After a consistent period where bookmaker favourites won 10 out of 11 games, the installed favourites have only won 2 of the last 11 games, highlighting the unpredictability of the competition at the moment.
Friday, 4 July
Chiefs v Hurricanes
5:35 PM AEST, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
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The Chiefs’ aspirations of winning a third successive title now hang by a thread after losing 25-29 to the Highlanders last week. The Chiefs currently sit 9th but their destiny still arguably remains in their own hands. They play the 5th placed Hurricanes this week and 8th placed Blues in the final round. Furthermore, the 5th placed Hurricanes have a bye next week while the 6th placed Brumbies have a bye this round. Can the Chiefs pull off another title win, then? Based on recent form I would say no. They weren’t able to contain the dynamic back line of the Highlanders last week, with the likes of Malakai Fekitoa causing problems for them all evening. They now have to take on the Hurricanes, then the Blues, who boast the 3rd and 2nd best offensive records, respectively, this season. The Chiefs have made a host of changes to the squad for this clash, with a revamped back line named this week.
While the narrow winning score line didn’t reflect it, the Hurricanes were far better than the Crusaders last week, dominating both territory and possession for most of the match to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Wellington side have a bye next round so they will feel anything short of a win this week will see them miss the playoffs. The Hurricanes will be without Victor Vito and Alapati Leiua for this clash. They are also struggling with injuries at the hooker position, with the starting and reserve hookers yet to be named at the time of writing.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Hurricanes +3.5
Conservative betting: this is a tough fixture to predict. The Hurricanes thrashed the Chiefs 45-8 in Round 15, with the Waikato side having no answer to the Hurricanes’ enterprise on attack, however the Hurricanes are missing key players this week. I’m also wary of the fact that the Chiefs are 7-2 at home over the last 12 months while the Hurricanes are 2-6 on the road. With both teams’ seasons on the line, I expect this to be a close encounter. I would back both the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.80 (Palmerbet) and the Hurricanes 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: the Chiefs bring a three game losing streak into this fixture, while the Hurricanes are fresh off a dominant win over the Crusaders. Of the two wagers above, I would take the value and back the Hurricanes 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Saturday, 5 July
Lions v Rebels
3:10 AM AEST, Ellis Park, Johannesburg
View a detailed form guide for Lions v Rebels
Prior to the international break the Lions upset the Bulls 32-21. The win snapped a seven-game losing streak and will have given the Johannesburg side belief that they can avoid the wooden spoon in the South African conference. Fly-half Marnitz Boshoff was immense against the Bulls, putting in a faultless goal-kicking performance that included two impressive drop goals. Another big positive for the Lions was their dominance over the vaunted Bulls scrum. The Lions will be hoping the favourite tag doesn’t hurt them this week. They are 4-2 at home when installed as the underdog but 0-1 when installed as the favourite. The Lions welcome back Springbok lock Franco van der Merwe for this clash.
The Rebels head to South Africa on the back on a demoralising home loss to the under-strength Reds last week. The 20-36 score line actually flattered the Melbourne side, who looked like the Melbourne of old, with a performance littered with errors and penalties. The Rebels have yet to win more than one game in a three-game stretch this season and they now face the prospect of finishing the year on a five-game losing streak.
Head-to-head pick: Lions
Line pick: Lions -5.5
Conservative betting: the Rebels are 1-4 on the road this season and they looked awful last week. I would back the Lions in the head-to-head at 1.45 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: I think it’s marginal whether to take the Lions 1-12 or 13+, so I would back both the Lions 6-10 at 4.50 and 11-15 at 7.00 (Sportsbet).
Crusaders v Blues
5:35 PM AEST, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
View a detailed form guide for Crusaders v Blues
On paper the Crusaders only lost by a narrow margin to the Hurricanes in Wellington last week (9-16), but the score line failed to reflect how poor they were, with the Canterbury side looking both toothless and rudderless at times. On the upside, the Crusaders can look forward to Nemani Nadolo’s return after the Fijian winger was on international duty last week. They can also draw positives from Dan Carter’s performance as a substitute after returning from a seven-month sabbatical.
The Blues finally have the monkey off their back after winning away from home for the first time since February, 2013. To highlight their poor away record, the Blues were also 1-7 at the line over the last twelve months leading up to last round. As I’ve written all season, if they could only match their intensity and work rate at Eden Park on the road they would be a major contender. With the Brumbies and Hurricanes sitting out this round and the Crusaders in indifferent form, the Blues will back themselves to sneak a playoff spot this year. They welcome back Charles Piutau to the starting line-up for this clash.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Blues +7.5
Conservative betting: the Blues seem to be playing more carefree rugby than the Crusaders at the moment. They also have the monkey off their back after winning away from home for the first time in over a year last week. I would back the Blues +11.5 at 1.53 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Crusaders should win this, but I recall the Blues playing the spoilers late in the 2012 season, when they upset the Brumbies in Canberra to derail their season. I would take the value and back the Blues 1-12 at 4.10 (Palmerbet).
Force v Reds
7:40 PM AEST, NIB Stadium, Perth
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The Force’s playoff chances were dealt a hammer blow by the Blues last week as the Western Australian side lost 14-40 at home. The Force conceded four early tries to trail 0-26 after 20 minutes and were never able to get back into the match. With just four points separating them from a playoff spot and the 5th and 6th placed teams sitting this round out, the Force still remain in playoff contention, but they will be wary of a Reds team that is playing with nothing to lose.
The Reds, playing without Will Genia or Quade Cooper for the first time since 2008, defeated the Rebels last week to record their first back-to-back wins of the season. Unfortunately, the win was marred by the loss of Dom Shipperley, who will require surgery after badly dislocating his ankle. Shipperley is the latest casualty, with Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Chris Feauai-Sautia already out for the season. While last week’s win was of academic interest only, the Reds now have the opportunity to impact the fortunes of a playoff hopeful this week.
Head-to-head pick: Reds
Line pick: Reds +2.5
Conservative betting: last week the Reds exacted revenge on the Rebels for their Round 14 home loss and this week provides an opportunity to do the same to the Force, who beat the Reds in Brisbane in Round 8. The Force have been poor in their last two outings while the Reds are playing some of their best rugby of the season. I tip the Reds to claim another scalp this week. I would back the Reds +6.5 at 1.54 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the Reds will fancy their chances here while the Force will be playing with the fear of losing. I would back the Reds 1-12 at 3.25 (bet365).
Sunday, 6 July
Stormers v Bulls
1:05 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
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Prior to the international break the Stormers recorded their first away win of the season by upsetting the conference leading Sharks 21-19 in Durban. The Sharks led for the majority of the game but Jaco Taute kicked a drop goal as the siren sounded to secure a third successive win for the Cape Town franchise. The Stormers’ 2014 season is starting to closely mirror 2013, when they finished on a five-game winning streak after their playoff hopes had expired. As has been the case all season, injuries continue to plague the Stormers. Eben Etzebeth will miss the rest of the season after injuring his toe, while Brok Harris, Ollie Kebble, Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe all have injuries. In better news, Schalk Burger and Gio Aplon have returned from injury.
The Bulls paid a heavy price for resting Victor Matfield against the Lions prior to the break, losing 21-32 to virtually terminate their playoff chances. The Lions were supposed to be tired and weary after their international tour put it was the Bulls who made the most mistakes. The Pretoria side were also beaten at the scrum and they lacked composure. The Bulls will be without Jacques du Plessis and captain Flip van der Merwe, who have been ruled out of the rest of the Super Rugby season with injury. Deon Stegmann remains a week away from returning.
Head-to-head pick: Stormers
Line pick: Stormers -3.0
Conservative betting: despite all of their injuries and struggles, the Stormers are 6-1 at home over the last 12 months while the Bulls are 0-8 on the road. I would back the Stormers in the head-to-head at 1.69 (Pinnacle Sports).
Aggressive betting: the last five Bulls’ losses have all been by 12 points less, so I would back the Stormers 1-12 at 2.76 (Palmerbet).
Cheetahs v Sharks
3:10 AM AEST, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
View a detailed form guide for Cheetahs v Sharks
After making the playoffs in 2013 the Cheetahs have endured a torturous season, winning just three games plus a draw compared to ten wins last year. Prior to the international break they were hammered 0-33 by the Stormers to stretch their miserable away record to 0-7. At home they are more competitive, with a 3-1-3 record, but the Cheetahs may be a bit rusty, with their last fixture coming back on the 24th of May due to byes in both Rounds 16 and 17.
The Sharks relinquished their long-held grip on the top overall seed by suffering a shock home defeat to the Stormers prior to the international break. The Stormers had previously failed to win on the road all season so the Sharks may have been guilty of underestimating their opponents. The Sharks sit 2nd in the overall standings and will have to rely on the Waratahs slipping up if they are to take the first overall seed. The Durban side will know that second place wouldn’t be the end of the world, given their 3-1 overseas record this season, but they will be desperate to avoid falling down to third seed, which would require winning two overseas playoff games to win the title. The Sharks have received a boost for their push towards the finals with Frans Steyn and Patrick Lambie both returning to training.
Head-to-head pick: Sharks
Line pick: Cheetahs +7.5
Conservative betting: the Sharks are 4-0 this season on the back of a loss and with so much at stake I expect them to get the result. I would back the Sharks -2.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: on the road the Sharks have generally won without blowing teams away. This season their solitary 13+ road win was against the lowly Lions when the Sharks won by 13 points exactly. I would back the Sharks 1-12 at 2.70 (Palmerbet).
Waratahs v Highlanders
4:05 PM AEST, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
View a detailed form guide for Waratahs v Highlanders
The Waratahs are now the clear favourite to win the title after they thumped the under-strength Brumbies 39-8 last week. The victory was their 5th in a row, however it came at a cost, with captain Dave Dennis ruled out for the season with a suspected torn ACL. With the Brumbies sitting this round out with a bye, the Waratahs have now wrapped up the Australian conference and will be eyeing up the coveted first overall seed to avoid travelling during the playoffs. The Waratahs get the headlines for their offensive prowess, but what is equally impressive is they also boast the best defensive record in the competition, which puts them in good stead for July. Stephen Hoiles will start in place of the injured Dave Dennis for this clash.
Last week I wrote about the Highlanders’ tough run in to the finish, with the Chiefs (H), Waratahs (A) and Crusaders (A) to play, but the southern men have given themselves a genuine chance of making the playoffs after beating the Chiefs 29-25 in Dunedin. Malakai Fekitoa and the rest of their All Black contingent were in great form after the international Tests, with the Chiefs unable to contain the Highlanders back line. Lima Sopoaga continues to have a strong season at fly-half, going 6/6 last week. Also, their scrum held up well until substitutions were made, which will be a relief after their poor showing against the Reds. The Highlanders are now in a position where they can afford to lose this fixture and still make the playoffs, although they would love to collect at least a bonus point or two.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Waratahs -8.5
Conservative betting: the Highlanders will definitely pose the Waratahs some problems on Sunday. They boast a potent back line and decent forward pack, but the Waratahs should be too strong at home, where they boast a 6-1 line record this season. I would back the Waratahs -3.5 at 1.52 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: it’s marginal whether the Waratahs will win by 1-12 or 13+, so I would back the Waratahs 11-15 at 6.00 and 16-20 at 8.50 (Sportsbet).