The following are previews with betting tips for the quarter-finals of the 2016 Super Rugby season.
Below is how the eight sides qualified for the quarter-finals:
1. Hurricanes (NZ conference winners) – 53 points
2. Lions (Africa 2 conference winners) – 52 points
3. Stormers (Africa 1 conference winners) – 51 points
4. Brumbies (Australian conference winners) – 43 points
5. Highlanders (ANZ wildcard) – 52 points
6. Chiefs (ANZ wildcard) – 51 points
7. Crusaders (ANZ wildcard) – 50 points
8. Sharks (Africa wildcard) – 43 points
Friday, 22 July
Brumbies v Highlanders
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The conference system has delivered the Brumbies an arguably undeserved home quarter-final after they finished the season with 9, 8 and 7 fewer points than the 5th, 6th and 7th seeded sides, respectively. This is the first time since 2013 that they have topped the Australian conference. The Brumbies started the season strongly but have looked rather average since the international break, so they will need to find a higher gear quickly if they are to defeat the in-form Highlanders. The Brumbies have received an unexpected boost ahead of the playoffs, with David Pocock returning to the starting XV after recovering from an eye socket injury. Lock Rory Arnold won’t feature after he suffered an elbow injury last week.
The Highlanders shrugged off their travel fatigue to see off the Chiefs 25-15 last week in Dunedin. The result was crucial for the southern team, who had just returned home from a tour of South Africa and Argentina. Their reward is a short trip across the Tasman instead of a journey back over the Indian Ocean. The Highlanders won the title as the 4th seed last season and with the form they’re in, you’d have to be bold to say they can’t win back-to-back titles as the 5th seed this year. The Highlanders welcome back Shane Christie from illness this week.
Head-to-head pick: Highlanders
Line pick: Brumbies +5.0
Betting: it’s been ten years since the Highlanders last won in Canberra, but due to the Highlanders’ impressive form the Brumbies find themselves as a rare home underdog. While the Brumbies have won five of their last six games, all of those fixtures were against teams that failed to make the playoffs. The Highlanders, meanwhile, have won six of their last seven, with five of those fixtures against playoff-bound sides. Despite their poor record in Canberra, I’m going to tip the Highlanders for the win. They’ve peaked at the right time while the Brumbies’ form in recent weeks hasn’t been convincing. The Highlanders defeated the Brumbies by 13 points in a low scoring clash in Invercargill earlier in the season, so with the Brumbies back on home soil, a 1-12 win wouldn’t surprise me. I would back the Highlanders in the head-to-head at 1.55 (Luxbet), although the 1-12 selection at 2.96 (Pinnacle) also looks tempting.
Saturday, 23 July
Hurricanes v Sharks
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The Hurricanes finished the regular season at the top of the overall standings after upsetting the Crusaders 35-10 in Christchurch. It is the second consecutive season that the Hurricanes have topped the standings. They will be hoping to go one better than last year, when they lost to the Highlanders in a home final. The Hurricanes have opted to drop Julian Savea to the bench this week. Matt Proctor returns from injury to start at centre, with Jason Woodward shifting to the left wing.
The Sharks enter the finals as unfancied underdogs, but they’ve actually won five of their last six – a run of form which includes a 32-15 win over the Hurricanes in Round 11. While they won’t fancy the long trip to New Zealand, the Sharks were brushed aside easily in both fixtures against the Lions, so they won’t too displeased to have avoided the Johannesburg side in the quarter-finals. In team news, Willie Le Roux is expected to be back from injury along with Tendai Beast Mtawarira and possibly Paul Jordaan. Fly-half Patrick Lambie has been formerly ruled ineligible to play because he has only made three appearances this season. The Sharks preparations were put on the back foot this week, with the team unable to arrive in Wellington until Thursday because they were unable to get an earlier flight.
Head-to-head pick: Hurricanes
Line pick: Sharks +13.5
Betting: given the Sharks have already beaten the Hurricanes this season and the fact that they managed to beat the Highlanders in Dunedin, this is a trickier fixture for the Hurricanes than first appears on paper. If the Hurricanes can replicate the form they showed last week then they should be far too strong, but a sub-par performance would leave the door open for a Sharks upset. I’m going to have to side with the home team, however. They finished the regular season with a run of four tough fixtures and they won all of them. The Sharks, meanwhile, have failed to impress since the June break. They were brushed aside easily by the Lions and didn’t put in convincing performances for their wins over the Cheetahs and Sunwolves. I would back the Hurricanes -7.5 at 1.45 (Sportsbet).
Sunday, 24 July
Lions v Crusaders
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The Lions made the debatable decision to leave 15 players at home for their trip to Argentina and they suffered a loss and the #1 seed as a result. On the plus side their key players will be fit for this clash, however they must host the Crusaders this week instead of the Sharks. The Lions saw off the Sharks comfortably both home and away this season but they lost to the Crusaders at home in Round 6. In team news, captain Warren Whiteley will undergo a fitness test on Thursday to determine whether he can play.
The Crusaders had the opportunity to be the first overall seed but suffered a shock 10-35 home defeat to the Hurricanes, which means they now have an away fixture against the Lions instead of a home fixture against the Sharks. While the task is ominous, the Crusaders did defeat the Lions in Johannesburg earlier in the season. In fact, they are undefeated against foreign opponents this year. The Crusaders have suffered a blow ahead of this clash, however, with winger Nemani Nadolo ruled out with injury. Joe Moody also remains sidelined. In better news, Andy Ellis and Sam Whitelock were named in the touring squad after missing last week.
Head-to-head pick: Lions
Line pick: Lions -2.5
Betting: I can see this going either way. The Crusaders have an excellent record against the Lions and they are at their most dangerous on the back of a defeat, but they will be without strike weapon Nemani Nadolo and the Lions have been playing excellent rugby this season. The Crusaders won this clash by 6 points in Round 6 with just two points separating the two sides at the end of the first half. I’m going to back both the Lions 1-8 at 3.20 (bet365) and the Crusaders 1-8 at 3.25 (bet365) in the first half margin market. Keep an eye out for Ryan Crotty in the try scoring markets. He scored a hat-trick against the Lions in their previous clash.
Stormers v Chiefs
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The Stormers wrapped up the regular season with a bonus point win over the Kings, however the win may have come at a cost, with fly-half Jean-Luc du Plessis leaving the field injured. The Stormers have a dismal record in playoff rugby, having won just one fixture in six attempts with four of their five first round losses coming at home. This will be the first 2016 fixture against a New Zealand side for the Stormers, due to the Africa 1 Conference playing the Australian teams and the Africa 2 Conference playing the New Zealand sides this year.
With the 1st overall seed within sight, the Chiefs fell to the quality Highlanders last week, despite defending admirably. Due to how tight the New Zealand conference is, the loss saw them slip to 6th seed. That result may have cost them the title, with sides that have to cross the Indian Ocean twice during the playoffs having a dismal title winning record. The Chiefs had hoped to field former captain Liam Messam during the playoffs but he has been deem ineligible to play by Sanzaar. They will also be without the services of Seta Tamanivalu, who picked up an MCL injury last week.
Head-to-head pick: Chiefs
Line pick: Chiefs -3.0
Betting: while they’ve put up impressive scores since the international break, it’s hard to gauge the form of the Stormers. Not one of their last eights fixtures was against a playoff-bound team. In fact, they’ve only played three playoff-bound sides all season, against which they have a 1-2 record. The best time to back the Chiefs is on the back of a loss, with the side boasting a 4-0 head-to-head record and a 4-0 line record on the back of a defeat over the last 12 months. The Stormers bring a four-game winning streak into this clash, but all four of those wins were over sides ranked 12th or below. Cape Town has been a happy hunting ground for the Chiefs, who have won two of their last three at this venue. I would back the Chiefs in the head-to-head at 1.657 (Pinnacle).
Best Bets of the Round
Back the Hurricanes -7.5 at 1.45 (Sportsbet)