Best Bet 1: Blues +7.5 @ $1.90 – Sportsbet (early twitter play)
Best Bet 2: Chiefs -17.5 @ $1.90 – Ladbrokes (early twitter play)
Saturday Plays: TBC
Crusaders ($1.35) vs Blues ($3.24)
The fourth round of Super Rugby kicks off with another classic New Zealand-derby between the undefeated Crusaders and the Blues at AMI Stadium in Christchurch. For the second time in two weeks, the Crusaders came back from the death, this time defeating the Reds 22 – 20 in Brisbane. The Blues suffered their second loss in a row, falling short of the Highlanders 12 – 16 in a nail-biter in Auckland.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson has made seven changes to the team that beat the Reds. Owen Franks returns at tighthead prop with Jed Brown and last week’s yellow card offender Jordan Taufua partnering Whetu Douglas in the back row. It comes as no surprise that Bryn Hall starts at halfback given his two-try performance off the bench last week. It’s also an all new and young looking back three this week with George Bridge, debutant Manasa Mataele and David Havili chosen after injuries to Seta Tamanivalu and Israel Dagg.
Tana Umaga has made three crucial changes to his team to face the Crusaders. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti comes back into lock to sure up the lineout after a shambles last weekend against the Highlanders. This moves Jimmy Tupou to blindside flanker with Jerome Kaino shifting to number eight. The main change sees the demotion of flyhalf Ihaia West after a poor performance last week with Piers Francis given the nod. Melani Nanai also comes in on the left wing to replace Rene Ranger.
The stats are all pointing to a Crusaders victory in this one. The home team are on a five-game win streak over the Blues, but more importantly, they have won the last nine games at home against the visitors, dating back to 2004. To make matters worse, the Blues have won one of their last 18 NZ derbies, which is a little surprising, but I still have high hopes for them this season. Stats are only always a part of the equation.
The changes that Tana Umaga has made this week will provide them with more stability at line-out time and more direction on attack through Piers Francis. The Crusaders played some pretty ordinary rugby last week and were lucky to escape with the victory. Their tight five remains one of the best in the competition, but I feel the Blues can dominate the battle of the breakdown. Despite the Blues’ potent attacking threats across the park, against the Highlanders they were held try-less for the first time since round one in 2015. They will tweak things this week and look to attack this week and even though they have burnt me the last two weeks, I feel they’ll get that rare win in Christchurch. They simply cannot afford to lose this game.
Predicted result: Blues to win @ $3.24 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 1: Blues +7.5 @ $1.90 – Sportsbet
Rebels ($7.80) VS chiefs ($1.07)
The second match on Friday comes to us from AAMI Park in Melbourne where the winless Rebels host the table-topping Chiefs. The Rebels return from their bye seeking their first victory of the season having lost heavily to the Blues and the Hurricanes so far this season. On the other hand, the Chiefs have won all three of their matches so far, including an impressive 28 – 16 win over the reigning Champion Hurricanes in torrential conditions last week in Hamilton.
Rebels coach Tony McGahan has made four changes to his team this week. In the front row, Fereti Sa’aga and the experienced Laurie Weeks come in to bolster the scrum with Culum Retallick selected at lock. The man-mountain Lopeti Timani has been ruled out, which is a blow to the home team. The struggling flyhalf Jackson Garden-Bachop has been retained and in positive news Sefanaia Naivalu has recovered from injury to find a spot on the right wing.
The Chiefs under the guidance of Dave Rennie have made numerous changes to the team to face the Rebels this week. Up front there are three changes with Sebastian Siataga getting a start at hooker and Tom Sanders and Liam Messam return to partner Sam Cane in the back row. Damien McKenzie starts his first match at flyhalf with Aaron Cruden shifting to the bench. Stephen Donald and Anton Lienert-Brown form the centre partnership. Northland winger Solomon Alaimalo is in line for his debut on the left wing with Shaun Stevenson, a real player to keep an eye on selected at fullback.
Despite the changes that Dave Rennie has made, I believe the result of this match is a foregone conclusion. Of the five matches played between these two franchises, the Chiefs have won four of them, with the Rebels only win coming narrowly in 2015 by one point. The Chiefs have had a strong start to the year winning their first three encounters, something they have done in three of their last four seasons. The Rebels look weak up front, although their back row will get through a mountain of work. Tawera Kerr-Barlow, fresh off the news that he will be joining La Rochelle in France next year and Damien McKenzie will run the Rebels ragged and make them play from their own half more often than not. The Rebels have leaked 127 points in their first two matches of the season and this week they come up against the tournament’s leading team. It just doesn’t make for pretty reading for a franchise that’s future is in doubt. If the Blues can beat them by 38 and the Hurricanes can beat them by 65, the Chiefs (minus a couple players) can cover the handicap with a deal of comfort.
Predicted result: Chiefs to win @ $1.07 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 1: Chiefs -17.5 @ $1.90 – Ladbrokes
Bulls ($1.01) VS Sunwolves ($17.00)
The final match on Friday takes place at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria where the Bulls and the Sunwolves both look to get their first wins of the season. The Bulls have been disappointing in their losses to the Stormers and the Cheetahs to date, whereas the Sunwolves produced their best performance of the season last week, narrowly going down 31 – 38 to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
Bulls coach Nollis Marais has made wholesale changes to his team to face the Sunwolves this weekend. Up front Pierre Schoeman, Edgar Marutlulle and Trevor Nyakane form a new front row and Lood de Jager comes back in at lock after recovering from concussion. In the back row, Ruan Steenkamp and Hanro Liebenberg will be joined by Springbok Arno Botha. I believe Piet van Zyl and Handre Pollard are the Bulls’ best halves combination and they’ll look to ignite Jan Serfontein who gets his first taste of Super Rugby action this season. On the wings, Travis Ismael joins Jamba Ulengo with Warrick Gelant selected at fullback to form a youthful, but dangerous back three. Former Springbok captain Adriaan Strauss is also in line to get his first minutes of the season off the bench at hooker.
Sunwovles coach Filo Tiatia has made three changes to this week’s team. Former Western Force player Sam Wykes returns to the starting team to partner the Tongan-born Uwe Helu in the second row. He has also opted for a new centre partnership of Timothy Lafaele and former Reds outside back Jamie-Jerry Taulagi. I’m excited to see what these two can do, especially when it comes to creating space for winger Kenki Fukuoka, a player that crossed the chalk two times last week against the Cheetahs.
The Bulls have won both matches played previously against the Sunwolves, including a 50-3 win last year on the Highveld. I expect them to win this one comfortably as well, with their physicality and set-piece dominance being the difference.
Predicted result: Bulls to win @ $1.01 – Sportsbet
HURRICANES ($1.26) VS HIGHLANDERS ($4.00)
Westpac Stadium in Wellington plays host to one of the matches of the round where the Hurricanes clash with the Highlanders. The Hurricanes experience their first loss of the season last week to the Chiefs (18 – 26) in a high-skilled match in poor conditions. The Highlanders were also impressive in defeating the Blues (16 – 12), despite having to deal with a massive injury toll.
Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has made three changes to his team to face the 2016 Champions. In the pack, the Tongan bear Loni Uhila misses out due a calf injury and is replaced by Chris Evens. Number eight Reed Prinsep drops to the bench allowing Callum Gibbins to start at openside, shifting the dynamic Ardie Savea to the back of the scrum. The only change to the backline sees Jordie Barrett replace the injured Nehe Milner-Skudder, who is due to be out for around 6-8 weeks.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown has named an injury-ravaged line-up to face the Hurricanes. There are three changes to the pack with Siate Tokolahi taking over from Siosuia Halanukonuka at tighthead prop, Alex Ainley replaces the injured Joe Wheeler in the second row and Gareth Evans has been shifted to the bench in place of Dillon Hunt. Gareth Evans is extremely unlucky given the versatility he showed last week single-handedly dismantling the Blues lineout, before playing on the wing when Malakai Fekitoa went for a concussion test. In the backline, Fletcher Smith starts in place of the injured Lima Sopoaga, while Richard Buckman shifts to the bench to accommodate the return of the world’s best fullback, Ben Smith.
The Hurricanes club record win streak of 10 matches came to an end last week against the Chiefs. They were outplayed and outclassed by the Chiefs, but they will be ready to bounce back this week against the Highlanders. The Highlanders have been struck down with a monumental amount of injuries, with coach Tony Brown also suffering a knee injury in training. The inclusion of Ben Smith is a huge boost to the visitors, but their depth, especially on the bench will be tested this week. Last year’s two match series was split, with both teams narrowly winning their home matches and I expect that trend to continue this week, with the Hurricanes securing a 10 point victory.
Predicted result: Hurricanes to win @ $1.26 – Sportsbet
Waratahs ($1.48) VS brumbies ($2.72)
The Waratahs return home from their African sojourn to face the Brumbies at Allianz Stadium in Sydney on Saturday night. The ‘Tahs were ripped apart by a much hungrier Sharks outfit 14 – 37 in Durban, whereas the Brumbies were good enough to secure their first win of the season with a come-from-behind win over the Western Force (25 – 17). Both teams will be playing for the newly-created Dan Vickerman Cup.
Darryl Gibson will welcome the size and physicality that Will Skelton bring to the ‘Tahs pack in his return this week. The only other change to the forwards sees number eight Jed Holloway start his first match of the season and he also brings a lot of directness and physicality to the home side. In the backs, Bernard Foley has been bracketed with Bryce Hegarty in the flyhalf jersey. His inclusion would be massive for the men in blue, but I get the feeling that they might hold him back another week. Keep an eye on lock Ned Hannigan who finds a spot on the bench. He had an impressive NRC season with the NSW Country Eagles and I expect big things from him over the next couple of seasons.
Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham has made three changes to his starting 15. The tight five remains the same, but there are two changes in the back row with Scott Fardy selected at blindside flanker after missing last week’s match and former Red Lolo Fakaosilea is given a start in the number seven jersey. The other change sees Nigel Ah Wong, a regular last season selected ahead of James Dargaville on the left wing. Former Australian under-20 rep Jordan Jackson-Hope gets his first look at Super Rugby action this year after some strong performances in 2016.
To put it bluntly, the Waratahs were woeful in South Africa and will need to kick-start their season in front of their home fans this weekend. The 23-point loss to the Sharks was their biggest defeat since 2013. With the Brumbies win over the Force last weekend, they have now won eight straight matches against Australian opposition. The Brumbies will look to play a set-piece focused and structured game and their rolling maul is their go-to weapon. Michael Hooper will become the fastest Super Rugby player to reach 100 caps at just 25 years of age. To add to that, he has played 51 Test matches which speaks volumes of his resolve and ability at this level. Sekope Kepu (prop) and Nick Phipps (halfback) will also join Hooper in playing his 100th Super Rugby match for the Waratahs, so it will be a big night in Sydney. The Brumbies won both matches last year, but the Waratahs have won four of the last five matches played in Sydney. Even though they have had to travel back from South Africa during the week, if Bernard Foley plays, I expect the Waratahs to win narrowly. It’s not a game I have a great deal of confidence in and would rather play a low-scoring match, especially if the weather continues to be bleak.
Predicted result: Waratahs to win @ $1.48 – Sportsbet
LIONS ($1.24) VS REDS ($3.92)
The Lions return to Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Saturday night to face the travelling and battling Reds. For the second time in two seasons, the understrength Lions lost to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. For the second time in two weeks, the Reds failed to close out a game, this time against an injury-ravaged Crusaders outfit (20-22).
Lions coach Johan Ackermann has brought back his big guns for this match. Springboks Malcolm Marx (hooker), Franco Mostert (lock), Jaco Kriel (flanker), Warren Whiteley (number eight), Faf de Klerk (halfback), Elton Jantjies (flyhalf), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (inside centre), and Lionel Mapoe (outside centre) all return to face the Reds.
Nick Stiles has made just the three changes with Andrew Ready getting his first start over Stephen Moore at Hooker. The other change sees Kane Douglas come back into the second row for Izack Rodda, allowing former Australian under-20 rep Lukhan Tui a spot on the replacements bench for the first time this season.
Historically the Reds have had the wood on the Lions, but the Lions have won the last two matches played. The Reds have a strong record in Johannesburg winning six and drawing one of the nine contests, but we all know the Lions are a much-improved team over the last three seasons. I expect this to be one of the more exciting non-New Zealand matches this weekend and although the Lions should win, the Reds will still create more problems for them than the Waratahs did.
Predicted result: Lions to win @ $1.24 – Sportsbet
Sharks ($1.02) VS Kings ($18.50)
The only South African derby of the round takes place at Kings Park in Durban, where the Sharks face the Kings. The Sharks are on a roll having beaten both the Brumbies and the Waratahs in recent weeks, with Saturday’s match one of their more impressive all-around displays in recent years. The Kings were once again ‘spirited’ in their 10 – 41 loss to the Stormers, but their days in this competition look numbered.
Sharks coach Robert du Preez has rung the changes for the match against the lowly Kings. There is an all new front row with Thomas du Toit, Chilliboy Ralepelle (returning from a steroids suspension) and Lourens Adriaanse. Jacques Vermuelen also comes into the back row to replace the injured Philip van der Walt. Sharks captain Pat Lambie has suffered another injury setback, this time injuring his back and he looks likely to be fixed to the sidelines for at least four weeks. He has been replaced by debutant Bernhard Janse van Rensburg, a South African under-20 representative last year. The final change sees Odwa Ndungane come into the starting line-up for Lwazi Mvovo.
Kings coach Deon Davids has made five changes to his starting 15 for the match at the Shark Tank. Wilhelm van der Sluys starts at lock alongside Irne Herbst and Andisa Ntsila replaces Thembelani Bholi at openside flanker. In the backs, Louis Schreuder (halfback), Berton Klaasen (outside centre) and Alshaun Bock (wing), with the latter making his debut at the slender age of 34.
The Sharks dominated their two matches versus the Kings last year winning 53 – 0 and 43 – 8 respectively. The Kings have now lost all 16 matches they have played against fellow South African sides in Super Rugby without even managing a losing bonus point. Teams will often rest their best players against the Kings and this is evident in the Kings being a lot closer in the contests this season. It’s a pretty large handicap to cover and for that reason and the raft of changes that Sharks have made, is sure to bring some continuity issues for the Sharks. They’ll still win comfortably though.
Predicted result: Sharks to win @ $1.02 – Sportsbet
jaguares ($1.27) VS cheetahs ($3.80)
The final match of the round takes place at Velez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires on Sunday morning when the Jaguares play host to the Cheetahs. The improving Jaguares were too strong for the out-of-sorts Lions last weekend in Buenos Aires, whereas a complacent Cheetahs side had to fight deep to secure victory over the lowly Sunwolves.
Jaguares Raul Perez has made just the two changes this week bringing in Marcos Kremer for the injured Guido Petti and the journeyman, Juan Martin Hernandez comes in for Nicolas Sanchez who has been suspended.
Cheetahs coach Franco Smith has made several changes to the team that beat the Sunwolves last week. It is an all new front row with Danie Mienie, Elandre Huggett and Tom Botha, Armandt Koster replaces Justin Basson at lock, with Henco Venter coming into the back row. Halfback Tian Meyer captains the team with Torsten van Jaarsveld absent. In the backline, Neil Marais (flyhalf), Michael van der Spuy (outside centre), and winger Ruan van Rensburg all coming into the starting 15.
The Jaguares and the Cheetahs played out a 34 – 33 thriller last year in Bloemfontein in the former’s tournament debut. Buenos Aires is proving like a difficult place for tourists to visit this season and although the loss of Nicholas Sanchez to suspension will hurt the home team, they have a spring in their step at the moment and they should be able to easily take care of the injury-ravaged Cheetahs.
Predicted result: Jaguares to win @ $1.27 – Sportsbet