarded for a better work ethic at the breakdown and aggression in tacking. The win brought to an end a nine-week unbroken stretch of games for the Chiefs – the longest continuous stretch for any team this season, so their bye last week was much needed. The Chiefs beat the Hurricanes last year in Wellington, however historically they haven’t fared well in New Zealand’s capital, so they will need to put in a strong performance if they are to get a result this weekend. Fly-half Aaron Cruden will make his much awaited comeback from a thumb injury this week.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Chiefs -1.5
Conservative betting: the Chiefs felt they played some of their best rugby this season in their last game while the Hurricanes will sorely miss fly-half Beauden Barrett. Presuming Barrett is out, I would back the Chiefs +3.5 at 1.49 (Sportsbet). I recommend this line over +2.5 because the last two times the Chiefs lost in Wellington it was by 3 points.
Aggressive betting: fixtures between the Hurricanes and Chiefs in Wellington tend to be won by a narrow margin. It’s been years since either team won by more than 7 points at this venue. I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).
UPDATE: since the publication of the above preview, Beauden Barrett has been named to start for the Hurricanes.
Force v Lions
7:40 PM AEST, NIB Stadium, Perth
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The Force return home from South Africa where they beat the Cheetahs 23-16 then lost to the Stormers 8-24. The Stormers have made a habit of getting out of the blocks quickly in recent weeks and the Force were unable to get back into the game once they found themselves down. With the Brumbies and Waratahs on the road this week, this Round provides an opportunity for the Force to make a move within the Australian conference. They take on a travel-weary Lions who have lost their last six games, although they have shown signs against the Highlanders and Waratahs that they aren’t a team to be taken lightly.
The Lions fought hard to restrict the Waratahs to a 17-13 half-time lead last week, but were blown away in the second half to lose 41-13. After a promising start to the season the Lions have now lost their last six games and are now in danger of collecting the competition’s wooden spoon, however with Super Rugby’s expansion plans for 2015, they don’t have to fear the spectre of relegation from the South African conference. The Lions will be hoping to put in an 80-minute performance this week after going scoreless in the first half against the Highlanders and the second half against the Waratahs. The Lions have been hit with injuries ahead of this clash, with Lionel Mapoe, Courtnall Skosan and Derick Minnie ruled out.
Head-to-head pick: Force
Line pick: Force -10.0
Conservative betting: the Stormers were at the bottom of the table when they upset the Force last week, so the Perth side will realise there are no easy beats in this competition. While they have previously lost to the unheralded Rebels and Stormers in recent weeks, both of those losses were on the road. The Force are 4-1 at home this season, where they have already beaten the likes of the Chiefs, Bulls and Waratahs. The Force should be too strong on Saturday, so I would back the Force -5.5 at 1.51 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the Lions are a physical, hard working side that will make life difficult for the Force on Saturday. I expect the margin to be around the 11-20 mark, so I would back the Force 6-10 at 4.50 and 11-15 at 5.50 (Sportsbet).
Sunday, 25 May
Stormers v Cheetahs
1:05 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
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The Stormers thrashed the Force 24-8 last week to improve their home record to 4-1. They’ve made a habit of starting quickly in recent weeks, being the first team to score in their last five fixtures. While their playoff chances are extinguished, the Stormers will be hoping to emulate their end to the 2013 season, when they finished the year with five consecutive wins despite being out of the playoff race. The Stormers have Jean de Villiers, Oli Kebble and Schalk Burger back for this clash.
The Cheetahs upset the Brumbies last week to pick up just their third win of the season. They remain winless on the road in 2014 and will be wary of the Stormers, who have picked up some form in recent weeks. The schedule hasn’t been kind to the Cheetahs this season. This will be their eighth consecutive game with an untimely bye scheduled for next week – just before the June Tests.
Head-to-head pick: Stormers
Line pick: Cheetahs +6.0
Conservative betting: the Stormers are 7-1 at home over the last 12 months while the Cheetahs are 0-8 on the road. With the Stormers getting key players back this week, they should be too strong this weekend. I would back the Stormers in the head-to-head at 1.50 (Pinnacle Sports).
Aggressive betting: the Cheetahs have lost nine games this season, but only two were by more than 12 points. I would back the Stormers 1-12 at 2.80 (Sportingbet).