Four teams and three matches remain to who will be the kings of provincial rugby in the southern hemisphere this season. Not very often in world sport do you see one versus four and two versus four, but what is most surprising is seeing two Australian teams make the semi finals. Not since 2002 has this been the case and the ARU will be happy with their current positioning heading into this year’s Rugby Championship. Last weekend, during the two ‘quarterfinals’, we were treated to two of the best high-scoring matches of the season. The replay of last year’s Final between the Brumbies and the Chiefs in Canberra was simply sublime, as the match ebbed and flowed right until the very end, when the Brumbies won the game narrowly. A number of quality tries were scored and some courageous defense was exhibited as two of the finer teams in the competition collided. Hours later in Durban, the Sharks were forced to come from behind on two occasions, despite having a pack that completely manhandled their opposition at the set piece. In the end, Francois Steyn’s boot proved to be the difference in a match that sent the Highlanders packing after a 27 – 31 defeat.
Last weekend, my best bets went two and two and I felt quite robbed with the number of missed kicks late on in the match in Canberra. However, onwards and upwards, as we head to towards a blockbuster weekend of Super Rugby action in Christchurch and Sydney this weekend. According to @rpetty80, home teams have won 71% of the time in this year’s competition, which is higher than the 59% over the past three seasons since the Conference system was adopted. This obviously favours the Waratahs and the Crusaders, but read on below to see whether an upset might be on the cards. 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: Crusaders/Waratahs @ $1.86 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 2: Crusaders vs Sharks: Will there be a drop goal? YES @ $2.05 – Sportsbet
Sharks will be looking to come away with points whenever they can (Steyn/Lambie) Dan Carter could easily kick one as well)
Best Bet 3: Waratahs vs Brumbies: Will any team score 3 unanswered tries? – NO @ $1.70 – Bet365
(Hard to see either team coasting to victory here, especially in wet conditions)
Best Bet 4: Waratahs vs Brumbies: Crowd figure over 40,001 @ $1.83 – Sportsbet
(Over 38,000 sold at 9AM on Friday)
Crusaders ($1.35) vs Sharks ($3.25)
The Sharks return to the scene of their Round 14 upset and undermanned win over the Crusaders as they meet again for the right to play in this year’s Super Rugby Final. The Crusaders will be well rested after their week off after finishing second on the league ladder at the end of the regular season. On the other hand, the Sharks will have to travel to Christchurch after coming from behind twice to defeat the gallant Highlanders last weekend at the Shark Tank in Durban. Both teams have been left to fly the flag for their respective countries and although the Crusaders are at home, the Sharks have won the last two encounters, both at home and away.
The Crusaders have been the most powerful Super Rugby team over the competition’s tenure. They have won the title an astonishing seven times and very rarely do they miss out on playing playoff rugby. It simply comes down to their ability to unearth talent, nurture them and keen them on their books. The likes of Corey Flynn, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Ryan Crotty have showed huge amounts of loyalty to their club, even despite the catastrophic events of the Christchurch earthquakes. The Crusaders are always title contenders and until this current batch of superstars depart the province, I would expect them to continue their stranglehold on both New Zealand and southern hemisphere rugby. Although they are traditionally slow starters, they know how to play rugby at the business end of the season. They rely on their big pack of forwards to dominate their opposition and then use the guile and guidance of players like Dan Carter to steer their ship in a winning direction. In saying that, the Crusaders haven’t won the title since 2008, so some could say that they are certainly due.
Todd Blackadder and the rest of his coaching staff have decided to make two changes to the team that thrashed the Highlanders in the final game of the regular season. Most notably, future hall of famer Richie McCaw has been recalled to the side after recovering from a rib injury. Matt Todd has been retained at openside flanker, so Jordan Taufua shifts to the bench to make way for McCaw. The other change sees the talismanic Corey Flynn selected at hooker over Ben Funnell in what will be his 150th game for the Christchurch-based franchise. This is a remarkable feat given the frequency of club swapping that occurs in the modern era and he will hope it isn’t his last game given that he will most likely finish out his career at Toulouse starting later this year. Coach Blackadder has selected a very powerful forward pack with household names such as Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read, all players who still have many years ahead of them in their national colours. Andy Ellis and Colin Slade’s partnership will be crucial to the home team’s chances, however, with Dan Carter selected at inside centre there is enough class and experience there to calm the nerves of the players around him. Vice-Captain Ryan Crotty continues to go from strength to strength and is an excellent ball runner in tight spaces, but their real game breakers come in the outside backs with the tournament’s second top try scorer Nemani Nadolo and the World Cup winning Israel Dagg ready to fire from the back. The Crusaders certainly don’t have the best bench in the competition, however, Blackadder has done a good job of rotating his players throughout the season and they have had enough of a taste to not be too overwhelmed by the occasion.
Despite the Sharks having to travel across ten time zones for this match, they will know in their heads that they were the first South African team to win in Christchurch since 2001, and did so was 14 men earlier this season. However, they did leave it late last weekend against the Highlanders, despite racing to an early lead. Against the Highlanders, the Sharks discipline, something synonymously poor by South African teams was their saviour. They only conceded six penalties and forced the Highlanders into 13, with half of those coming at scrum time. This allowed Frans Steyn’s accurate boot to dictate play and keep the scoreboard ticking over. However, what worked against the Highlanders simply isn’t going to work against the mighty Crusaders. The men from Christchurch inflicted similar damage of the ‘landers set piece only a few weeks ago and with an All Blacks forward pack, they simply won’t bow to the men from Durban.
Super Coach Jake White has made two personnel to his team to combat the perennial super powers this weekend in Christchurch. Burly lock Anton Bresler has been ruled out of this fixture having suffered rib injuries last week and this has prompted a move by Willem Alberts to the second row, with Jean Deysel coming into the number seven jersey. Many of you will remember, Jean Deysel was the player who stomped Jordan Taufua on his head after being held back during the match in Christchurch earlier this season. He was subsequently suspended for three weeks, although I do believe it deserved a much heftier penalty. He will need to make amends, but he will also know that he has a target on his head. In the backs, Patrick Lambie returns to fly half which pushes Francois Steyn into inside centre. JP Pietersen, who started in the 13 jumper last weekend, moves to the right wing with impressive youngster S’bura Sithole shifting to the bench. Paul Jordaan has been selected at outside centre and will be pressurised all night by the big backs that the Crusaders possess, but he is a player that has come through the ranks and improves his game each season.
This is a match that has the quality to be a final itself and it is going to be an absolute bloodbath. It is as close as you can get to an All Blacks vs Springboks Test match in Super Rugby and both teams will not only be looking to get the result this weekend, but also get the mental advantage heading into The Rugby Championship. Rugby matches are won up front and this match sees eight All Black forwards ready to lock horns with seven Springboks, with Thomas du Toit likely to get Test experience at some stage during his career.
It would take a brave person to bet against the Crusaders, a team comprised of 13 All Blacks (and one Fijian) and one that features three IRB Player of the Year winners in Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and the incumbent Kieran Read. Although the Sharks certainly have enough muscle up front, their backs can be a bit hit and miss. Of the 20 matches these teams have contested, there has been an average points differential of 6.6 points, but the Crusaders have all the momentum heading into this one and they should exact revenge on the Sharks, a team that has made the Super Rugby playoffs nine times, without winning the trophy.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win an arm-wrestle @ $1.35 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 2: Will there be a drop goal – YES @ $2.05 – Sportsbet
Waratahs ($1.38) vs Brumbies ($3.10)
Allianz Stadium will be packed to capacity on Saturday evening as the Waratahs and the Brumbies do battle in an all-Australian semi-final in Sydney. The Waratahs will be hoping to make their third Super Rugby Final in franchise history (first since 2008), whereas the Brumbies will be looking to make their second final in two years having lost to the Chiefs last year in Hamilton. The Waratahs will be fresh heading into this matchup after having last week off, whereas some might say that the Brumbies will be battle-hardened after a tense duel that saw them eclipse the Chiefs 32 – 30 in one of the all time playoff classics in Canberra.
For many years, the Waratahs have had an extremely strong team on paper, consisting of many notable Wallabies and good talent coming through their development ranks, however, as we all know, rugby is played on grass and not paper. The Waratahs have made the finals of this competition on two occasions, losing both to Crusaders (2005, 2008) and they have been losing semi-finalists a further three times, including once to the Brumbies 10 – 51 in 2002. However, this year the feeling is different, both within the camp and from the media being drummed up by renowned journalists. The mental lapses and inconsistences that have plagued them in the past have barely revealed themselves this season, as the Waratahs have learnt to physically dominate their opposition and blitz them on the scoreboard through clinical phase play. The team is fresh coming off their well-earned rest period after finishing minor premiers and although some people may see the week off as being a negative, there is enough experience in the Waratahs camp to know how to combat any possibility of them not being at their best, both physically and mentally for this weekend.
Coach Michael Cheika has made three changes to the team that outclassed the Reds at Suncorp stadium almost two weeks ago. Israel Folau has been recalled at fullback after recovering from his ‘leg haematoma’, Rob Horne returns to the wing and the crowd favourite and abrasive Jacques Potgieter has been selected in front of the giant Will Skelton in the second row. Coach Cheika has the luxury of selecting an international forward pack (seven Wallabies and a Springbok) and a backline where six of the seven players have International Test match experience. It is a formidable line up and one that certainly has an excellent combination of power, pace and skill. It is clear that the Waratahs forward pack will look to win the collisions, nullify the Brumbies breakdown threats and provide a set piece platform that allows the likes of Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale to dictate play. In Brisbane and for the first time this season, the Waratahs didn’t look like they needed Israel Folau against the Reds, however, I think this was more about the Reds not having what it takes to cut it at the top echelon of this competition. Looking at the bench, there are a number of seasoned campaigners, however, the players in the starting fifteen are clearly a cut above their teammates that sit on the bench.
As aforementioned, the Brumbies must be commended for their ability to back up a very solid season in 2013, with what they have achieved this year. Jake White departed at season’s end last year, they have lost two captains in David Pocock and more recently, Stephen Moore, but they have continued to emphasise the power of Brumbies rugby. With a number of players due to leave in the off season, this could be the Brumbies golden opportunity, but it is going to take one hell of a performance to upset the Waratahs in Sydney.
The Brumbies are familiar with playoff rugby having made the Super Rugby Finals on six occasions, where they have won two (2001 and 2004) and lost four (1997, 2000, 2002, 2013). Last weekend, the avenged their defeat to the Chiefs in 2013’s Final in an exceptional game of rugby, which could easily be used as an advertisement to the southern hemisphere brand of rugby. Henry Speight has been huge for the Brumbies this season, whether in defense or on attack, he is a livewire and someone who entertains every time he has the ball. Against the Chiefs, he made 14 carries for 151 metres (10.78 per run), three clean line breaks, but he did also get sent to the bin for ten minutes for repeated infringements made by his team. Speight qualifies to play for the Wallabies in September and he will certainly add an extra dimension to an already dangerous Australian back three.
Unsurprisingly, Stephen Larkham has named an unchanged line up to the one that eclipsed the Chiefs last weekend in Canberra. Very rarely has Coach Larkham been able to name the same squad, however, the faith showed in his troops and extra time as spent combinations will certainly bode well for them against the Waratahs. Something not usually synonymous with Australian rugby, but the clash of the packs will be colossal. The Brumbies will need to fight fire with fire and this needs to start up front with Scott Sio, Ben Alexander and hooker Josh Mann-Rea, who has been a promising void filler since Captain Stephen Moore was sidelined in June. Leon Power and Sam Carter are somewhat of an unheralded second row combination, but they do the business and have been solid in the lineouts. Scott Fardy, Jarrad Butler and Captain Ben Mowen are going to have their hands full trying to negate the scavenging prowess of Michael Hooper on the deck and they will need to turn over Waratahs ball before they get too much of an advantage on the front foot. The Brumbies have one of the best kicking units in the competition and Nic White, Matt Toomua and Pat McCabe will look to peg the Waratahs back all night, but they will need to be careful with the ‘Tahs counter-attacking abilities. In saying that, the Brumbies will use this tactic to get territorially advantageous possession to allow the likes of Henry Speight and Tevita Kuridrani to get over the gain line and isolate the Waratahs defenders with their nifty footwork and raw power.
In front of what will be a record-breaking crowd for a Waratahs finals fixture, this matchup is essentially a Wallabies trial ahead of the impending Rugby Championship. Both teams have experienced packs and dynamic backlines, so this match will come down to the set piece, the battle of the breakdown and the orchestration abilities of the halves. Given the class of both outfits, matches like these are often decided by superior kicking, where the Waratahs have the edge and/or a moment of brilliance, and in Israel Folau, the Waratahs have one of the best in the game. For me, one could argue that this game could go either way, however, the form of the home team has been eye-catching this season, especially at home where they are undefeated, and they should just have enough to shutdown a well-drilled Brumbies outfit.
Predicted result: Waratahs to win, but it won’t be easy @ $1.38 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 3: Will any team score 3 unanswered tries – NO @ $1.70 – Bet365
Best Bet 4: Crowd figure over 40,001 @ $1.83 – Sportsbet
(over 38,000 sold at 9AM on Friday)
All of the above are the opinions of the author and are not recommendations or advice. The author may not be taking every bet listed above. Bet at your own risk.
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