Best Bet 1: Highlanders/Rebels @ $1.90 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Hurricanes vs Crusaders – Either team under 7.5 points @ $2.38 – Crownbet
HIGHLANDERS ($1.15) VS STORMERS ($5.50)
Week four of the 2018 Super Rugby season kicks off under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, where the Highlanders host the Stormers. The Highlanders had the week off last weekend, whereas, a first half onslaught saw the Stormers fall to the Crusaders, 45-28 in Christchurch. The Highlanders are on a two match winning streak over the Stormers including a 57-14 victory in Dunedin last year.
This will only be the Highlanders second match of the season, but there were enough positives in their first outing to suggest that they are going to be a playoff-bound team. The regulars like Liam Squire, Aaron Smith and Ben Smith had solid outings against the Blues, but it was the centre pairing of Teihorangi Walden and Rob Thompson that caught the eye scoring two tries each. Keep an eye on the Fijian-born Tevita Nabura on the left wing who comes into the team for Tevita Li. The powerhouse stands at 1.95m and weighs in at 104kg so I have no doubt he will be a handful for Dillyn Leyds.
The Stormers couldn’t have got off to a worse start against the Crusaders succumbing to a 0-26 deficit in the first half. They did exceptionally well to fight back once they regained their composure and actually won the second half, but their lineout was a shambles (5/10) and the Crusaders pinned them inside their own half for most of the match. Flanker Cobus Wiese was a real standout for the Stormers and appears to be a Springbok-in-waiting, racking up 14 carries and making 14/15 tackles in Christchurch. Coach Robbie Fleck has made five changes to his team for this clash with Damien Willemse a notable inclusion at flyhalf.
The Highlanders know that the Stormers are going to target them up front, but their unheralded pack won’t be afraid of the big boys from Cape Town. The locals have a clear advantage at the nine-ten axis and in the backs, so if they are presented with clean ball, they should be able to manipulate the space under the roof in dry conditions. The Stormers have a lot of fight in them, but it is their third week on tour and they haven’t beaten the Highlanders in Dunedin since 2012 and I can’t see that improving this weekend.
Predicted result: Highlanders to win @ $1.15 – Sportsbet
REBELS ($1.66) VS BRUMBIES ($2.23)
The second of the Friday matches takes place at AAMI Park in Melbourne, where the high-flying Rebels take on the Brumbies. The Rebels return from Tokyo off the back of a solid 37-17 win over the Sunwolves to keep their unbeaten start to the season alive. The Brumbies on the other hands, fell to the Reds 10-18 in a dour match played at Suncorp Stadium. The Rebels and the Brumbies split their series one-apiece last season, with both teams winning their home fixtures.
The Rebels return to Melbourne this weekend knowing that a win against the Brumbies will position them comfortably at the top of the Australian Conference. The demise of the Western Force has been to the benefit of the Rebels and they are certainly playing like a unified group. The result against the Sunwolves was never in doubt, despite drawing with the Sunwolves at half time. Youngster Jack Maddocks was sensational in Tokyo, scoring three tries in the victory and showcasing why he is being considered as a future Wallabies flyhalf. Coach Dave Wessels has named an a near unchanged starting 15 with captain Adam Coleman the only player unable to back-up this week. Marika Koroibete also finds himself on the bench for the first time this season and I’ll be interested to see how he goes as he quickly became one of the Wallabies best backs last season.
I had high hopes for the Brumbies heading into this season, but I’m not even sure that a returning David Pocock (April) will be enough for them to be a legitimate threat in the Australian Conference, let alone the entire competition. Their defence remains their cornerstone and although they kept the Reds try-less, they aren’t showing signs of improvement under Dan McKellar. To make matter worse, they will tackle the Rebels this week with an understrength back row. They will be delighted by the return of loosehead prop Scott Sio to sure up the scrum and to be used as a ball carrier. Joe Powell has had a strong start to the season at half back, but players like Tevita Kuridrani, Henry Speight, Chance Peni and Tom Banks need to step up.
The Brumbies have a great record in Melbourne winning four of the seven matches played there, however, they haven’t shown me anything this season to warrant backing them this week. The Rebels are winning games despite not always playing their best rugby and that is the sign of a good team. Their leadership and experience continues to be their biggest asset and I expect them to get the job done in front of what should be a bigger crowd this weekend in Melbourne.
Predicted result: Rebels to win @ $1.66 – Sportsbet
HURRICANES ($1.81) VS CRUSADERS ($2.00)
The match of the round comes to us from Westpac Stadium in Wellington where the Hurricanes host the reigning Champion Crusaders on Saturday evening. The Hurricanes picked up their first win of the season last Saturday in Buenos Aires, courtesy of a 34-9 victory at the Jose Amalfitani Stadium. The Crusaders sit atop the New Zealand Conference having beaten the Stormers 45-28 in Christchurch, extending their run to 11 victories over the Stormers at home. Looking at the head-to-head battle recently, both teams won their respective home matches last season, with the Hurricanes the only team to beat the Crusaders in 2017 in the final round of the regular season.
The Crusaders juggernaut continues to roll on and they are a good to watch given how well-oiled their machine is. It is obvious that every player understands their role and they play with a lot of purpose and clarity. The Crusaders enter their biggest game of the season to date without the likes of experienced campaigners Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Kieran Read, Israel Dagg, but they now will be without their chief playmaker, Richie Mo’unga for two months after he broke his jaw against the Stormers. Mitch Hunt is a capable replacement and had some fine moments last year, including a match-winning 45 metre drop goal against the Highlanders, but he hasn’t had a lot of game time recently with Mo’unga being so influential to everything the Crusaders do well in the back line.
Despite it being far from a polished performance against the Jaguares, the Hurricanes showed how dangerous they can be when the game opens up. Their pack and their front row in particular, still needs a lot of work and will benefit from the inclusion of Asafo Aumua on the bench, but their back row of Brad Shields, Ardie Savea and Gareth Evans were magnificent in Buenos Aires. A lot of the Hurricanes success has come from their halves combination of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett, who last week became the most capped starting 9-10 combination (81) in Super Rugby history. In saying that, Beauden Barrett and his brother Jordie, still look some way off their best but that is understandable given their late start to pre-season training.
This is a really difficult match to call because the Crusaders have suffered further injury concerns after last week. Their biggest strength has been the solidity of their structures, with players coming in and out of the team without disrupting their fluency. However, this week they come up against the Hurricanes who have won the last four matches against the Crusaders in Wellington, with the visitors winless since 2012. Despite the Hurricanes arduous travel schedule, they have a number of game-winners in their squad and if they can contain the Crusaders mighty tight five, I feel that they can prevail over the reigning Champs in a narrow and highly entertaining contest in Beauden Barrett’s 100th match. It’s a tough one given that the Hurricanes have only lost one match at home over the last 12 months, but equally, the Crusaders have only lost one on the road. If your bookie has a tri-bet market that allows you to select either team by 7.5 or less, I’d take that.
Predicted result: Hurricanes to win @ $1.81 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Hurricanes vs Crusaders – Either team under 7.5 points @ $2.38 – Crownbet
REDS ($1.67) VS BULLS ($2.20)
The Reds and the Bulls will lock horns at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on Saturday night. The Reds opened their 2018 account with a gutsy 18-10 win over the Brumbies, whereas, the Bulls were brought back down to earth with a 35-49 loss to the Lions in the tradition Trans-Jukskei derby. The Bulls are riding a two match win streak over the Reds, but they only have one win to their name in Brisbane (2004) from nine attempts.
The Reds victory over the Brumbies was built on defence and dare I say it, discipline, having only conceded five penalties. This will be something Brad Thorn would’ve been extremely proud of, despite his troops not managing to score a try. Their set-piece performed well with Taniela Tupou and Izack Rodda impressing in the tight five and several youngsters put their hands up (five under 21 years old), closing out the match against more experienced opposition. I’m not convinced with the make-up of the back line at present, with the Reds lacking some class and some X-factor with Quade Cooper and more so, Karmichael Hunt, ‘not required’ as it stated on the big screen at Suncorp last week.
The Bulls were brave in their 14-point loss to the Lions and will be satisfied with their progress so far this season. The Lions are a great team though and taught the Bulls a mauling lesson in Pretoria, but they will be much better off for it ahead of what could be a tour that defines the Bulls season. John Mitchell’s emphasis on skill development and fitness is clearly starting to rub off on his troops, as they finished the game very strongly against last year’s runners-up.
This match will be a good gauge of where both teams are at given the fact that either is very unlikely to make the playoffs. Both are littered with young Internationals in the making and a strong set-piece, which is where this match will be decided. I was at the match last week and the humidity contributed heavily to the multitude of handling errors and that’ll be no different this week. This one is a hard one to predict and one that I believe could go either way, but I’m going to tip the Bulls in a narrow upset in a flip-of-the-coin type of game.
Predicted result: Bulls to win @ $2.20 – Sportsbet
SHARKS ($1.05) VS SUNWOLVES ($10.50)
The first of two matches from South Africa occurs at Kings Park in Durban, where the Sharks take on the Sunwolves. The Sharks failed to pick up their first win of the season in round three, however, they did manage to share the spoils with the Waratahs in a 24-all draw. The Sunwolves battled bravely at times against the Rebels in Tokyo, but the visitors class prevailed in their 17-37 loss the men from Melbourne. The Sharks and the Sunwolves have met on two occasions, with the Durban-based outfit successful on both occasions by margins of 21 (2017) and 11 points (2016).
The Sharks need to collect maximum points against the Sunwolves, especially with their four match tour of Australasia kicking off next week with a match against the Brumbies, followed by fixtures against the Rebels, Blues and Hurricanes. Against the Waratahs, apart from a returning Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtwawira who bolstered a strong scrum, the rest of the pack was poor, especially in the line-outs, losing three on their own throw. The team had real difficulty dealing with the humid conditions with flyhalf Robert du Preez blowing hot and cold at flyhalf, but outside centre Lukanyo Am was a handful in attack, running some great lines that any centre would be proud of. Lwazi Mvovo also put in an assured performance at the back.
The Sunwolves have shown glimpses of what they are capable of under Kiwi coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, but their poor set-piece was exposed against the Rebels and their defence has leaked 11 tries in two matches. Their patchwork team won’t cut it at this level and with more analytics done on them and players get struck down with injuries, I only expect the margins of defeat to get bigger.
As mentioned last week, the humidity in Durban at this time of year makes the ball like a cake of soap and really difficult to control. I expect the Sharks pack to stand up this week with an increased number of scrums and really take it to the visitors. This will allow flyhalf Robert du Preez time and space to orchestrate a comfortable Sharks victory.
Predicted result: Sharks to win @ $1.05 – Sportsbet
LIONS ($1.28) VS BLUES ($3.70)
The South-African Conference leaders the Lions take on the travelling Blues at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Saturday night. The Lions continued their perfect start to the season with a comfortably 49-35 victory over the Bulls last weekend, whereas the Blues disappointed many in their 21-27 loss to the Chiefs. The Lions have won the last three matches against the Blues, but it is the visitors with winning record in Johannesburg, winning six of the 10 matches played.
The Lions continue to roll-on in 2018, much like they have done so over the past two seasons. Against the hyped-up Bulls, the Lions showed their ability to switch between a wide-ranging and open style, which we have come to know and love, to a more direct, physical, set-piece and maul-based approach. The Lions have a core of players that have been together for a number of seasons and like the Crusaders, understand what needs to be done at different parts of the match and at different parts of the field.
Year in and year out (along with the Jaguares), the Blues continue to be one of the tournament’s biggest disappointments. Their poor decision-making and sloppy execution once again cost them on the weekend, as they racked up their 14th loss in a row against New Zealand opposition. They continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, which would be highly frustrating to both themselves and Tana Umaga and the rest of the coaching staff. Perhaps the tour to South Africa is exactly what the team needs at this stage, but they’ll have to face the Lions without their skipper Augustine Pulu, who hasn’t travelled with the squad due to a foot injury.
Apart from the Hurricanes and Crusaders match, this is another game that I am really looking forward to. Both teams know how to entertain with several Springboks and All Blacks littered across both squads. Due to the draw last season, the Lions didn’t come across a New Zealand team until the Semi-Finals and I believe that was a contributing factor after losing to the Crusaders in the Final. Their wish has been granted this season and although the Bulls will really challenge them, the Lions have enough cohesion and weapons in their arsenal to beat a team that currently relies predominantly on individual brilliance. I’ll be looking closely at the total points ‘over’ in this one once the market is released.
Predicted result: Lions to win @ $1.28 – Sportsbet
JAGUARES ($2.25) VS WARATAHS ($1.65)
The Jaguares and the Waratahs close out round four of Super Rugby when they clash at the Jose Amalfitani Stadium in Buenos Aires. The Jaguares woeful finishing was exposed in their tryless, 9-34 loss to the Hurricanes, whereas, the Waratahs will also be smarting after a 24-24 draw against the Sharks in Durban. This will be the second meeting between these two teams with the Jaguares securing a 40-27 victory last year in Sydney.
The Jaguares have been convincingly beaten in all three of their matches so far this season and their defence continues to be a real area of concern for rookie head coach, Mario Ledesma. Gone are the days with an Argentinian team with a fearful pack and an imposing scrum – they simply don’t strike fear into their opposition’s eyes anymore.
Looking at the Waratahs, they are starting to make a habit of leaving things late having beaten the Stormers in injury time and snatching a draw against the Sharks last weekend. Their tight five is questionable and will be targeted, but Michael Hooper has started the season in fine form and is leading the team well. Jake Gordon and the ‘ice man’ Bernard Foley will see out this competition as the halves pairing, but there is a question mark over Kurtley Beale this week with a rib injury and should he leave the match early it will be a real blow to the visitors. Israel Folau will be forced to take on more of a playmaking responsibility, but this should create some opportunities for the players out wide.
This is another difficult match to call because the Jaguares are unbackable and the Waratahs will be feeling the effects of an arduous journey to Buenos Aires, compounded by a few injury concerns. I’ll be staying away from this one on Sunday morning, but if forced to pick I would go for the visitors. I can’t back the Jaguares until they start winning some games.
Predicted result: Waratahs to win @ $1.65 – Sportsbet