Friday, 11 July
Blues v Chiefs
5:35 PM AEST, Eden Park, Auckland
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The Blues were left to rue mistakes out wide as they suffered a heartbreaking 8-point loss to the Crusaders last week to be denied a bonus point. With the 5th placed Hurricanes sitting this round out and the 6th placed Brumbies hosting the 7th placed Force, remarkably, the Blues still have a minuscule chance of making the playoffs. They need to defeat the Chiefs by 38 points, pick up four tries and hope the loser of the Brumbies vs. Force clash doesn’t pick up a bonus point. The Blues can take heart from their 6-1 home record this season, however they have a six-game losing streak against the Chiefs. The Blues have been hit by a number of injuries ahead of this match, with Frank Halai, Tony Woodcock and captain Luke Braid ruled out. Pita Ahki is also out after joining the NZ Sevens team.
The Chiefs picked up a crucial victory over the Hurricanes last week to keep their playoff hopes alive. The win was also important from a confidence perspective because the Hurricanes had hammered them in Round 15 and it was the Chiefs’ best performance in a while. The Chiefs know a win would guarantee them playoff rugby, however they will be wary of a Blues team that has been impressive at home this season. The Blues need four tries this Friday, which may actually play into the Chiefs’ favour, because they are a good counterattacking team. The Chiefs reshuffled their back line for last week’s clash and were evidently happy with the results. They have made just one change for this week, with Bundee Aki coming in to replace Charlie Ngatai, who is out with a shoulder injury.
Head-to-head pick: Blues
Line pick: Blues +1.0
Conservative betting: with the Blues needing four tries and a 38+ winning margin, this should be a good game for the neutral. This is typically a physical, intense fixture, which doesn’t lend itself to massive winning margins, so I don’t see the Blues making the playoffs this year. In terms of who will win the clash, bookmakers are struggling to separate the two sides, with some installing the Blues as marginal favourites and others favouring the Chiefs. Six of the last seven clashes between the two were won by 12 points or fewer, so I would back both the Blues 1-12 at 2.95 (Sportingbet) and the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.90 (Palmerbet).
Aggressive betting: the Blues have already beaten the likes of the Waratahs and Crusaders at home this season while the Chiefs have failed to win their last six away games. I would back the Blues 1-12 at 2.95 (Sportingbet).
Brumbies v Force
7:40 PM AEST, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
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Prior to their bye last week the Brumbies visited the Waratahs missing eleven players, including six Wallabies, and were hammered 8-39 to give the NSW side the Australian conference title. The Brumbies now occupy the 6th and last playoff spot, with only points difference separating them from the 7th placed Force. Because the 5th placed Hurricanes have a bye this round, the winner of this clash will be assured a playoff spot, regardless of the Chiefs vs. Blues result. The bye week came in handy for the Brumbies last week, with the rest giving Matt Toomua and Sam Carter time to recover from their injuries. Pat McCabe and Joe Tomane will return via the bench.
After a poor run of one win in four games, the Force kept their playoff hopes alive last week with a 30-20 win over the Reds. They know a win would guarantee them their first ever playoffs rugby although, depending on the Blues vs. Chiefs result, a bonus point may also be sufficient. The Force will have an uphill battle this Friday, with the Brumbies boasting a 6-1 home record this season. There will be belief in the Force camp, however. They have won in Canberra before and the Brumbies have been hurting with injuries. Unfortunately the Force will be without Hugh McMeniman themselves, after he picked up a one-game suspension.
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Brumbies -7.5
Conservative betting: this fixture features two teams who have faded in the tail end of this season. Given the Brumbies enjoy a fantastic record in Canberra, where they have a 6-1 win/loss record with a 5-2 record at the line, I would back the Brumbies -3.5 at 1.50 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the Brumbies beat the Force by 13 points earlier this season in Perth and the last time the Force came to Canberra they were hammered 41-7. With bonus points potentially all important for playoff seeding this weekend, I’m going to be aggressive and back the Brumbies -15.5 at 3.10 (Sportingbet).
Saturday, 12 July
Bulls v Rebels
3:10 AM AEST, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
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The Bulls travelled to Cape Town last week needing a bonus point victory to keep their playoff chances alive. Instead they were shut out 16-0 by the Stormers to leave them stranded at 10th on the table. Remarkably, the Bulls are the 2nd highest ranked team in South Africa, which highlights just how poor the South African conference has been this season. As is the case for many South African sides, the Bulls have a lopsided home/away record, going 6-1-0 at home and 0-8 on the road. With little to play for this weekend, the Bulls have reshuffled their line-up, making seven changes for this clash.
The Rebels fell 17-34 to the Lions last week to extend their losing streak to four games. The final score line was harsh, with the Lions scoring late points after a yellow card to Scott Higginbotham in the 69th minute. The Rebels now sit bottom of the overall standings but will give themselves a chance of getting a result this round, with the Bulls putting in an awful performance last week. Like last week, this game will be played at altitude, so the Rebels will be weary of their 80-minute fitness after they faded towards the end against the Lions. They will be without captain Scott Higginbotham, who picked up a one-game suspension, and Tom Kingston, who picked up a knee injury.
Head-to-head pick: Bulls
Line pick: Rebels +19.5
Conservative betting: as bad as the Bulls were last week, they have only lost once at home this season and the side will want to make amends for last week’s shutout loss. The Rebels have suffered 13+ defeats in their last four straight outings, so I would back the Bulls -12.5 at 1.48 (Sportsbet).
Crusaders v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEST, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
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The Crusaders beat the Blues last week to guarantee themselves a playoff spot. They will now set their sights on the 2nd overall seed to avoid the qualifiers next weekend. The return of Nemani Nadolo to the wing last week gave the Crusaders a massive lift. Also, Dan Carter’s return to the squad has been timely, with Colin Slade leaving the field to undergo concussion tests in each of the last two games. Richie McCaw remains out however Sam Whitelock returns.
Depending on other results this weekend, the Highlanders could finish the round as high as 2nd or as low as 8th. They would need to win with more than four tries and deny the Crusaders a bonus point to win the New Zealand conference, however I’m sure the Highlanders would happily settle for just a playoff spot given how long they’ve been in the wilderness. The Highlanders looked poor as they were hammered by the Waratahs last weekend, however the Waratahs have been in a class of their own over the last five rounds. Fullback Ben Smith has been ruled out of this clash, which is a massive blow for the Highlanders.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Crusaders -9.5
Conservative betting: the Crusaders have won the last four clashes between the two sides and they look stronger for having Dan Carter back in the side (big surprise, I know!). I would back the Crusaders -5.5 at 1.55 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: six of the Highlanders’ seven fixtures against Kiwi sides were settled by 12 points or less this season while all seven of the Crusaders’ fixtures were settled by 1-12 points. I would back the Crusaders 1-12 at 3.10 (Palmerbet).
Reds v Waratahs
7:40 PM AEST, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
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After conceding a large early lead the Reds fought back gallantly last week but ultimately fell short against the Force, losing 20-30. The loss brought to an end a two-game winning streak – their longest of the season. With the Waratahs already having secured first seed in the playoffs, the Reds don’t have the opportunity to play the spoiler, but they will be looking to end their season on a high with a win over their rivals. The Reds will be down to their third choice halfback, with Nick Frisby suffering a broken jaw against the Force last week.
The Waratahs look to be in a league of their own at the moment. They outscored the Highlanders six tries to one last week to notch their 6th consecutive win. The Waratahs’ average winning margin has been 25 points over the last five rounds, with not even the loss of captain Dave Dennis disrupting their run. Given they are assured of a home semi-final, I would be shocked if the Waratahs don’t win this year’s title. They are undefeated at home this season and while the Crusaders and Sharks loom as their biggest threats, neither team has shined over the last few rounds. Israel Folou will miss this clash due to a corked thigh while Will Skelton comes in for Jacques Potgieter.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Waratahs -7.5
Conservative betting: the Waratahs should win comfortably, however the danger is they will opt to stay in first gear to avoid unnecessary injuries. The Waratahs are only 3-4 on the road this season, so this result isn’t as clear cut as first meets the eye. The Waratahs also haven’t won in Brisbane in years. I would tread lightly, but if I were to bet I would back the Waratahs -1.5 at 1.51 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the Waratahs’ Achilles heel in recent years has been their away form, with the side going 2-6 on the road last year and losing four of their first five away fixtures this year. Since then, however, they’ve won their last two away games by more than 13 points, which bodes ominously for the rest of the competition – not that they’ll need to travel again this season. I’m going to throw the form book out and back the Waratahs 13+ at 2.75 (Sportingbet).
Sunday, 13 July
Lions v Cheetahs
1:05 AM AEST, Ellis Park, Johannesburg
View a detailed form guide for Lions v Cheetahs
After enduring a torrid seven-game losing streak mid-season, the Lions have now won back to back games, beating the Bulls prior to the international break then the Rebels last week. With six wins for the year, this has been a decent season for the Johannesburg side given they were forced to sit out Super Rugby in 2013. They will now set their sights on beating the Cheetahs to avoid being the lowest ranked South African team this year.
As is so often the case, it’s the compatriot sides that inflict the most damage on teams’ playoff aspirations, and last week was another example as the Cheetahs upset the Sharks 27–20 to put the Durban side’s 2nd seed in jeopardy. The win took the Cheetahs off the bottom of the overall standings and it keeps them withing touching distance of the Lions. Earlier this year the South African Rugby Union scrapped the two-legged promotion/relegation play-off with the Kings, otherwise this game could have spelled relegation for the loser.
Head-to-head pick: Lions
Line pick: Lions -1.0
Conservative betting: this could go either way, but I’ll side with the Lions because the Cheetahs are 0-7 on the road this season. I would back the Lions in the head-to-head at 1.75 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: the last time the two sides met the Lions won by a solitary point. I don’t see the Cheetahs getting blown away so I would back the Lions 1-12 at 2.76 (Palmerbet).
Stormers v Sharks
3:10 AM AEST, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
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It’s remarkable how closely this season for the Stormers has resembled their 2013 campaign. In 2013 they finished the season on a five-game winning streak after their playoff chances had expired. Fast forward one year and the Stormers now head into this fixture having won their last four straight, despite being well out of playoff contention. Last week they put in one of their best performances of the season to terminate the Bulls’ playoff chances by beating them 16-0. In their last three home games the Stormers have conceded just a combined 8 points. It appears that playing without play-off anxiety brings out the best in the side. Yes, the Stormers have been hampered by injuries this season, but the side still has a lengthy injury list, which will make fans wonder why they couldn’t find this kind of form earlier in the season. The Stormers have one new injury going into this clash, with Deon Fourie ruled out with a hamstring injury. Springbok hooker Tiaan Liebenberg will start in his absence.
After leading the overall standings for the majority of the season, it’s now all going wrong for the Sharks, who have lost their last two games – at home to the Stormers and then away to the Cheetahs – to slip to 3rd in the standings. The South African conference is all wound up so they don’t have to fear dropping below 3rd, however they will have to rely on the Highlanders doing them a favour against the Crusaders if the Sharks are to secure 2nd seed and a home semi-final. The Sharks will need to improve on their form over the last two rounds, where they’ve been guilty of conceding too many handling errors and penalties. Coach Jake White may also be ruing his decision to rotate a number of regular starters to the bench last round. The Sharks will be desperate for a win this weekend to build some confidence ahead of the playoffs.
Head-to-head pick: Stormers
Line pick: Stormers -0.0
Conservative betting: I can understand why bookmakers can’t separate the two sides this week, however I’m going to have to side with the Stormers given they’ve been playing the best rugby of late. The Cape Town side is also 6-1 at home this season. I would back the Stormers in the head-to-head at 1.91 (Sportingbet).
Aggressive betting: the last six clashes between the two sides were won by 7 points or less. The Sharks have yet to lose by more than 12 points on the road this season so I would back the Stormers 1-12 at 2.85 (Sportingbet).