Best Bet 1: Hurricanes -11.5 @ $1.90 – Tab.com.au (early twitter play)
Best Bet 2: Lions -14.5 @ $1.91 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 3: Chiefs -3.0 @ $1.90 – Tab.com.au (early twitter play)
BRUMBIES ($5.50) VS HURRICANES ($1.15)
The first Super Rugby quarter-final sees the Brumbies (4th place) host the Hurricanes (fifth place) at GIO Stadium in Canberra on Friday evening. In the final round of competition, an under-strength Brumbies outfit fell short of the Chiefs, 10 – 28, but still defended valiantly in Hamilton. The Hurricanes find themselves travelling to Canberra as opposed to Cape Town as a result of ending the Crusaders 14-match unbeaten season, 31-22 in Wellington. This is a replay of the round nine clash earlier this season that saw the Hurricanes thrash the Brumbies 56-21 in Napier, with the Hurricanes dominating the second half by a scoreline of 42-0. The last time these teams clashed in Canberra was at the start of the 2016 season, in a match that saw the Brumbies humble the ‘Canes 52 – 10.
Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham has made several changes to his side to face the Hurricanes. The tight five is strong and the back row will get through a mountain of work, but I feel as if they are missing a couple of dominant ball-carriers. Joe Powell makes more passes than anyone else in the competition and his halves partner, Wharanui Hawera will need to ensure he has the right kicking boots on if the Brumbies are to prevail. The loss of Kyle Godwin and Aidan Toua will be felt with Andrew Smith and Tom Banks selected as their replacements. Both Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight will also need to be at their best if they are to cause the Hurricanes any dramas in the backline. Argentinian halfback Tomas Cubelli will get some game time off the bench so the ‘Canes will be aware of his sniping runs and in some great news, Christian Leali’ifano returns after recovering from Leukaemia, which was diagnosed almost one year ago.
Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd has made just the one change to his starting team. The tight five of Ben May, Ricky Riccitelli, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Mark Abbott, and Sam Lousi remains the same. Lousi, a rugby league convert, was impressive against the Crusaders last week using his big frame to hold up players on a number of occasions. Vaea Fifita continues at blindside flanker alongside Ardie Savea and the tough-as-nails Brad Shields. Beauden Barrett returns to the starting fifteen after being a late withdrawal last week and he will partner Captain TJ Perenara in the halves. Vince Aso remains sidelined with a groin strain, so Jordie Barrett will stay in the centres alongside Ngani Laumape after an impressive outing against the Crusaders. Julian Savea, Wes Goosen and Nehe Milner-Skudder complete the run-on side. On the bench, there is a big inclusion of Dane Coles, a player who has been sidelined most of the season with concussion. He will be gutted to have missed the British & Irish Lions series, but will be eager to get some game time under his belt before The Rugby Championship.
The Brumbies will need to become the first Australian team to beat a New Zealand rival this season. The record currently stands at zero wins from 25 attempts. The Brumbies certainly do have finals experience though, having qualified for the last five playoffs, but I do question the leadership in the team as they can’t call upon stalwarts like Stephen Moore, David Pocock, and Matt Toomua this time around. Their defensive structures under Stephen Larkham have proved effective this season and they are the masters of the rolling maul close to their opposition’s try line.
Offensively, the Hurricanes have been spectacular this season, breaking the record with 89 tries scored at an average of just under six per game. They have also managed to make more clean breaks than anyone and centres Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso have been the beneficiaries with 14 tries a piece. Beauden Barrett has taken his game to another level with a competition-high 13 try-assists and his brother Jordie has been spectacular in his breakthrough season, owning the competition when it comes to offloads and keeping the ball alive (31). More often than not, the Hurricanes have been able to lay the platform up front and Ardie Save and Brad Shields have bossed the breakdown area. They have also become masters of the cross-field kick, so don’t be surprised if Julian Savea and Wes Goosen cross the chalk in Canberra via some aerial brilliance by Beauden Barrett.
The Brumbies will take confidence out of the fact that they have won their last three matches against the Hurricanes in Canberra dating back to 2010. Their defence has been solid against most teams, but the last two fixtures between the Brumbies and the Hurricanes have produced 139 points and I expect the Brumbies defensive wall to break on Friday, handing the ‘Canes a comfortable victory.
Predicted result: Hurricanes to win @ $1.15 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 1: Hurricanes -11.5 @ $1.90 – Tab.com.au (early twitter play)
CRUSADERS ($1.44) VS HIGHLANDERS ($2.80)
The second quarterfinal takes place at AMI Stadium in Christchurch where the New Zealand Conference champions, the Crusaders (2nd place) welcome the Highlanders (7th place) on Saturday night. The Crusaders unbeaten run came to an end last weekend with a 22-31 loss to Hurricanes in Wellington, costing them the potential of playing a home final in two weeks time. The Highlanders put the Reds out of their 2017 misery with a 40-17 win in Dunedin, running in six tries to three. These teams have already clashed on two occasions this season, with the Crusaders winning both of them in Round 2 (30-27 in Dunedin) and Round 15 (25-22 in Christchurch).
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson has recalled his big guns this week, naming a formidable line-up to face the Highlanders. There are seven current All Blacks in the pack with the big three in the front row (Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks) all returning. Sam Whitelock regains the captaincy and will partner Scott Barrett in the second row. Jordan Taufua is knocking on the door for Test selection and Matt Todd is a master at the breakdown. All Blacks captain Kieran Read will wear the number eight jumper and these are the types of games he thrives in. Bryn Hall continues in the number nine jersey and his combination with Richie Mo’unga will be pivotal. Ryan Crotty returns to the midfield after an injury in the British & Irish Lions series and will partner the up and coming Jake Goodhue in the centres. Seta Tamanivalu, Israel Dagg and the versatile David Havili complete the starting 15. Robertson has also selected a strong bench and one that could prove to be the difference. Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett and Micahel Alalatoa are more than handy front row replacements, Luke Romano is an All Black and Pete Samu is an enforcer. Youngsters Mitchell Drummond, Mitch Hunt and George Bridge round out the matchday 23.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown has named a near full strength side to face the Crusaders. The front row of Daniel Lienert-Brown, Liam Coltman and Siate Tokolahi will be targeted by their opposition at scrum time, as will locks Jackson Hemopo and Tom Franklin in the lineouts. The back row of Liam Squire, James Lentjies and Luke Whitelock is well balanced and all three are very industrious in the way they go about their business. Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga have a huge task in trying to control the match with Rob Thompson, a very underrated centre, partnering Malakai Fekitoa in the midfield. The back three of Richard Buckman, Waisake Naholo and the smooth as silk Ben Smith (co-captain) will pose dangers for the Crusaders all match, so the home team will need to be accurate with their kicking and their line speed in defence. Co-Captain Ash Dixon, flanker Elliot Dixon and Highlanders crowd favourite, Marty Banks, will all add impetus from the bench and be called upon at some point in the second half.
Fans will remember the weekend before the British & Irish Lions tour kicked off when Mitch Hunt from the Crusaders knocked over what seemed like an impossible 47-metre drop goal in injury time to defeat the Highlanders and ruin their franchise record of nine consecutive matches. The Highlanders will be out for revenge and will be buoyed by the fact that they only have to play in Christchurch and not in Johannesburg this weekend. They have a very underrated forward pack, but they will meet their biggest challenge of the season this week. Teams have shown this year that it doesn’t matter how good your backline might be if the service delivery isn’t adequate. They do have a number of game changers in their line-up though and they will now know that the Crusaders are beatable.
The loss against the Hurricanes was one that the Crusaders needed to have. They were guilty of conceding 17 penalties in Wellington, so it isn’t a surprise that they came up short on the scoreboard, not to mention the experienced campaigners that were rested. Their full strength pack has been superior to everyone they have come up against this season and the youth they have in their backline are playing with confidence and a license to thrill.
It’s hard to ignore the Highlanders poor overall record against the Crusaders, having only won on 11 occasions from 31 attempts. Additionally, the Highlanders have only won once since 2012 in Christchurch from five attempts. With the amount of experience the Crusaders have, coupled with their returning players and the fact that they are playing at their fortress, the Crusaders should have too much firepower for the Highlanders. It will be decided up front, where the home team has a significant advantage and the perennial superpowers have proven that they handle the pressure of knock-out matches the best.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win @ $1.40 – Sportsbet
LIONS ($1.14) VS SHARKS ($6.00)
The Lions finished the competition at the top of the ladder, one position better than 2016, allowing them the opportunity of a home semi-final and final should they get there. The Lions attack has been lethal, collecting nine try-scoring bonus points in the regular season, and their defence, which is often overlooked, is the best in the competition in terms of points conceded. Due to the strange draw format, the Lions haven’t had to play any New Zealand sides this year, which could catch them off guard, however, first, they face a Sharks outfit with their backs to the wall.
The Sharks have blown hot and cold this season and the fact that their debutant coach Robert du Preez said they lacked the desire last week and didn’t have the right attitude has me believing that if they are in a bad position this weekend they are going to fold. They did extremely well at scrum time and pressured the likes of Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen, but I’m not convinced those calls will go the same way this week. They are an industrious team and that is embodied best by flanker Philip van der Walt, who has been a workhorse on defence and led the competition in tackles made for most of the season. Flyhalf Curwin Bosch has kicked the most penalty goals of anyone in the tournament (30) in his debut season, but they haven’t managed to score enough points throughout their matches to suggest that they can break the Lions wall.
There are a number of youngsters in the Sharks ranks and the future does look promising for them, but they are coming up against a team that are full of confidence and at the top of their game and I suspect things will get quite ugly for them in Johannesburg.
Predicted result: Lions to win comfortably @ $1.14 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 3: Lions -14.5 @ $1.90 – Tab.co.nz
STORMERS ($2.40) VS CHIEFS ($1.60)
The final quarterfinal is set to be an absolute cracker as the Stormers (3rd place) host the Chiefs (6th place) at Newlands in Cape Town. The Stormers finished their regular season with a thrilling 41-33 victory over the Bulls in Pretoria last weekend. Likewise, the Chiefs were also victorious, beating the Brumbies 28-10 in Hamilton. The Stormers hosted the Chiefs in Round 7 this year, with the home team running out 34-26 winners in one of the matches of the season. Newlands is a happy hunting ground for the Chiefs though, having won four of the last seven matches played there since 2005.
The Stormers have scored some great tries this season and lived up to their coach, Robbie Fleck’s promise of being more attack minded this season. They have scored the fourth most tries in this year’s competition, but they have leaked 61 at an average of four per match. They have some physically gifted forwards and a pack that can cause the Chiefs some real trouble, but discipline and controlled aggression is going to be the key. Their back line has been hampered with injuries all season, especially in the flyhalf channel, but youngster Damian Willemse looks to have cemented his spot in the team moving forward. As a result of the injuries, there hasn’t been a lot of continuity and the combinations aren’t quite there yet. In saying that, the back three of Dillyn Leads, Cheslin Kolbe and SP Marais is dangerous and Sevens ace Seabelo Senatla could be a real handful weaving around tired forwards late in the match.
It’s de ja vu for the Chiefs as they will need to travel to Cape Town for the second year in succession for a quarterfinal match-up with the Stormers. They will have fond memories of 2016, where they gave the Stormers a rugby lesson with a 60-21 thumping in their most complete match of the season. They have been guided by Damien McKenzie, who has been one of the best players in the competition all season, leading the competition in carries (210), metres made (1514m) and defenders beaten (72) third in clean breaks (30), and fourth in offloads (25) and points (120). The departing James Lowe has also played some of his best rugby leading the competition in clean breaks (35) and has crossed the chalk 11 times. The strong work of players like prop Nepo Laulala, lock Brodie Retallick and back rowers Sam Cane (Captain) and Michael Leitch has allowed them time and space to work their magic. One thing I know the Chiefs will do is to target the Stormers lineout, as Bongi Mbonambi (hooker) has lost the highest number of lineout throws in this year’s competition and his number one target is Pieter-Steph du Toit (54 lineout wins).
This is going to be a fascinating match-up and one in which I think a lot of points are going to be scored. Both teams like playing a positive brand of rugby and have players that can really turn this match on its head. The Stormers record against New Zealand teams this season is woeful losing to the Crusaders (24 – 57), Highlanders (14 – 57) and Hurricanes (22-41), but they did manage that thrilling win in Cape Town against this week’s opponents. The Chiefs are now a smarter and more dynamic team than the Stormers and if they can weather the physical onslaught coming their way early on, I can see them securing a positive victory again in what is meant to be a great night for running rugby in Cape Town.
Predicted result: Chiefs to win @ $1.60 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 3: Chiefs -3.0 @ $1.90 – Tab.com.au (early twitter play)