Super Rugby 2014 – Playoffs Week 1

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After 120 matches of exhilarating and high-tempo Super Rugby action, we have reached the playoff stages with only six teams remaining. So far this season, fans have been treated to 587 tries (average of 4.89 per match) and a total of 5801 points (average of 48.34 per match), which has seen some stalwarts shine and a number of new talents unearthed. The table-topping Waratahs and the fast-finishing Crusaders have earned the week off, along with home semi-finals next week, whereas the Brumbies will host the first qualifying match against the reigning champions, the Chiefs and the Sharks return to Durban seeking revenge against a Highlanders outfit that outplayed them a few months ago. In total, there are three New Zealand teams, two Australians and one South African team, but don’t look into this too much as a form guide to The Rugby Championship. It certainly does paint a good picture for provincial rugby in New Zealand and Australian rugby is also on the rise after a few disappointing seasons. The South African teams have been substandard, but the Sharks will be doing their utmost to fly the South African flag proudly at the business end of the season.

Round 18 saw four of my five bets cash for a nice profit and I am now ready to hit the playoffs with some extra money in the kitty following the last few weeks. Semi-final rugby aligns itself much more with Test rugby as opposed to what we have seen before, especially given the need to just win and not worry about securing bonus points. In saying that, there are a number of quality players on show and the attacking teams have been rewarded more so than the defensive teams at this stage of the season in recent years. As always it was a pleasure catching up with a few of you on Twitter, but for the newcomers, don’t forget to follow me (@S15_TheProfits) for game coverage, expert insight or just for a chat and fingers are crossed for another fascinating weekend of rugby.

Best Bet 1: Brumbies -3.5 (PYOL) vs Chiefs @ $1.83 – Sportsbet

Best Bet 2: Aaron Cruden Over 10.5 Total Points @ $1.80 – Sportsbet

Best Bet 3: Highlanders +14.5 (PYOL) @ $1.82 @ $1.83 – Sportsbet

Best Bet 4: Time of first try – Up to and including minute 20 @ $1.85 -Sportsbet 

Brumbies ($1.55) vs Chiefs ($2.50)

A sold-out Canberra Stadium in the nation’s capital will be the playoff venue for this do-or-die matchup between last year’s finalists, the Brumbies and the Chiefs. The Brumbies excelled at home last weekend against a gallant Force outfit, whereas the Chiefs ground out a narrow victory over their near-neighbours, the Blues. Over the past five seasons, the Brumbies have judge held the advantage over the Chiefs (3 – 2), however, their loss last season will still burn in their memories, despite overturning that already this season.

Brumbies

Last weekend in Canberra, the Brumbies produced their best display of the season by beating the Western Force 47 – 15. Rising start Matt Toomua scored his first ever hat trick at Super Rugby level and it was the first hat trick by a Brumbies player since 2004 (Mark Gerard). The Brumbies forwards nullified the back row of the Force and their explosive Test-capped backs simply ran riot against a youthful Perth backline. Scoring seven tries against a usually ungenerous defense is an excellent achievement and holds them in good stead to face the Chiefs this weekend. It is obvious that the Brumbies have matured significantly over the past twelve months and Coach Stephen Larkham must be commended for what he has done with his team given the unexpected departure of Jake White. They have had to deal with a number of injuries this season including the losses of two Captains in David Pocock (flanker) and Stephen Moore (hooker), but they still remain a team that possesses the qualities to trouble any opposition.

Coach Stephen Larkham has been able to name a team with only two changes this week, one of which is on the bench. The diminutive Robbie Coleman has recovered from injury and replaces Clyde Rathbone on the left wing and as a result, Joe Tomane will sit on the bench again after a good cameo last weekend. The other change sees Australian Under-20 prop Alan Alaalatoa make his way onto the bench for the first time in his career in place of injured prop JP Smith. The tight fives of Sio, Mann-Rea, Alexander, Carter and Power are an industrious bunch that isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty around the field. This allows the back rowers in Scott Fardy, Jarrad Butler and Ben Mowen to have more of a focus on ball carrying and at the breakdown. Fardy has been one of the Brumbies best this season and has quickly made himself one of the most valuable forwards in Australian rugby. Nic White continues to improve as a footballer and his combination with Matt Toomua has been one of the keys to the Brumbies success this season. Christian Leali’ifano and Tevita Kuridrani are solid in the centres, but the former will need to improve his goal kicking this weekend after a shoddy performance against the Force. The aforementioned Coleman, Henry Speight and Jesse Mogg are electric at the back and will be a big threat to the Chiefs defense. The key substitutes on the bench include the sizeable Fotu Auelua, Joe Tomane and the almost indestructible Pat McCabe.

Brumbies

2014 certainly hasn’t been a textbook season for the Chiefs. Coming into the season as the two-time defending Champions, there was a lot of conjecture regarding their ability to achieve the rare three-peat. Like many other teams, the Chiefs have had to endure the exodus of experienced talent, especially at the end of the 2013 and it appears that the momentum and the aura that they worked so hard achieve has been slowly weening. The Chiefs have really struggled to put teams away this year, with the 30-point win over the Lions being their most convincing win. However, big losses to the Hurricanes (8 – 45), Waratahs (17 – 33) and Brumbies (23 – 41) have really hampered their season. In saying that, they have still done a fair job of winning ugly, as they did against the Blues and the Hurricanes in vital matches in recent weeks. They have begun to play more conservatively and the likes of All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam and Aaron Cruden have really shown their leadership qualities and raised their games and the Chiefs have subsequently benefited.

Coach Dave Rennie has made just the one change to the starting line up by assigning Dwayne Sweeney to fullback in place of Tom Marshall. Rennie and co. have obviously gone for the safer option in Sweeney and will inject the versatile Marshall into the game in the second half or whenever they need an attacking boost. There is also some doubt as to the availability of hooker Mahonri Schwalger. The Samoan International dislocated his shoulder last week and if he is a late scratching, Nathan Harris will take his place in the number two jersey. As always, the front row is sizeable and the Brumbies scrum will certainly be looking to put Jamie Mackintosh under some pressure after his poor outing last week. Mike Fitzgerald has been a workhorse all season taking a leaf from the more experienced Brodie Retallick’ book alongside him. Sam Cane remains on the sidelines, so the loose trio of Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer and Liam Squire is as normal. Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden form a dangerous halves combination inside of Bundee Aki and Tim Nanai-Williams. Speedsters James Lowe, Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Sweeney round out the starting fifteen. Augustine Pulu and the departing Gareth Anscombe will offer some variety and impetus off the bench, but you get the feeling the forward reserves could also be asked to play a big part In proceedings.

Prediction

Essentially a quarterfinal, this is going to be a fantastic matchup. Both teams have shown their versatility this season, admittedly the Brumbies more so than the Chiefs, with some attractive rugby played. However, I can see this match being more of a grind, where teams trade penalties and try to wear each other down as much as possible before feasting on turnover ball. If you have been following my tips this season, you will find that I have rarely opposed the Chiefs, given their successes over the past two seasons. Is it time to jump off the sinking ship and back the Brumbies to avenge last season’s heartbreaking loss in the finals or will the Chiefs have the ‘mana’ to go one step closer to the three-peat? For me, the Brumbies are a more settled outfit, they are playing at home (where they lead 7-2) and have shown the ability to defend better (at home) and score more points this season, but the victory margin won’t be a blowout.

Predicted result:  Brumbies to win an arm-wrestle @ $1.55 – Sportsbet

Best Bet 1: Brumbies -3.5 (PYOL) vs Chiefs @ $1.83 – Sportsbet

Best Bet 2: Aaron Cruden Over 10.5 Total Points @ $1.80 – Sportsbet

Sharks ($1.14) vs Highlanders ($6.00)

The Sharks will be circling at Absa Stadium in Durban when the Highlanders from New Zealand’s south island run out on Saturday evening. The Sharks ended their regular season with a clinical 34 – 10 victory over a resurgent Stormers outfit last weekend, whereas, the Highlanders were once again buried by a much more physical and technically sound Crusaders team in Christchurch. Both of these teams clashed at this weekend’s venue in Round 11, when the Highlanders handed the Sharks only their second loss (34 – 18) from their first nine fixtures. However, it is important to note that the Sharks were missing Captain Bismarck du Plessis and Pat Lambie, two vital cogs in their machine.

Sharks

After a disappointing season by the other South African franchises, the Sharks are the sole team carrying the Republic’s flag. The Sharks were on top of the Super Rugby ladder for a large portion of the season, however, a late season dip in form saw them lose the opportunity to host a home semi-final and a final (if they were to make it). However, the Sharks were back to business last weekend against the Stormers who had won their last four fixtures, including a 21 – 18 victory over their Durban rivals. In fact, the Sharks inflicted the Stormers biggest home defeat for seven years, which surely would’ve made their southern hemisphere rivals stand up and take note. I have no doubts that the Sharks will use their performance against the Stormers as a blueprint for success against the Highlanders this weekend and whoever they could potentially face in the semi-finals and final (once again, should they qualify). Like many of the other top teams in the competition, the Sharks depth has been one of their saving graces this season having lost the likes of Pieter Steph du Toit (season), Patrick Lambie (most of the season) and more recently Tendai Mtawarira.

The Sharks game plan is very simple and under the tutelage of Jake White, they have fine-tuned their skill sets to accommodate the type of game they want to play. They are big up front and generally dominate the set pieces, whilst their back row has a mix of power, pace and precision. Their halves are astute game managers and goal kickers and there is a lot of speed in the backline to feast on any opportunity that is presented to them. Except for Cobus Reinach replacing Charl McLeod at scrumhalf, White has been able to name the same team as the one that faced the Stormers last week. However, the biggest inclusion comes on the bench with Pat Lambie recovering from a torn bicep that saw him spend four months on the sidelines. Although Frans Steyn has been good at flyhalf, it isn’t his natural position and on form, Lambie is one of the best 10’s in South Africa. The Beast is still absent from the team, so there will be a lot of pressure on youngster Thomas du Toit.

Highlanders

For the first time since 2002, the Highlanders have qualified for the playoff stage of this arduous competition. It has been an incredible revival by the south island team having finished at the foot of the New Zealand Conference last season and second-last overall (14th) with only three wins. This year they have bettered that with an eight win, eight-loss record and their fans in Dunedin will certainly be appreciative of their achievements. Their three most influential players come in the backs with All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith, All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa and All Blacks outside back Ben Smith all shining this season. However, rugby matches are won up front and at the break down and this is where things have faltered in recent weeks. The Highlanders unheralded pack has been sternly tested over the past two weekends by the international packs that the Waratahs and the seven-time Champion Crusaders possess. For the most part, they have stood up to everything that has been thrown their way this season, however, it won’t get any easier this weekend coming up against the best forward pack in South African provincial rugby. Gaining parity is all that will be required, but at the Shark tank, that won’t be an easy feat.

Coach Jamie Joseph has made five changes to the squad that will do battle in Durban this weekend. Highlanders fans will be breathing a huge sign of relief with the news that the mercurial Ben Smith has recovered from a leg infection after missing his first match since 2012 last weekend and will play. The two changes in the forward pack see ex-Rebel Ged Robinson replace Liam Coltman and Jarrad Hoeata has been recalled for Tom Franklin who shifts to the pine. The other two changes see Lima Sopoaga regain the flyhalf jersey and Phil Burleigh gets a rare start over Sean Treeby at inside centre. One of the Highlanders weakness is certainly their bench with very few big names and they are very inexperienced in comparison to their counterparts this weekend, however, they certainly won’t be lacking in confidence.

Prediction

The Sharks will be out for revenge in Durban this weekend, given their shock loss to the Highlanders earlier this season. Although both teams haven’t hit their straps in recent weeks, the Sharks have the game plan and the personnel to mimic what the Waratahs and the Crusaders have done, so the Highlanders are going to be under the pump. The fact that they have had to endure a tortuous week of travel won’t help their cause and I can see the Sharks pulling away towards the back end of the match like they did against the Stormers last weekend to break their two-match losing streak to the Highlanders to advance. 

Predicted result: Sharks to win @ $1.14 – Sportsbet

Best Bet 3: Highlanders +14.5 (PYOL) @ $1.82 @ $1.83 – Sportsbet

Best Bet 4: Time of first try – Up to and including minute 20 @ $1.85 -Sportsbet

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Author

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Glenn

Glenn has followed rugby union for 19 years and has expert knowledge on the game freely committing to over 500 viewing hours a year. Having played with and against some current Super Rugby players and International superstars, he understands the game, the players and the laws inside out. Having been born in South Africa, spent time in New Zealand and currently living in Australia, Glenn lives and breathes rugby. With so many different tournaments happening around the world simultaneously and the addition of Rugby Sevens to the Olympic program, there are always plenty of healthy betting options available. An obsession, a passion, call it what you will, Glenn enjoys sharing his insight, opinions and predictions with anyone who wants to listen.

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