If you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out our conference season previews:
- Super Rugby – 2015 Season Preview – Australian Conference
- Super Rugby – 2015 Season Preview – New Zealand Conference
- Super Rugby – 2015 Season Preview – South African Conference
Friday, 13 February
Crusaders v Rebels
5:35 PM AEDT, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
View a detailed form guide for Crusaders v Rebels
The Crusaders have a reputation for being slow starters and with a string of losses in pre-season and numerous players sidelined, that trend may well continue this year. Coach Todd Blackadder is fully aware of the threat that the unheralded Rebels present this week, opting to start Richie McCaw, who was previously scheduled to miss Round 1 as part of an agreement to keep key All Blacks fit. Also brought into the squad early are Wyatt Crockett and Ryan Crotty, who will start on the bench. Despite these inclusions, this is certainly and under-strength Crusaders side with both first and second choice halfbacks absent along with Israel Dagg, Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Nemani Nadolo.
Despite a poor 2014 the Rebels appear to be in good spirits coming into this season. No less than sixteen players have committing to the franchise until at least 2016 and they won both pre-season fixtures against the Reds and Highlanders. The Rebels lost their star fullback Jason Woodward during the off-season but they did well to sign Mike Harris and Dom Shipperley from the Reds. The Rebels are a poor road team and have a miserable record overseas, however they will sniff a chance of a shock upset against a Crusaders side that looks out of sorts.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Rebels +14.0
Conservative betting: over the last three seasons the Crusaders have gone 1-5 for the first two fixtures of each season. They have been poor this pre-season, highlighted by a 12-35 thrashing by the Reds last week and with so many All Blacks sidelined, they again look vulnerable in the opening rounds. In their favour, however, is the fact the the Rebels have an awful away record, particularly on foreign soil. In each of 2012, 2013 and 2014 the Rebels only won one away fixture each season, and each was against Australian opposition. If this game were being played in July of last year I’d back the Crusaders to win by a bag full, but the Rebels should be more competitive this week. The last time the Crusaders hosted the Rebels they won by just 4 points. I would back the Rebels +18.5 at 1.52 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: I predict the Rebels will keep the Crusaders honest. I would back the Crusaders 1-12 at 2.75 (Centrebet).
Brumbies v Reds
7:40 PM AEDT, GIO Stadium, Canberra
View a detailed form guide for Brumbies v Reds
With Laurie Fisher gone, head coach Stephen Larkham now has full control of the Brumbies. They face a tricky fixture to open their campaign, with the Reds somewhat of an unknown quantity now that Karmichael Hunt is pulling the strings at fly-half. The Brumbies lost a lot of experience during the off-season with the departure of captain Ben Mowen and the retirements of Pat McCabe and Clyde Rathbone, however they do get David Pocock back from injury. Can he stay fit this season?
The Reds are looking to bounce back from a year to forget but they are already without Quade Cooper and Greg Holmes for half the season due to injury. Other injured players this week are Anthony Fainga’a, Dave McDuling, Eddie Quirk, Beau Robinson, Rob Simmons and Ben Tapuai. In addition, James O’Connor and Adam Thomson will miss Round 1 because neither have had enough time to prove their fitness. The pre-season provided a mixed bag of results so it’s hard to gauge the Reds’ form coming into this fixture. League convert Karmichael Hunt impressed in pre-season when given the No. 10 jersey. He looked settled in the position and went 4/5 with the boot as well last week. Hunt will start at fly-half again and will be partnered with the experienced Will Genia at halfback. Lachie Turner makes his return from injury to start on the wing. Three of the starting players will be making their Super Rugby debut with another four debutantes on the bench.
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Reds +7.0
Conservative betting: the Brumbies very much love playing at home. They finished last season on a streak of ten games where they won every home fixture and lost every away game. Home advantage hasn’t counted for much between the Brumbies and the Reds, however, with only one of the last five games won by the home side. The Brumbies have only won two of their last five home games against the Reds but with the visiting team still trying to work out their combinations I would back the Brumbies in the head-to-head at 1.40 (Palmerbet).
Aggressive betting: the Brumbies haven’t come out of the blocks quickly in recent years. You have to go back to 2006 for the last time they won a Round 1 game by more than 12 points. I would back the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.66 (Palmerbet).
Saturday, 14 February
Lions v Hurricanes
4:10 AM AEDT, Ellis Park, Johannesburg
View a detailed form guide for Lions v Hurricanes
The Lions exceeded everyone’s expectations last season by winning seven games after spending a year in the wilderness. They are well-coached under coach Johan Ackermann with the side proving to be more than the sum of its parts. Apart from the departure of Franco van der Merwe, the Lions look to have maintained the nucleus of last year’s side. They beat the Blues, Reds and Rebels at home last season, with the Crusaders the only overseas side to beat them at home.
With a new head coach and plenty of player turnover, the Hurricanes are somewhat of an unknown quantity this season. They missed out on the playoffs by a point this year and with a quality squad – particularly in the backs – they should be in playoff contention again. This week the Hurricanes will be without Jeremy Thrush and their new star signing Nehe Milner-Skudder due to injury, while Ma’a Nonu is away on paternity leave. Despite these absentees their starting line-up boasts seven All Blacks with another on the bench.
Head-to-head pick: Lions
Line pick: Lions +1.5
Conservative betting: my first instinct was to back the Hurricanes, however they have a nasty habit of starting the season slowly, having not won a Round 1 game since 2010. Also, the Lions were 6-2 at home last season while the Hurricanes were 2-6 on the road. Nevertheless I think this will be close so I would back both the Lions 1-12 at 3.20 (Luxbet) and the Hurricanes 1-12 at 2.85 (Palmerbet).
Aggressive betting: this is a toss up, but I’ll lean on the Lions. 6 out of the Hurricanes’ 8 losses last season were by 1-12 points so I would take the Lions 1-12 at 3.20 (Luxbet).
Blues v Chiefs
5:35 PM AEDT, QBE Stadium, North Harbour
View a detailed form guide for Blues v Chiefs
The Blues finished last season as the worst team in New Zealand, although 5th place in the conference was good enough for 10th overall, which highlights the strength of the New Zealand conference. While their Benji Marshall experiment failed last year, they did unearth up-and-coming talent in fly-half Ihaia West. Most quality sides have quality fly-halves so they will be hoping he can continue his impressive development.
The Chiefs had an injury-disrupted season last year which saw them make the playoffs but fall out in the qualifiers. Their back line looks menacing this year (is it ever not menacing?) with the return of Sonny Bill Williams and the brilliant acquisition of Hosea Gear, however they have lost fly-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow for the season so Augustine Pulu will be the halfback to partner fly-half Aaron Cruden.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Chiefs -0.5
Conservative betting: the Blues have an excellent home record however they have an awful record against the Chiefs, having lost their last eight straight against them. Only two sides beat the Blues at home last year and one was the Chiefs. Note that this fixture is being played at North Harbour, not the Blues’ normal fortress of Eden Park. I would back the Chiefs +3.5 at 1.49 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: the last five times the Blues hosted the Chiefs the result was settled by less than 13 points. I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.90 (Palmerbet).
Sunday, 15 February
Sharks v Cheetahs
2:05 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
View a detailed form guide for Sharks v Cheetahs
The Sharks boast the deepest squad of the South African sides however they will be under strength for the start of the season with four players yet to join the side having not finished their seasons overseas. In addition Willem Alberts has a hamstring injury while Paul Jordaan, Tonderai Chavhanga, JC Astle and Stephan Lewies are out injured. The Sharks were the only South African side to finish in the top half of the table last season however I expect the Bulls and Stormers to close the cap this year.
The Cheetahs are in a rebuilding phase this season. After a huge turnover of players during the off-season, only six of the starting XV this week featured in the final Round of last season. With talisman Johan Goosen now in France, former Stormers fullback Joe Petersen will pull the strings at fly-half. Other imports in the staring line-up are former Bulls winger Clayton Blommetjies and former Lions No.8 Willie Britz. Francois Uys will captain the squad now that Adriaan Strauss has moved to the Bulls.
Head-to-head pick: Sharks
Line pick: Sharks -9.5
Conservative betting: the Cheetahs have a decent record at Kings Park, winning three of their seven meetings with the Sharks at this venue. Given their are clearly in a rebuilding phase, however, I find it hard to back them this week. I would back the Sharks -4.5 at 1.52 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: with Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane and Lappies Labuschagné now in the starting line-up for the Bulls rather than the Cheetahs this week, the new recruits from the domestic ranks have huge shoes to fill. Durban is a tough assignment for such a young team so I would back the Sharks -11.5 at 2.17 (Sportsbet).
Side note: when using Sportsbet pay close attention to their “Pick your own line” market if you are considering the “Winning Margin: 13+” selection. This week Sportsbet are offering 2.10 on the Sharks 13+ but 2.28 on the Sharks -12.5, despite these being identical wagers! Also, Sportsbet are offering the Sharks -10.5 at 1.90 in the line market but in the pick your own line market you can select the Sharks -10.5 at 2.10!
Bulls v Stormers
4:10 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
View a detailed form guide for Bulls v Stormers
The Bulls have stated a desire be more expansive to score more tries this season, so it will be interesting to see how much they deviate from their typical physical, forwards-dominated brand of rugby. They were poor offensively last season, finishing third bottom for points scored as their bulky forward pack got beaten for pace. The Bulls have responded by poaching three forwards from the Cheetahs during the off-season, with all three: hooker Adriaan Strauss, prop Trevor Nyakane and flanker Lappies Labuschagne starting this week. Victor Matfield will serve as captain until Pierre Spies is eased back into the starting XV after returning from a long-term injury. Arno Botha is also back from a long-term injury and will start at No.8. Piet van Zyl will start at halfback with Handre Pollard at fly-half. Regular halfback Francois Hougaard will start on the wing, a position he’s familiar with.
The Stormers have had their seasons disrupted by injuries in recent years and they’re not off to a great start in 2015, with Eben Etzebeth, Manuel Carizza, Jean de Villiers, Jean Kleyn, Kobus van Wyk, Siya Kolisi, Frans Malherbe and Jaco Taute absent this round due to injury. Jean de Villiers will miss the entire season, while the other injured players are due back between Rounds 2 and 5. The Stormers’ season came undone in the first half of the season last year but they finished well, going 5-1 in their last six fixtures. They only won one away fixture in all of last season so that will have to change if they are to finish in the top half of the table this year.
Head-to-head pick: Bulls
Line pick: Bulls -4.5
Conservative betting: both sides are fielding under-strength teams for this fixture, however the Bulls look the stronger on paper and with the home side dominating this match up in recent seasons, I would back the Bulls in the head-to-head at 1.55 (Ladbrokes). It’s worth noting that the Bulls were 7-1 at home last season while the Stormers were 1-7 on the road.
Aggressive betting: the last four meetings between the two sides were won by the home side by more than 13 points. With the Bulls promising to be more expansive this season I would take the Bulls -8.5 at 2.52 (Sportsbet).
Waratahs v Force
4:05 PM AEDT, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
View a detailed form guide for Waratahs v Force
The Waratahs dominated the Australian conference last season, finishing clear of the 2nd placed Brumbies by 13 points. There’s a strong precedence for Super Rugby winners to win the following season – a feat that has been achieved six times since the competition began in 1996. With the Waratahs maintaining the nucleus of last year’s side, they’re in an excellent position to become the seventh side to win back-to-back.
The Force enjoyed their best ever season last year and will be keen to push on in search of their first taste of playoff rugby. They have been dealt a massive blow, however, with captain Matt Hodgson ruled out with a hamstring injury for most of the season. Sam Wykes will captain the side in his place. The Force have a tough schedule for the first half of the season so my fear is they’ll be out of playoff contention by the time Hodgson returns.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Waratahs -12.5
Conservative betting: The Waratahs kicked off last season by thrashing the Force 43-21, although they did lose to the Force away later in the season. Given the player turnover and the loss of Matt Hodgson for the beginning of the season, I expect the Waratahs to win comfortably on Sunday. I would back the Waratahs -8.5 at 1.55 (Centrebet).
Aggressive betting: eight of the Waratahs’ twelve regular season wins last season were by 20 points or more. With that in mind I would back the Waratahs 16-20 at 7.00 and 21-25 at 8.50 (Sportsbet).