The first full week of Super Rugby fixtures has concluded and what a weekend it was with blockbuster clashes, more upsets, broken records and some of the predicted front runners really staking their claims for potential premiership glory in 2014. As always, Super Rugby is a tipping nightmare and on Friday, the Chiefs reaffirmed their domination of both the Crusaders and New Zealand rugby and the Cheetahs bounced back with a much-improved performance over the bumbling Bulls. The Saturday fixtures saw the Highlanders surprise the Blues, the Reds boss the Brumbies, the Sharks outmuscle the Hurricanes and the Lions upset the Stormers. Finally, round two concluded with the Waratahs sounding an early warning with a bonus point victory over the Western Force at Allianz Stadium in Sydney. This weekend’s standout clashes see the Chiefs host the Highlanders and the Waratahs will do battle with the Reds in Sydney. Below I will analyse each match and provide some plays that I believe are favouring us, the punters. Make sure you follow me on Twitter (@S15_TheProfits) for last minute tips, game coverage, expert insight or just for a chat. Good luck!
Best Bet 1: Cheetahs to win @ $1.82 – Betfair
Best Bet 2: Hurricanes +7.5 @ $1.85 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 3: Brumbies -6.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Multi: Crusaders/Chiefs/Waratahs/Brumbies @ $3.60 – Sportsbet
Blues ($2.62) vs Crusaders ($1.64)
Eden Park, the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby will host the first clash of round three as the Blues host the Crusaders on Friday evening. Both teams remain on zero competition points having lost to the Highlanders and reigning champions, the Chiefs respectively, so it is fair to say that both teams will be looking to get their seasons back on track this weekend. Looking at last year’s home and away series between New Zealand’s most successful provinces, both teams won their home matches, but struggled significantly on the road.
Last week’s game against the Highlanders was a game of two halves. At half-time the Blues were well and truly out of the contest trailing 24 – 0, but it appears that a stern John Kirwan spray orchestrated a lift in intensity and when the gaps started to open up in the second half, the Blues managed to run in three tries through Francis Saili, Patrick Tuipulotu and replacement prop Angus Ta’avao. Charles Piutau was mesmerising from fullback and with Israel Dagg having a quiet outing, a positional switch could be on the cards later this year in the All Black jersey. Benji Marshall had a solid twenty minutes form fullback with a deft flick past creating a line break, before being found out once or twice out of position, but fullback definitely appears to be his best position at this stage. The Blues will be disappointed having come away with an empty wallet from their Dunedin sojourn and it won’t get any easier this week against a Crusaders outfit with their backs to the wall. Coach John Kirwan has announced a few changes to his squad this week with youngster Simon Hickey, a former New Zealand under-20 playmaker donning the flyhalf jersey, Patrick Tuipulotu coming into the tight five and youngster Tevita Li coming onto the wing. All eyes will be on Kevin Mealamu when he comes on as a replacement in what will be his 151st game of Super Rugby, only 11 appearances shy of Nathan Sharpe’s all-time record.
The Crusaders are notorious for being slow-starters in Super Rugby and last weekend wasn’t any different as their loss to the Chiefs ended a 20-month unbeaten run in Christchurch. Despite a wealth of possession and territorial advantage against the Chiefs, the Crusaders failed to convert pressure into points, with kickers Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor leaving 27 points on the field as a result of some wayward kicking. Their attack was extremely ineffective as they failed to crack a well-drilled Chiefs defensive line, despite having a large proportion of current All Blacks. The Crusaders have received a boost this week with the inclusion of Kieran Read, last year’s IRB World Player of the Year (by a country mile). The return of Read will no doubt make Todd Blackadder’s sleep a bit easier, but he would’ve taken note of Matt Todd’s impact off the bench. The other changes see the reliable Tom Taylor slot back into the number ten jersey, and Colin Slade returns to fullback after All Blacks incumbent fullback Israel Dagg, had a quiet night. Additionally, Rob Thompson will make his debut in place of the injured Johnny McNicholl, who also had a day to forget, missing a crucial tackle on Robbie Fruean early on that led to the opening five-pointer. The forward pack remains strong and this is an area that they will surely target the Blues, which in turn will starve their electric backs of possession.
I often talk about the Friday afternoon fixture from New Zealand as one of the most entertaining of the round, and this week will be no exception. Both teams have a mountain of work to do should they wish to be contenders this year, but only a brave man would bet against these two making the top six so early on in the competition. There are All Blacks and experienced campaigners right across the park, but having seen the Highlanders forwards dominate the Blues last week, I can see the Crusaders doing the same. Furthermore, should they land their goal kicks, they should secure their first win of the season.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win @ $1.64 – Betfair
Rebels ($2.16) vs Cheetahs ($1.82)
Having had the bye in round two, AAMI Park in Melbourne will be treated to their first fixture of the 2014, as the Rebels host the Cheetahs on Friday night. The Rebels have had a fantastic preseason under the tutelage of new coach Tony McGahan, beating the Waratahs, Hurricanes and Reds, but whether they can convert their early season form into competition points remains to be seen. On the other hand, the Cheetahs have had a topsy-turvy start to the year, losing to the reinstated Lions in Johannesburg, before beating the Bulls for the first time in franchise history in Bloemfontein last weekend. It is also interesting to note that the Cheetahs have never lost to the Rebels in their three clashes to date.
The ‘Rebel Army’ will be in full voice on Friday for their first fixture of the season. The offseason has brought about sweeping changes in terms of players, management and general attitudes, but as many teams have found, they are generally off the pace and the fluency isn’t quite there in their first competition game. Big name players like James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale and Gareth Delve headed in a new direction at the culmination of last year, but the acquisition of centre Tamati Ellison and some big boys in the engine room should slightly offset that. Hard-nosed coach Tony McGahan has named eight new faces to his 23-man squad this week, with four of those in the starting 15. Toby Smith, a Super Rugby winner with the Chiefs will pack down alongside Pat Leafa and Laurie Weeks, with Hugh Pyle and Luke Jones supporting them at lock. Sean McMahon, an Australian Sevens convert has won the race for the blindside flanker jersey, with New Zealand-born Scott Fuglistaller and captain Scott Higginbotham rounding out the pack. Luke Burgess will be playing his first full season for the Rebels at halfback and his combination with Bryce Hegarty will be vital should the Rebels look to adopt an expansive game plan. Mitch Inman and Tamati Ellison form a potent midfield combination and there is pace to burn on the wings with Tom English, the super-consistent Lachie Mitchell and fullback Jason Woodward. Keep an eye out for Max Lahiff off the bench, who qualifies for the Wallabies due to his father being Australian, as all reports state he is a man mountain and a damaging ball runner.
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske has once again named the same team for the third week in succession. After a disappointing lost to the Lions in week one, his troops turned over a new leaf last week by beating the Bulls for the first time in Super Rugby, a feat I’m surprised stood for so long. The Cheetahs arrived in Melbourne this week for a tough four-match road trip starting with the Rebels, followed by the Reds, Hurricanes and Blues. Modern day science and technology has helped lessen the burden of time zone shifting on the body, however, with a short turnaround to this week’s game, Naka Drotske will look to inject fresh legs into the match around the 60-minute mark. The Cheetahs base their game around their forwards and should they dominate the set piece, look for Springboks Johan Goosen and Willie le Roux to come into their own with open space in front of them.
Reading too much into preseason form can often be a dangerous tactic, but in saying that, you can’t ignore the reversal of results, attitude and application in defense of the Melbourne Rebels. We have seen a number of teams playing their first fixture to be quite slow out of the gates and with the Rebels having the bye last weekend, this needs to be taken into consideration. The Cheetahs have already played two bruising encounters and will have spent over 24 hours travelling to get to Melbourne, and with one less day to acclimatise to the local time zone and conditions, the final twenty minutes could be telling. In saying that, I do believe the Cheetahs have the edge and they will rely heavily on their forwards to set the platform for their exciting backs.
Predicted result: Cheetahs to win @ $1.82 – Betfair
Best Bet 1: Cheetahs to win @ $1.82 – Betfair
Stormers ($1.40) vs Hurricanes ($3.20)
Fans at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town, one of the most picturesque and atmospheric venues in world rugby will be treated to what could be an entertaining clash between their beloved Stormers and the Hurricanes. Much like the Cheetahs in round one, the Stormers were ordinary and quite honestly looked surprised by the physicality of the Lions and how quickly they let the scoreboard tick over. One thing the Hurricanes knew heading into last week’s game with the Sharks was that it was going to be a bruising encounter and in all fairness, after they were softened up, the Sharks kicked on to a good victory. Last year in Wellington, the Stormers narrowly beat the Hurricanes in a kick-a-thon 18 – 16.
Like many teams before them, the Stormers really stumbled in their first fixture, suffering their first defeat of more than nine points since falling to the Crusaders in the 2011 semi-finals. In recent years, they have relied heavily on their dependable defensive systems, but made very poor use of the ball on attack. In Johannesburg, their defensive wall came down, their attack was even more subdued, and the ‘positive’ pre-season that coach Alastair Coetzee spoke heavily about seemed to be nothing more than a spin. Coetzee has resisted the temptation of crossing out many of last week’s starters by only announcing one change. Four-time capped Springbok Jaco Taute returns from injury which pushes Gio Aplon to the wing, with Damien de Allende moving to inside centre to partner Jean de Villiers. If the Stormers want to get their season back on track, they are going to have to play a tight game and limit the time and space that the Hurricanes backs have. I am sure many of them will have watched the Sharks performance against them last week and I have no doubt that their blueprint will look very similar to the men from Durban. The whole back row was ordinary against the Lions, most probably due to ring rust, and their positions may be on the line should they fail to fire again. Fly half Demetri Catrakilis will also need to have a big game with word coming out of Japan that running standoff Peter Grant will be joining the Stormers on their overseas leg starting in Christchurch next week.
The Hurricanes often request a ‘holiday’ to the republic at the start of the season to get it out of the way, but it hasn’t always paid dividends. Last week against the Sharks was no different. It was an extremely physical encounter that would’ve had the ice baths and physios occupied late into the night, but as is the beauty with Super Rugby, they have the opportunity to turn things around this week in Cape Town. After their scrum was demolished last weekend by a Springbok laden Sharks forward pack, coach Mark Hammett has made two changes by bringing back former All Black prop John Schwalger in place of Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Mark Reddish replaces Mark Abbott in the second row. It will also be a huge night for All Blacks prop Ben Smith who will become the latest Super Rugby centurion. The backline remains intact and I expect players like Conrad Smith, Cory Jane and Julian Savea to up the ante this week. Fullback Marty Banks had a subdued Super Rugby debut, but having watched him dominate the ITM Cup last year, I expect much better performances from him once he finds his feet at this level. Additionally, I am really excited to see Ardie Savea (brother of winger Julian) come off the bench as he has impressed many far and wide in domestic competitions, with his blistering pace and high skill level, he has the natural ability to crack any defense.
Both teams will be reeling after defeats last weekend, even though they were against teams at what many thought would be the opposite ends of the competition spectrum. The Stormers have a chance to redeem themselves in front of their home fans and the Hurricanes would love nothing more than heading to Canberra with a strong tail wind, but I can’t see this match blowing out to either team.
Predicted result: Stormers to win @ $1.40 – Betfair
Best Bet 2: Hurricanes +7.5 @ $1.85 – Sportsbet
Chiefs ($1.38) vs Highlanders ($3.60)
The reigning champions, the Chiefs return to Hamilton Stadium on Saturday evening when they face a rejuvenated Highlanders outfit. The Chiefs have now beaten the Crusaders in four out of their last five fixtures after denying the Crusaders a victory and a losing bonus point at AMI Stadium in Christchurch in round two. Conversely, the Highlanders lit up Forsyth-Barr Stadium with an impressive first half display against the Blues that saw them go onto win with a four-try bonus point and sit atop the New Zealand Conference. Looking back at matches over seasons past, the Chiefs have the wood over the Highlanders having won eight of the last 10 and the last three matches in succession.
I heard an interesting statement during the week out of New Zealand, where a well-known rugby journalist was saying that the Chiefs are the modern day Crusaders. It got me thinking and I couldn’t agree more because they now know how to win games from positions where they probably shouldn’t have, on top of being able to close out games with complete, all-rounded performances. It was a match where the Chiefs were outmuscled at scrum time, the lineout wasn’t as fluid without Craig Clarke at the helm and they were pegged back in their own half for much of the match, but they still escaped as victors – even against the seven time Super Rugby Champions. The pack were rugged in defense and Augustine Pulu and Aaron Cruden really outshone their counterparts Andy Ellis and Tyler Bleyendaal. In what was a great moment for rugby, Robbie Fruean returned from missing most of last year with heart complications, and virtually with his first touch of the ball managed to power his way up the sidelines brushing three Crusaders aside en route to the try line. His power game is immense, however, the All Blacks coaches have mentioned that he needs to tighten up his ‘D’ if he wants to don the All Black jersey.
Coach Dave Rennie has made a number of changes this week, some injury-enforced and some rotational. Pauliasi Manu, Mahonri Schwalger and Big Ben Tameifuna make up the front row, with Michael Fitzgerald and former Canterbury lock Matt Symons in the second row. Tanerau Latimer returns from a stint on the sidelines to partner Nick Crosswell and co-captain Liam Messam in the back row. One of last week’s stars Pulu, has been forced out and his place will be taken by All Black, Tawera Kerr-Barlow. The rest of the backline remains the same as the one that faced the Crusaders, including Mils Muliaina who looked set for an extended stint on the sidelines during last week’s game.
Last weekend, the Highlanders surprised many and really taught the Blues a rugby lesson in the first half. Once again, Aaron Smith showed why he is New Zealand’s premier halfback with quick service, sniping runs and exceptional link play. Centre Malakai Fekitoa, a Blues discard also made a statement that probably had the Blues management team wondering why they let him go. Additionally, the consistent Ben Smith needs little mention as he always seems to evade defenders with ease and is just a joy to watch in open play. In the forwards, Jarrad Hoeata was a beast, both in the tight and the loose. Comfortingly, he appears to have opted for the route of controlled aggression, as opposed to outright recklessness that has brought about his downfall before. Coach Jamie Joseph has a huge task ahead of him this week and he has made three changes to his line up. The first sees Joe Wheeler replace the injured Brad Thorn and Shane Christie is replaced at open side flanker John Hardie. In the backs, Fekitoa shifts to the wing and Winston Stanley who has been playing his rugby in Perth recently, will join Shaun Treeby in the centres.
Against the Crusaders, the Chiefs showed they still have what it takes to achieve a rare three-peat in Super Rugby and the Highlanders were impressive in week two, despite switching off badly in the second half. When looking at the lists of both teams, the Chiefs clearly have the edge and with it being the first match of the season at their home ground, I can’t see anything other than a Chiefs victory here, even despite their mounting injury toll.
Predicted result: Chiefs to win @ $1.38 – Betfair
Waratahs ($1.56) vs Reds ($2.80)
The latest chapter in one of Australia’s longest sporting rivalries will be written this weekend at ANZ Stadium in Sydney when the Reds make their way down south to face a Waratahs team that looks to have turned a corner in 2014. The ‘Tahs were fantastic in round two and hit the ground running courtesy of an Israel Folau hat trick over the Western Force. Similarly, the Reds were equally impressive in their victory over last season’s finalists, the Brumbies in Canberra. The Reds haven’t lost to the Waratahs in the last five encounters, however, prior to that the Waratahs had won seven on the trot.
The Waratahs got their 2014 season underway last weekend at Allianz Stadium in emphatic fashion in front of a healthy crowd. As aforementioned, Israel Folau was simply unstoppable, but the space he and his fellow backs were provided out wide might be accredited to the Waratahs forward pack, who look a lot more hungry and much fitter this season. The ‘Tahs scored six tries through Folau, Alofa ‘bread’ Alofa, Kane Douglas and Kurtley Beale marked his homecoming with a meat pie of his own. However, Coach Michael Cheika was quick to point out after the match that they would need to improve on that performance and tighten their defense should they wish to end their losing streak to the Reds. Understandably, Cheika has made very few changes with the bullocking Jacques Potgieter coming in for the man-child Will Skelton, and Stephen Hoiles will make his first Super Rugby start in eight years replacing the injured Dave Dennis. Potgieter’s inclusion signifies that the Waratahs are going to take it to the Reds and try and soften them up upfront, before letting the likes of Foley and Beale control the show in unleashing Ashley-Cooper, Betham, Alofa and Folau.
Against the odds last weekend, the Reds escaped Canberra with four competition points from their season opening. Thanks largely to their gritty defense and character that was built under Ewen McKenzie’s reign, the Reds scored three tries to one and forced the Brumbies into some uncharacteristic mistakes. Lachie Turner, the man poached from the Waratahs had a blinder of a game making two-try saving tackles early on and then managed to score a try of his own. Aidan Toua joined him on the scoresheet alongside replacement Chris Feauai-Sautia. The former has been luckless with injuries in recent seasons, but his try showed the class and talent that he has promised for so long. A lot of the credit must go to the forwards and in particular the young back row of Eddie Quirk, Liam Gill and Jake Schatz. The oldest member of the triumvirate is only 24 and should they remain together, they could well become the premier back row in the competition in the next few years. Put simply, they complement each other extremely well and they aren’t afraid to get the hard work done, which will be paramount against a huge Waratahs pack. Additionally, I would say that Liam Gill might have even had the upper hand on Brumbies superstar David Pocock, although it was his first professional game back for almost a year. Against the Waratahs, Will Genia and Quade Cooper will need to lead from the front and should Cooper score more than nine points, he will surpass Elton Flatly as the Reds highest point scorer, which is a great feat considering he is still only 25 years old. Unfortunately for the Reds, Mike Harris has been a late scratching and will be replaced by Wallaby Anthony Fainga’a.
These two teams have battled since the 1880’s, so the rivalry is fierce and often played with a lot of physicality and confrontation. Based on last weekend’s performances, 2014 could be very lucrative seasons for both clubs, although the class of the Reds is certainly up another level from that of the Western Force. Although the Reds have had the upper hand over the Waratahs since 2011, my analysis and foresight sees this streak ending at ANZ Stadium this weekend in a tightly contested affair.
Predicted result: Waratahs to win @ $1.56 – Betfair
Force ($3.15) vs Brumbies ($1.47)
Both coming off unimpressive round two losses, the Western Force and the ACT Brumbies will clash at nib Stadium in Perth on Saturday night in front of a healthy sea of blue. The Force will have one less day of preparation as a result of their substantial defeat to the Waratahs in Sydney on Sunday and many would describe the Brumbies loss to the Reds as somewhat of an upset. Last year’s bouts produced two totally different outcomes with the Brumbies thrashing the Force (41 – 7) in Canberra before the Force turned the tables with one of their best performances of the season by winning 21 – 15 in Perth.
Another game down and another loss to the Waratahs. It is fair to say that the Waratahs have a list that is far superior to that of the Western Force, but the Force’s contribution to last week’s fixture was nothing but boring and one-dimensional rugby. Midway through the third ‘quarter’ a Nick ‘media-loving’ Cummins intercept, led to a try by young gun Kyle Godwin that put some respectability back on the scoreboard. It wasn’t all negative however, as Zack Holmes looks to have all the attributes of a running fly half and because he isn’t afraid of taking on the line, players like Godwin and Junior Rasolea have more room outside of him. The Force know that they will have to brace themselves for a Brumbies backlash, especially given that now Force fly half was apart of the Brumbies when they were defeated in the last regular season game of 2013. Coach Michael Foley has brought back Hugh McMeniman and scavenging ace Chris Alcock. Otherwise, the team remains unchanged and Foley will be hoping that the consistency in his selection will allow his players to gel more coherently and nullify the power that the Brumbies possess.
The Brumbies hit the ground running in Canberra last weekend against the Reds, however, their lack of top-level preseason clashes may have had them undercooked against the former Super Rugby Champions. The Brumbies failed to capitalise on early territory and possession, despite both Joe Tomane and Henry Speight making scintillating line breaks. Additionally, with Christian Lealifano still on the sidelines for a few more weeks with an injury, Jesse Mogg will need to improve his goal kicking or he might potentially cost the Brumbies more games. In saying that, he did manage to score a try that exemplified his out-and-out pace, but a last minute high-ball fumble saw him gift the Reds another try and prevented the Brumbies from receiving a crucial loosing bonus point. There were definitely some positives that came out of Canberra for the Brumbies, but the buzzword around camp has been ‘clinical’. Their attacking philosophy has clearly been influenced and devised by Stephen Larkham, but it is important that the Brumbies earn the right to go wide so that their damaging backs can be unleashed. Larkham has stuck with his big guns this week by only making two changes, with Joe Tomane ruled out and replaced by the diminutive Robbie Coleman and Tevita Kuridrani moves back to outside centre in place of Andrew Smith. The Brumbies have never beaten the Force by more 12 points in Perth, but this line up certainly looks like it could break that record, should they fire on all cylinders.
The Brumbies will be looking for revenge against the Western Force this week, with last year’s defeat to their western Rivals still rife in their minds. Another slip-up here could send warning signals around the Brumbies camp, but I think there is just too much quality and experience in their squad to position themselves behind the eight ball, this early on in the season.
Predicted result: Brumbies to win @ $1.47 – Betfair
Best Bet 3: Brumbies -6.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Bulls ($1.46) vs Lions ($3.00)
The final match of the weekend sees the Bulls return home to Loftus, once a fortress for touring teams, to face the Lions, a team that has surprised many players, pundits and fans far and wide. In Bloemfontein last weekend, the Bulls lost to the Cheetahs for the first time in franchise history and their discipline and inefficiency on attack will certainly come under the microscope this week. On the other hand, the Lions handed the Stormers their biggest loss since 2007, thanks largely to fly half Marnitz Boshoff and a disciplined defensive line.
On a rainy evening in Bloemfontein, the Bulls felt what it was like to lose to the Cheetahs for the first time in Super Rugby. In miserable conditions, neither team managed to score any tries and another uninspiring performance by fly half Louis Fouche was enough to relegate him to club rugby for this weekend’s fixtures. The only real positive to come out of the match was Victor Matfield becoming the most capped Super Rugby player of all time when he came off the bench in the second half. Coach Frans Ludeke has made four changes to this week’s line up, bringing in Jacques Louis-Potgieter in place of Fouche, moving Grant Hattingh to number eight, which makes way for Victor Matfield’s first start of the season. The only other change sees Frik Kirsten rotate with Werner Kruger in the front row. From all reports coming out of Pretoria, the Bulls spent a huge part of Monday’s review ‘looking each other in the eye’ as they will need to start playing some better rugby if they want to re-contend for this year’s title. However, to make matters worse, Pierre Spies has been ruled out for the entire season due to a biceps injury, another blow to an already wounded Bulls psyche.
In front of their vocal home fans at Ellis Park in Johannesburg last weekend, the Lions played sublime rugby to race out to a 19 – 0 lead within the space of just 23 minutes. To see a Stormers team, littered with Springboks, so far back on their haunches was incredibly surprising, but all credit must go to Johan Ackermann and his team for instilling belief into this Lions squad. Fly half Marnitz Boschoff has been a revelation and he has racked up 50 points from two Super Rugby matches so far this season and has surely made the number ten jersey his own, even with Elton Jantjies waiting in the wings. Once again, Johan Ackermann was the last to announce his team this week by bringing in two players as a result of injuries. Warwick Tecklenburg comes in for the injured Derick Minnie and JW Jonker replaces Alwyn Hollenbach who failed a late fitness test.
I have neglected to back the Lions for the last two weeks and I have been stung on both occasions. Adding to this, the Bulls have been woeful and only a shadow of their former selves, so one would expect the Lions to take care of business in Pretoria. However, like any South African team, when their backs are against the wall, they tend to fire and I expect the Bulls to produce a much better performance this week.
Predicted result: Bulls to win – just @ $1.46 – Betfair
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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