Best Bet 1: Blues to win (vs Stormers) @ $1.80 – Sportsbet (early twitter play)
Best Bet 2: Rebels +2.5 (vs Waratahs) @ $1.90 – Sportsbet (early twitter play)
CHIEFS ($1.10) VS BULLS ($7.00)
Week five of Super Rugby kicks off with just the one Friday night game between the Chiefs and the Bulls at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton. The Chiefs return from the bye with one win and one loss, whereas, the Bulls have dropped two straight matches, including last week’s 14-20 loss to the Reds, after starting their season with such a bang with a victory over the Hurricanes. The Chiefs and the Bulls have a staunch rivalry having won five Super Rugby titles between them and the Chiefs won this corresponding fixture last season 28-12.
The Chiefs return to action this week with one of the worst injury tolls so far in the competition. Their first choice front-row are all out for an extended period on the sidelines and they are joined by lock Dominic Bird, co-Captain Charlie Ngatai and Shaun Stevenson. Lock Brodie Retallick, captain Sam Cane and number eight Liam Messam make up for the inexperience in the pack with almost 350 Super Rugby caps between them, but their back line looks slightly underdone. Winger Solomon Alaimalo has been one of the best wingers in the competition this year and I am glad to see Damien McKenzie’s flyhalf experiment on ice for now having been selected at fullback. Youngster Tiaan Falcon will wear the number ten jersey and keep an eye out for him as he helped guide New Zealand to win the Under 20 Rugby World Cup last year.
The Bulls will be extremely disappointed after their performance in Brisbane, as it really was their match to lose. After racing to a 14-3 lead inside the first 20 minutes, John Mitchell and his troops would’ve been very happy, but they failed to score another point in the match and looked increasingly tired as the effects of a long journey to Australia kicked-in. Coach John Mitchell has made a number of changes to his squad this week, some of which are injury-enforced, as he looks find the right combinations for his young team.
The Bulls haven’t won in New Zealand for seven consecutive matches dating back to 2013 and have only won two of their last 20 overseas matches, so I can’t see that changing against a refreshed, but injury-ravaged Chiefs outfit playing their first match of the season at home. I do expect this to be closer than most people are predicting though.
HIGHLANDERS ($1.90) VS CRUSADERS ($1.90)
The first of five Saturday games comes to us from Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin, where the Highlanders host the Crusaders. The Highlanders took care of the Stormers last weekend with a 33-15 victory, whereas, the Crusaders experienced their first loss of the season, going down 19-29 to the Hurricanes in Wellington. The Crusaders hold the edge over the Highlanders in recent times, having won the last three matches, including a 17-0 Quarterfinal shutout last season.
The Highlanders had to work hard for their win over the Stormers last weekend in an error-ridden match, but their pack stood up against a number of seasoned veterans. Tom Franklin (19 tackles) is an unsung hero in the home side’s tight five and Liam Squire is officially in ‘beast mode’ with another strong performance recording 12 tackles, 3 lineout takes, as well as scoring a try. Aaron Smith showed how important it is to be a support runner by scoring two tries and did what was expected of him in another highly skilled performance. Waisake Naholo is also back to his rampaging best on the wing and is always a good anytime try-scorer option.
The Crusaders lost the physical battle against the Hurricanes and that was no more evident with both Sam Whitelock and Ryan Crotty leaving the filed within the first ten minutes of the match in the nation’s capital. With a number of first-choice All Blacks already on the sideline and Richie Mo’unga, the conductor, also out, it comes as no surprise that the Hurricanes capitalised and went on to win the all-important derby. Ryan Crotty has failed to pass the concussion protocols this week, but Sam Whitelock has been declared fit and will lead the side in Dunedin.
The Highlanders face the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Chiefs over the next three weeks, which will go a long way in shaping the outlook for the New Zealand Conference. Forsyth-Barr is also quickly turning into a fortress for the Highlanders having won eight of the last ten matches under the roof. The Crusaders head into this match having won eight of the last 11 matches played against the Highlanders in Dunedin, but they have been robbed of too much class and experience and I expect the Highlanders to notch a rare win against their South Island foes by a narrow margin.
Predicted result: Highlanders to win @ $1.90 – Sportsbet
BRUMBIES ($2.15) VS SHARKS ($1.70)
The Brumbies and the Sharks will go head-to-head at GIO Stadium in Canberra on Saturday night. The Brumbies finals aspirations were dealt a minor blow last weekend after being comfortably beaten 10-33 by the high-flying Rebels. On the other hand, the Sharks showed what they are capable of by easily disposing of the Sunwolves (52-22) in Durban. The Sharks will return to Canberra with fond memories having upset the Brumbies by five point last season.
For the past few seasons, the Brumbies have possessed the best pack in Australia and have really used it to their strength, predominantly with ‘unsackable’ rolling mauls. When Stephen Larkham was employed as head coach in 2015, many thought the Brumbies would develop into a more attack-oriented machine, however, that never eventuated. Now with Dan McKellar in charge and three games under his guidance, we haven’t seen any improvement with the Canberran’s averaging a competition worst, 17 points per game. As a result, coach McKellar has opted to play both Wharenui Hawera and Christian Leali’ifano in the nine and ten jerseys respectively. Additionally, there appears to be a hooker crisis in Canberra with both Josh Mann-Rea and Robbie Abel ruled out, so expect the Sharks to target young Folau Fainga’a in the scrums and at line out time.
Similarly, the Sharks pack has always been their go-to weapon and biggest advantage, but it is clear under coach Rob Du Preez that they are looking to evolve into a more expansive team too. Against the Sunwolves, the home side ran in seven tries and cut the Sunwolves to pieces with winger Makazole Mapimpi (two tries) showing good form after a strong season with the Kings last year. The real gauge for them this week will be how they go against a defence that is structurally sound and desperate for a victory in their first home match of the season.
I had high hopes for the Brumbies this season, but their players in key positions aren’t currently performing or are injured. Dan McKellar’s selections clearly emphasise this and although they will be buoyed by their home fans, the Sharks will be confident after last year’s visit yielded success, and I expect them to win another close battle.
Predicted result: Sharks to win @ $1.70 – Sportsbet
STORMERS ($2.00) VS BLUES ($1.80)
The Stormers and the Blues will clash at the picturesque Newlands Stadium in Cape Town on Saturday night. The Stormers return home after an unsuccessful tour saw them drop matches to the Waratahs, Crusaders and the Highlanders. Conversely, the Blues will be high in confidence after creating one of the upsets of the season when they came from behind to beat the Lions (38-35) at their Ellis Park fortress. The Stormers have won five of the last six matches against the Blues with the visitors win-less in Cape Town since 2009.
If the Stormers are to make anything of this season, they need to start putting some solid performances together and notching up some wins, especially at home in front of their home fans. They showed glimpses of what they are capable of on their Australasian tour, but consistency and not being able to play for 80 minutes appears to be their biggest shortfalls at present. The forward pack has been decimated with injuries, but the form of young flyhalf Damien Willemse has been a breath of fresh air, as it is a position South Africa has really struggled with for a number of years. I wrote about it in my season preview, but their lack of X-factor in the back line only seems to be getting more prevalent each week.
The Blues will be looking for a rare double over South African opposition in the Republic for the first time since 2008. Their pack showed last week against the Lions that if they can gain parity up front, they have enough power and pace in the wider channels to cause any opposition problems on attack. All Blacks Ofa T’ungafasi (prop) and Patrick Tuipulotu (lock) had their best games of the season and Akira Ioane continues to put his name up for All Blacks selection with another outstanding attacking performance. Tana Umaga shifted his brother Rieko to the 13 jersey to partner Sonny-Bill Williams in the midfield and he to, also looked solid in a successful experiment that could form one of the most dangerous centre partnerships in the world rugby.
The Blues will take a huge amount of confidence from their win against last year’s runners-up in Johannesburg and given they face a Stormers team that has had to travel back from New Zealand and is battling serious injury and illness (their first training won’t be until Thursday), I do believe they’ll edge the locals in a physical contest.
Predicted result: Blues to win @ $1.80 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 1: Blues to win (vs Stormers) @ $1.80 – Sportsbet (early twitter play)
LIONS ($1.01) VS SUNWOLVES ($19.00)
The Lions will welcome the travelling Sunwolves to Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Saturday night. The Lions were brought back down to earth last weekend after blowing an 18-point lead against the Blues, eventually succumbing (35-38) in a highly entertaining clash. The Sunwolves were on the receiving end of a 30-point Sharks mauling in Durban and will be looking to wrap up their tour with a win. The Lions and the Sunwolves have met on two previous occasions, which included a 94-7 thrashing in Johannesburg last season.
The Lions entered their match with the Blues as heavy favourites given their ominous home record and the way in which they have been dispatching teams this year. The home side led by 18 points with 20 minutes left in the match, but for the first time in a long time, they lacked composure and were guilty of doing too much from inside of their own half, as opposed to pinning the visitors in their territory. This week they’ll go into battle without captain Warren Whiteley who has been ruled out for four weeks, but they will be boosted by the decision that Kwagga Smith has committed full-time to the 15-man code as he presses for Springbok selection.
Despite a strong start to the season with a narrow loss to the Brumbies in Tokyo, the Sunwolves now look like a team that is just filling the numbers. Statistically, they weren’t too bad against the Sharks as they dominated possession and territory, had a 99% ruck success percentage and didn’t lose a scrum (6). They do the basics quite well, but they just lack the physicality and X-factor to be a constant threat in this competition.
The home team will be looking to prove to themselves and their fans that the loss against the Blues last weekend was just the result of a poor day at the office. Despite a few changes by coach Swys de Bruin, anything other than a 20+ point victory to the Lions would be a huge surprise, given the Sunwolves are 0-15 away from home.
Predicted result: Lions to win @ $1.01 – Sportsbet
JAGUARES ($1.33) VS REDS ($3.35)
The Jaguares will play their third match in succession at the Jose Amalfitani Stadium on Saturday night, this time against the Queensland Reds. The Jaguares finally clicked last weekend in a slick 38-28 victory over the Waratahs and the Reds picked up their second win in succession for the first time since 2014, with a 20-14 come-from-behind win against the Bulls at Suncorp Stadium. The Reds will be returning to Buenos Aires looking for revenge after a 8-22 defeat last season.
For the first time this season, the Jaguares Test-laden squad clicked and produced the rugby we have been accustomed to at International level. Their scrum was firing on all cylinders, their offload game consistently had their players breach the first line of defence and their runners attacked the line at speed and with purpose. The real challenge for them now will be how they back-up last week’s performance against a set-piece oriented team like the Reds.
The Reds are definitely on the improve, but comparing them to where they have come from doesn’t really say much. Their young squad, missing some of the more experienced campaigners of yesteryear, are adapting quickly to the speed and physicality of Super Rugby. The Tongan Thor’, Taniela Tupou continues to develop his game and the sky really is the limit for the young prop. His partnership with Brendan Paenga-Amosa and James Slipper in the front row have made the Reds scrum a real weapon this season. The Reds scrum has forced more scrum penalties than any other team in the competition and that is allowing James Tuttle and Jono Lance in the halves a stable enough platform to operate from. However, they aren’t doing a very good job of that as their back line is failing to capitalise on this forward impetus, only scoring two tries collectively in their last two matches.
I can understand an argument for the Reds to win this match if it was to be played in Brisbane, but they have been a notoriously poor travelling side and until they pick up some overseas wins, I’m not prepared to back them, even against a highly inconsistent Jaguares outfit.
Predicted result: Jaguares to win @ $1.33 – Sportsbet
WARATAHS ($1.80) VS REBELS ($2.00)
The first Sunday afternoon fixture of the season takes place at Allianz Stadium in Sydney where the Waratahs take on the Rebels. The Waratahs return home from their two-match overseas tour with a draw (Sharks) and a loss to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires (28-38) last weekend. The Rebels continued to prove that they are the real deal in 2018 with a 33-10 victory over the Brumbies. The Waratahs have a dominant record over the Rebels having won 11 of the 13 matches played, including six of the seven matches played in Sydney.
Waratahs fans would’ve had a case of deja vu on Sunday morning, as their team was forced to chase a huge early deficit, reminiscent of many occasions in 2017. A couple of late tries added some respectability to scoreboard, but their set-piece was sub-par and they were guilty of conceding far too many errors, which inevitably were punished. Last year, the Waratahs had their worst season ever and were the fourth worst defensive team in the competition. Their defence still has huge holes in it having leaked 89 points across three games (worst of the Australia team) and the Rebels look like the type of team that could really exploit any frailties.
I expected the Rebels to be the most improved team in the Super Rugby this year and they are looking like just being that, however, I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me they would be in pole position after just four weeks. Dave Wessels looks to be getting the most out of his troops and with more time together, they can only get stronger.
This is a match that will have over 20 Wallabies on display in Sydney on Sunday afternoon. With a big Test series coming up against Ireland in just a few short months, the one-on-one battles will be heated, only adding to the intrigue of this contest. The Waratahs are returning to Sydney after circumnavigating the globe over the past two weeks and I can’t see them keeping their strong record against the Rebels alive. The Rebels are one of the form teams in the competition at the moment and I expect them to win this match by a try or more. I’ve backed the Rebels for the last three weekends and they haven’t disappointed.
Predicted result: Rebels to win @ $2.00 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Rebels +2.5 (vs Waratahs) @ $1.90 – Sportsbet (early twitter play)