Friday, 27 February
Highlanders v Reds
5:35 PM AEDT, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
View a detailed form guide for Highlanders v Reds
After a bye in Round 1 the Highlanders fell at home to the struggling Crusaders – a team that has now beaten them six times in a row. There’s some decent quality in the side, but I doubt they have sufficient depth this year to reach the playoffs. The Highlanders will be without prop Kane Hames who has been banned for five weeks for striking Dominic Bird last week. The Highlanders have made a number of unenforced changes for this clash, with Josh Hohneck, Liam Coltman and Joe Wheeler making way for Brendon Edmonds, Ash Dixon and Mark Reddish. Former Hurricane Marty Banks will make his Highlanders debut at fly-half with Lima Sopoaga away this week for family reasons.
The Reds did well to beat the Force last week. They had been hammered in Round 1 and had to contend with the distraction of Karmichael Hunt’s police charges and James O’Connor’s late withdrawal. They kept to a simple game plan in the wet conditions and dominated the Force at the set-piece. Former All Black Adam Thomson impressed in his first game for the Reds. Hunt remains sidelined and has been barred from training with his teammates until he faces court next week. On the injury front, new signing Hendrik Tui’s debut will be delayed for at least a month after he broke his leg playing in Japan. Also out is James Horwill, who injured his hand against the Force. Other players on the injury list are Quade Cooper, Greg Holmes, Rob Simmons and Beau Robinson. In better news, captain James Slipper has been cleared to play while James O’Connor will make his Reds debut at fly-half. Anthony Fainga’a returns this week after picking up a pre-season injury.
Head-to-head pick: Reds
Line pick: Reds +7.5
Conservative betting: the Highlanders lost to the Crusaders for the sixth time in a row last week and they now take on a Reds side that has beaten them four times on the trot. With that being said the Highlanders were 4-1 as the home favourite last year while the Rebels have won just 1 of their last 8 away games. Either way this should be close. Each of the last 5 meetings between these two was settled by 7 points or less. I would back both the Highlanders 1-12 at 2.65 (Palmerbet) and the Reds 1-12 at 4.40 (Luxbet).
Force v Hurricanes
10:00 PM AEDT, nib Stadium, Perth
View a detailed form guide for Force v Hurricanes
The Force couldn’t replicate their heroics of beating the Waratahs in Round 1 when they fell 6-18 to the Reds in wet conditions in Brisbane. Their set-piece took a battering, summed up by the penalty try that was a result of their struggling scrum. The Force have lost Francois van Wyk for the season after he tore a pectoral muscle.
The Hurricanes’ strong start to the season continued with a 17-13 away victory over the Bulls, meaning they return from South Africa undefeated. Last year the Hurricanes had the 6th best defensive record, which was a dramatic improvement on previous seasons and their defence continues to improve this season, averaging just 10.5 points conceded in their two away games. Offensively they have been messy however, conceding too many turnovers through fumbles and penalties. The Hurricanes have rotated players while one tour. This week Dane Coles will captain the side with regular captain Conrad Smith rested. Victor Vito will make his first start of the season while fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder is poised to make his debut from the bench.
Head-to-head pick: Hurricanes
Line pick: Hurricanes -2.0
Conservative betting: the Hurricanes have been defending well, which bodes very well for their season given the firepower they have on attack. The Hurricanes have won their last five straight against the Force. To the best of my knowledge they have never lost to the Perth side. I would back the Hurricanes +3.5 at 1.44 (William Hill).
Aggressive betting: the Force were excellent at home last season, winning 6 from 8 and going 5-1-2 at the line. They face a tough assignment this week but they should be competitive. I would back the Hurricanes 1-12 at 2.80 (Palmerbet).
Saturday, 28 February
Cheetahs v Blues
4:10 AM AEDT, Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
View a detailed form guide for Cheetahs v Blues
Prior to the season just about everyone, myself included, wrote the Cheetahs off this year, but they upset the Sharks with a 35-29 away win in Round 1 before having a poorly timed bye in Round 2. New signing Joe Pietersen was excellent at fly-half as the Cheetahs took full advantage of the Sharks’ injury toll. A notable improvement in that game for the Cheetahs was their work rate on defence. The Cheetahs had the worst defensive record in the competition last season and it’s been something they had worked hard at to improve during the off-season. The only bad news from their Round 1 result is they will be without the services of Lood de Jager for six to eight weeks due to an elbow injury.
The Blues fell 16-27 to the Stormers last week, but it was a brave performance given they lost Hayden Triggs for a red card offence in the 24th minute. They did manage to keep the pressure on the Stormers but the high error rate and penalty count buried them in the end, with 15 of the Stormers’ points coming from penalties. Triggs has been suspended for this clash due to his red card offence. All Blacks Charlie Faumuina and Patrick Tuipulotu will make their first starts of the season. Dan Bowden has re-aggravated a foot injury and has been replaced by Simon Hickey on the bench.
Head-to-head pick: Cheetahs
Line pick: Cheetahs -2.5
Conservative betting: this has the potential to be a high scoring game so it should be a good one for the neutral. Fixtures between the Blues and Cheetahs have been dominated by the home team so I’ll side with history and back the Cheetahs in the head-to-head at 1.67 (Ladbrokes).
Aggressive betting: on the road the Blues have gone both 1-7 in the head-to-head and 1-7 at the line over the last 12 months. The Cheetahs, meanwhile, have gone 4-2 at the line as the home favourite. I would back that trend to continue and take the Cheetahs -2.5 at 1.91 (William Hill).
Chiefs v Crusaders
5:35 PM AEDT, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
View a detailed form guide for Chiefs v Crusaders
The Chiefs continued their unbeaten start to the season by seeing off the Brumbies 19-17 last week. It was a great result given the form the Brumbies carried into the fixture and the fact that the Chiefs had to contend with the late withdrawals of Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Cane. Both players are expected to feature this week.
The Crusaders bounced back from their shock Round 1 home loss to the Rebels by seeing off the Highlanders in Dunedin. It was a spiteful affair at times, with Crusaders prop Owen Franks banned for two weeks for throwing a punch and Highlanders prop Kane Hames banned for five weeks for his strike. Dan Carter and Israel Dagg are out this week due to injury.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Crusaders +4.0
Conservative betting: the Crusaders showed promising signs last week but it was far from being an 80-minute performance. The Chief are coming off a victory over a dangerous looking Brumbies side and I back them to do the same to the Crusaders. I would back the Chiefs in the head-to-head at 1.60 (William Hill).
Aggressive betting: the Chiefs have been defending pretty well but their offence really hasn’t clicked into gear yet. I expect this to be a sub-40 point game with the Crusaders putting up a dogged fight. I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.72 (Palmerbet).
Rebels v Brumbies
7:40 PM AEDT, AAMI Park, Melbourne
View a detailed form guide for Rebels v Brumbies
The Rebels put in a spirited performance last week, matching the Waratahs for four tries apiece, but they were undone by penalties conceded, losing 28-38. Despite that loss they continue to play well and will have aspirations of possibly a third place finish in the Australian conference.
The Brumbies led for most of the second half but fell 17-19 to the Chiefs last week. It was a cruel result, with a missed try conversion separating the two sides. The loss extends their run to eleven games where they have won every home fixture and lost every away game.
Head-to-head pick: Brumbies
Line pick: Rebels +6.5
Conservative betting: I’m expecting something similar to the Rebels’ fixture against the Waratahs last week. The Rebels will be very competitive but the Brumbies will pull away at the end for a hard-fought win. The Brumbies have only won 3 of their last 10 away fixtures, however the Rebels have lost 6 of their last 8 at home and they have a 1-5 record over the last 12 months as the home underdog. I would back the Brumbies in the head-to-head at 1.44 (Ladbrokes).
Aggressive betting: I expect the Brumbies will win this in a close contest. I would back the Brumbies 1-12 at 2.70 (Palmerbet).
Sunday, 1 March
Bulls v Sharks
2:05 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
View a detailed form guide for Bulls v Sharks
The Bulls camp were optimistic about their chances prior to the season however they’ve started poorly. With just two Rounds completed they’ve suffered two home defeats, which is more than they’ve lost at Loftus Versfeld in 2013 and 2014 combined. Last week their set-piece was again second best and they failed to capitalise on their possession. They almost won the game near the end but a foot in touch denied the Bulls victory.
The Sharks bounced back from their shock opening round loss to the Cheetahs by comfortably seeing off the Lions last week. It was an impressive four tries to nil win given the wet conditions, with the Sharks forwards dominating the set-pieces. They were stronger for having skipper Bismarck du Plessis back in the squad after he missed Round 1. du Plessis was named man-of-the-match against the Lions.
Head-to-head pick: Sharks
Line pick: Sharks +1.5
Conservative betting: the Bulls are struggling at the moment and the Sharks will feel their season is getting back on track after dominating the Lions. What will worry the Bulls is they like to dominate the set-piece but they’ve come off second best in both games while the Sharks dominated the set-piece against the Lions last week. I would back the Sharks +5.5 at 1.52 (William Hill).
Aggressive betting: the last four fixtures between the two at Loftus Versfeld have all been settled by 5 points or less. You would have to go back years to find the last time the Bulls lost at home by more than 12 points. I would back the Sharks 1-12 at 2.90 (bet365).
Lions v Stormers
4:10 AM AEDT, Ellis Park, Johannesburg
View a detailed form guide for Lions v Stormers
The Lions slumped to 0-2 for the season after being comprehensively beaten by the Sharks last week in Durban. They were outscored four tries to nil, with all of the Lions points coming from penalties. Poor discipline undid their cause as the Sharks piled on the pressure in wet conditions. The Lions signed Andries Ferreira during the week to bolster their stock of locks.
The Stormers backed up their impressive away win over the Bulls in Round 1 by beating the Blues 27-16. It wasn’t a clinical performance, with the Stormers unable to pick up a bonus point against a team that was down to 14 men for three-quarters of the match, but the Blues are a dangerous side and the Stormers maintain good momentum going into this clash. The Stormers’ bad run with injuries continues, however, with the loss of flanker Rynhardt Elstadt possibly for the rest of the season with a broken leg.
Head-to-head pick: Stormers
Line pick: Stormers -4.5
Conservative betting: after surprising everyone by winning 7 games after their reinstatement to Super Rugby last year, the Lions have been disappointing so far in 2015. Their offence just hasn’t got going, scoring just 20 points in two games, and they now take on a Stormers outfit that is high on confidence, even if it is under-strength. Despite their strong season in 2014, the Lions were very streaky last year, always winning or losing in patches. They lost 7 games in a row at one stage, and with the slow start they’ve made this season, it may be a few more weeks before they record their first win. The Stormers have won 6 of their last 7 against the Lions and will feel confident they can make it 7 from 8. I would back the Stormers in the head-to-head at 1.54 (William Hill).
Aggressive betting: I think its marginal whether the Stormers will win by 1-12 or 13+, so I would just take the Stormers -4.5 at 1.934 (Pinnacle Sports).