Best Bet 1: Blues/Crusaders/Chiefs/Brumbies/Hurricanes @ $2.27 – Sportsbet
BLUES ($5.75) VS REDS ($1.14)
A shortened round of Super Rugby kicks off on Friday afternoon in Apia (Samoa), with a match between the Blues and the Reds. Tana Umaga’s men put together a spirited performance to draw 16 – 16 with the Chiefs last weekend, whereas, the Reds were poor and folded 26 – 40 to the Western Force at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. Looking at the history between these two, the Reds have won five of the last eight, but the match last year in Brisbane yielded a 25-25 draw.
The Blues draw with the Chiefs was a pretty good summation of how their season has gone to date. Coach Tana Umaga will be proud of his troops for only conceding 16 points against an extremely potent attack, however, it was a match that they should’ve won. Their discipline was good, but their set piece and goal-kicking let them down. I mentioned in my season preview that it is going to take the Blues a couple years to gel under Tana Umaga and the signs are definitely there that they will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming seasons.
The Reds, on the other hand, are a different story. There has been talk for many months how the Reds experienced line-up have been severely underperforming. The mistakes they are making are comical and their discipline is the worst in the competition in terms of cards (12 yellows and 1 red) and foul play (30 penalties). These coach-killing moments are far too frequent and no matter how much experience they have, particularly in the pack, you simply can’t succeed at this level with such a disadvantage in terms of player personnel.
Both teams have a number of players in their squads with Samoan heritage, but the Blues will certainly be the home team here. From a weather standpoint, this time of year sees a lot of rain in the Islands, which will make playing conditions a bit more challenging. Both teams will be out to put a good performance on the board for the local fans and their fans at home and given the contrast in which both teams performed last week, it appears that there can only be one winner. The Reds have seven Wallabies in their squad, but with the All Blacks squad yet to be named, I expect the ‘home’ team to be more hungry pushing for the chance to don the elusive black jersey. Umaga has left out big names and first-choice starters, Blake Gibson, Augustine Pulu, Matt Duffie, Sonny Bill Williams and George Moala for varying reasons, but they should still have enough in their arsenal to win by a try or two.
Predicted result: Blues to win @ $1.14 – Sportsbet
CRUSADERS ($1.40) VS HIGHLANDERS ($3.00)
The match of the round sees the Crusaders host the Highlanders in the battle of the South Island at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Saturday night. The Crusaders comfortably downed the Rebels 41 – 19 last weekend in Melbourne, despite resting a number of their star players. The Highlanders had a tougher time against the Waratahs at home, however, they managed to come from behind at halftime to win 44 – 28. The Crusaders have had the wood on the Highlanders over the past few seasons winning seven of the last nine, and they have won 11 of the 15 matches played in Christchurch.
The Crusaders continue to march on in 2017, despite who they include or exclude from their team sheet each week. Last week saw them score six tries against the Rebels on the back of a well-construct defensive performance and secured another bonus-point win away from home in the process. Their pack remains dominant and their backline under the guidance of Richie Mo’unga continues to improve and evolve. An interesting stat is that the Crusaders are the only team in the competition that have been able to restrict their opponents to an average of less than 100 carries per game, which in turn has allowed their opponents to gain the least amount of metres in attack, often failing to broach the gain line. This pressures teams into making poor decisions and executing poor kicks which plays right into the hands of the Christchurch-based outfit. This week they come up against their old foes, the Highlanders. The men from Dunedin have been exceptional over the last two months as well winning nine on the trot and this match really is the clash of the two form teams in the competition (along with the Lions).
This match will see the extension of a win-streak and the breaking of another, but I simply can’t ignore the momentum and the powerful pack of the Crusaders any longer. The omission of Elliott Dixon and Dillon Hunt (top tackler of the tournament) only supports my belief that the Crusaders are going to have the edge up front and at the breakdowns. Sure the Highlanders pack a punch in the backline with Rob Thompson, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith, but the Crusaders have shown that they can nullify whoever is put in front of them. It will be an excellent game to watch and a victory isn’t out of the question for the Highlanders, but the Crusaders have been too good all season in these crunch games and should have the edge.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win @ $1.40 – Sportsbet
CHIEFS ($1.13) VS WARATAHS ($6.00)
The Chiefs host the Waratahs at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton on Saturday afternoon. Last weekend saw the Chiefs draw with the Blues in Auckland (16 – 16) and the Waratahs put on one of their best performance, but failed to keep the intensity for the entire 80 minutes against the Highlanders and were eventually overcome. The Waratahs are on a three-match win streak over the Chiefs, however, the Chiefs have won four of the last six fixtures played in Hamilton.
The Chiefs are finals bound, but it is looking more and more likely that they will have to travel if they want to win the competition this year. Despite scoring more tries than the Blues last week, they still could only manage a draw and in the process extended their 12-match unbeaten run against the men from Auckland. Dave Rennie has named a strong team for this clash and it is important that they don’t get too far ahead of themselves as they line-up against the Hurricanes next week. It will be a special day for Stephen ‘Beaver’ Donald who will play his 100th match for the Chiefs. He is a crowd favourite and is someone whose story will go down in New Zealand rugby folklore. Still no sign of Charlie Ngatai which is a real concern, but looking forward to watching James Lowe and Damien McKenzie compete against a Wallaby-laden backline.
Every match is basically a Final for the Waratahs at the moment. Their season has been very hit and miss and they showed glimpses last week against the Highlanders that they can mix it with the better teams in the competition. However, they have left their run far too late and it is looking likely that they will be having early showers this season. Darryl Gibson has had the fortune of being able to select similar teams over the last week, with Nick Phipps the only omission to the starting line-up. This opens the door for Jake Gordon, who I believe is a great prospect for Australian rugby. Additionally, the newly selected Wallaby flanker Jack Dempsey returns from a foot injury off the bench, having last played in round four. The Waratahs have a chance to break Australia’s duck of beating a New Zealand team this year as they currently sit at 0-20, but even though I expect this to be another high-scoring match-up, it is hard to look past the home team in this one.
Predicted result: Chiefs to win @ $1.13 – Sportsbet
Brumbies ($1.15) VS Rebels ($5.50)
The Brumbies return home having circumnavigating the globe the last couple of weeks to take on the Rebels in Canberra. The Brumbies moved nine points clear at the top of the Australian conference with a confidence-boosting 39 – 10 victory over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. The Rebels tried, but fell short of the Crusaders (19 – 41) in Melbourne and salt was rubbed into their wounds with the news that flanker Sean McMahon looks to be out for the rest of the Super Rugby season. Surprisingly, the Rebels have won two of the last three matches played against the Brumbies, including a 19 – 17 victory in Melbourne in Round 8 earlier this season.
The Brumbies are nine points clear of the Waratahs in the Australian conference with matches against the Rebels, Reds and Chiefs to come. Given their schedule, you would assume that they will be hard to be overtaken come the end of the season. They will be shattered after their recent horrendous travel commitments, but they will be buoyed by a tough win over the Kings and a convincing win over the Jaguares. I harp on about their defence each week, but just for some stats, the Brumbies only concede 5.7 line breaks per game, two less than any other team in the competition. This is strongly a direct result of holding their opposition to a competition low 9.1 offloads per match – no other team has conceded less than 10. Looking at the Rebels, the Melbournians lost their fifth match in a row last week and their 10th of the season. They play well in patches and I know I sound like a stuck record, but they simply aren’t good enough. Players like number eight Amanaki Mafi and captain Reece Hodge have stood tall this season, but Super Rugby requires consistency and 80-minute performances. The conditions are set to be cold and clear in Canberra and the Brumbies should get set-piece dominance, which will more than likely suffocate the visitors, allowing the Brumbies to avenge their loss to the Rebels earlier in the season.
Predicted result: Brumbies to win by double-digits @ $1.15 – Sportsbet
FORCE ($9.50) VS HURRICANES ($1.06)
The final match of the round comes to us from nib Stadium in Perth where the Force host the Hurricanes. The Force put together their best win of the year over an Australian team with a convincing 40 – 26 victory over the Reds. The Hurricanes 34 – 20 victory over the Bulls was never in doubt and they will be looking for another five competition points this weekend. The Force have only managed one victory over the Hurricanes in their ten matches played, with that match occurring 10 years ago in 2007 the Force had players like David Pocock, Matt Giteau and an in-form James O’Connor. The Hurricanes last four victories have seen the ‘Canes beat the Force by an average of 24 points.
The Force return home this week after producing their biggest win of their season. Coach Dave Wessels, heavily influenced by his time spent with former Springbok coach Jake White, had his team play a very direct brand of football that focused on getting their set-piece right (no scrum or lineout losses against the Reds) and doing the basics well when they had the numerical advantage. This week they come up against the reigning champions, who need the five competition points if they are to somehow catch the Crusaders at the front of the New Zealand conference. They will be more ruthless in defence and pose more questions on attack, so this will be the real acid test in front of a faithful sea of blue.
The inclusion of Beauden Barrett at flyhalf after being a late scratching last week will be a huge relief to both the Hurricanes and the All Blacks. Unfortunately this time around, Mark Abbott and Ardie Savea will start on the bench due to head knocks they suffered last week. Dane Coles continues to be in the stands and Chris Boyd made mentioned that it looks likely that he will be ready to face the Chiefs next week. His hopes of representing the All Blacks against the British & Irish Lions might in fact be over. Despite his absence, more than enough class remains in the Hurricanes pack and their backline, as the Bulls witnessed last week. In particular, the centre partnership of Ngani Laumape and Vince Also, who have collectively scored 25 tries between them. To put that into perspective, that equals the total amount of tries the Force have scored all season. The Force are a dogged outfit though and only twice have they been blown away this season, both of which were against New Zealand teams (Crusaders and Highlanders). The Force have lost seven matches on the trot against New Zealand opposition in Perth and I expect them to chalk up another one on Saturday night.
Predicted result: Hurricanes to win by double-digits @ $1.06 – Sportsbet