Friday, 20 March
Highlanders v Hurricanes
5:35 PM AEDT, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
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After losing their opening fixture the Highlanders have since won three games in a row – two of which were over the highly rated Chiefs and Waratahs. The Highlanders’ pack has no All Blacks in it, but the side defends well and they have a great work ethic at the breakdown. The Highlanders also boast some great finishers, including Fijian born winger Waisake Naholo and All Blacks fullback Ben Smith. The Highlanders have been hit by injuries ahead of this clash, with their three best props and their only two specialist openside flankers unavailable.
They were made to work for it, but the Hurricanes beat the Blues 30-23 last week to remain the only undefeated team in the competition. Julian Savea continues to have an excellent season, scoring another two tries last week. You might want to keep an eye on him in the top competition try scorer market. The Hurricanes will be without lock James Broadhurst this week after he was banned for kneeing a Blues player.
Head-to-head pick: Hurricanes
Line pick: Hurricanes +1.0
Conservative betting: both sides bring excellent momentum into this clash. The Highlanders have a strong record against the Hurricanes, having won 6 of their last 8 including the last 3 straight. With that being said, the Hurricanes have looked the more impressive of the two sides this season, both offensively and defensively. The last twelve matches between the two were settled by 7 point or less, so I would back both the Highlanders 1-12 at 2.90 (CrownBet) and the Hurricanes 1-12 at 3.00 (Sportsbet).
Aggressive betting: six of the last eight clashes between the two were won by the away side. If I had to pick from the above two selections I would take the Hurricanes 1-12 at 3.00 (Sportsbet).
Rebels v Lions
7:40 PM AEDT, AAMI Park, Melbourne
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The Rebels defeated the Force for the sixth time in seven meetings last week to move to 2-2 for the season. They’ve been playing better rugby than their 2-2 record suggests and with fixtures against the Lions and Reds coming up they have a good opportunity to double their win count prior to their Round 8 bye. The Rebels may be without Lopeti Timani this week due to a concussion, however Tom Kingston is available for selection for the first time this season.
Last week the Lions were victims of poor timing as they faced a Crusaders outfit that was coming off a bye and had most of its front-line players back. They fought hard but fell away in the end to lose 6-34. The Lions defeated the Blues a week earlier and will be looking to claim another scalp from their remaining fixtures against the Rebels and Reds before returning home.
Head-to-head pick: Rebels
Line pick: Rebels -7.5
Conservative betting: the Lions defeated the Blues two weeks ago by defending resiliently and waiting for the Blues to make an error. The approach failed against the Crusaders a week later and I don’t think it will work against the Rebels, who have played well this season. I would back the Rebels in the head-to-head at 1.40 (Ladbrokes).
Aggressive betting: I’m not sure which represents the best value between the Rebels 1-12 and Rebels 13+, but I am mindful that 6 of the Lions 8 away games over the last 12 months were lost by 8 or more points, so I will take the Rebels -7.5 at 1.952 (Pinnacle Sports).
Saturday, 21 March
Crusaders v Cheetahs
5:35 PM AEDT, AMI Stadium ,Christchurch
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After another customary slow start to the season the Crusaders benefited immensely from their Round 4 bye. Last week they got five front-line players back and hammered the Force 34-6 to record their second win of the season. The Crusaders scored as many tries against the Lions as they previously had all season. It wasn’t a complete performance but it was far better than what we’ve previously seen from them.
The Cheetahs fell 10-27 at home last week to the Sharks to move to 2-2 for the season. The result was particularly damaging to their playoff hopes because it was their second home defeat in a row and they now embark on a brutal overseas tour that includes playing the Crusaders, Chiefs and Brumbies.
Head-to-head pick: Crusaders
Line pick: Crusaders -17.5
Conservative betting: with the likes of Kieran Read, Nemani Nadolo and Dan Carter back in the squad I expect the Crusaders’ early-season slumber to be officially over. At the same time, the Cheetahs look to be getting weaker as the competition has progressed. I would back the Crusaders -12.5 at 1.55 (William Hill).
Aggressive betting: the Cheetahs have lost their last two games at home by 19 and 17 points, which doesn’t bode well for their chances in Christchurch. I would back the Crusaders -17.5 at 1.943 (Pinnacle Sports).
Sunday, 22 March
Bulls v Force
2:05 AM AEDT, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
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Prior to the bye last week the Bulls defeated the Cheetahs 39-20 in Bloemfontein, with fly-half Handre Pollard having another excellent game. After losing their opening two fixtures the Bulls have enjoyed two impressive wins and with a run of four winnable fixtures coming up they have the opportunity to get on a role. They will likely be without winger Akona Ndungane and hooker Callie Visagie due to injury, however Jacques-Louis Potgieter and Arno Botha could return this week.
The Force started slowly against the Rebels last week, falling behind 0-15 before losing 17-21 for the fourth defeat in a row. They kicked too much ball away and with the South African tour starting they face the real prospect of having a 1-6 record going into their first bye week.
Head-to-head pick: Bulls
Line pick: Force +15.0
Conservative betting: five of the Force’s last six away losses were by 8 points or more, while four of the Bulls last five home wins were by 8 or more points. I would back the Bulls -7.5 at 1.37 (William Hill).
Aggressive betting: the Force have a good record against the Bulls, having beaten them twice with both of their previous losses in Pretoria coming by 10 points or fewer. I think it’s marginal whether the Bulls will win by 1-12 and 13+ so I would take the value and back the Bulls 1-12 at 3.10 (bet365).
Sharks v Chiefs
4:10 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
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The Sharks made amends for their Round 1 home loss to the Cheetahs by beating them 27-10 in Bloemfontein last week. The result gives them a mediocre 2-3 record, however with the Stormers having a bye this week followed by their tough overseas tour, the Sharks have an opportunity over the coming weeks to make a move for top spot in the South African conference. Their campaign has received a blow, however, with the loss of Pieter-Steph du Toit for at least three months with an ACL injury.
The Chiefs put in a classy performance last week to see off the previously unbeaten Stormers in Cape Town. They were dominated at scrum-time but were resilient on defence and took their chances well to move to 4-1 for the season. Only the Sharks (twice), Crusaders and Waratahs have won at Newlands Stadium since 2012 so it was a fantastic response after their disappointing defeat to the Highlanders the week before. The Chiefs will be without Tim Nanai-Williams this week and possibly also Sonny Bill Williams.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Chiefs +1.0
Conservative betting: bookmakers are on the hedge for this fixture, with some installing the Sharks as the marginal favourites and others the Chiefs. It should be close either way, so I would back both the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.95 (Luxbet) and the Sharks 1-12 at 3.00 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: the Chiefs have won their last five straight against the Sharks, including their previous two visits to Durban. I would back the Chiefs 1-12 at 2.95 (Luxbet).
Waratahs v Brumbies
4:05 PM AEDT, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
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The Waratahs were able to win despite being sloppy against the Reds two weeks ago, but the Highlanders punished them last week for letting chances go begging. The Waratahs started well but were shut out for most of the game by a strong Highlanders defence, losing 19-26 to slump to 2-2 for the season. They now sit 10 points behind the conference-leading Brumbies so a loss this week would be a hammer blow to their conference ambitions.
Last week the Brumbies thrashed the Reds for the second time in five weeks, scoring five tries while shutting out the home side to win 29-0. The Brumbies are a well-organised unit under coach Stephen Larkham and they look well placed to reassert their dominance over the Australian conference this season. After injuring his ankle in Round 1, David Pocock may return via the bench this week.
Head-to-head pick: Waratahs
Line pick: Brumbies +2.5
Conservative betting: seven of the last eight clashes between these two was won by the home team, however the Brumbies bring better form into this fixture. I’m expecting a close game so I would back both the Waratahs 1-12 at 2.80 (Palmerbet) and the Brumbies 1-12 at 3.20 (bet365).
Aggressive betting: the Brumbies bring superior recent form into this fixture, however I’m mindful of the Waratahs’ excellent home record. I’m really on the fence for this fixture so I would take the ‘any other result’ selection in the 7.5 triple margin market at 2.00 (William Hill). This bet will win if either team wins by 1-7 or if there is a draw.