At last, a perfect round of match bets (7/7) and best bets (3/3), so I hope some of you profited after an arduous wait. The competition is starting to heat up with Jake White’s Brumbies and Ewen McKenzie’s Reds in ominous form. The Chiefs, Bulls, Blues and Cheetahs round out the top six playoff spots with two South African and two New Zealand teams nipping at their heels.
With the top six starting to take shape, we are in for a riveting few rounds before the teams break for the June International window (B&I Lions, Junior RWC etc.). Be sure to watch the Brumbies versus the Crusaders in what is expected to be an exciting match played at high intensity in a chilly Canberra. With another seven intriguing clashes ahead of us, happy tipping, punting or predicting this week and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@S15_TheProfits) for game coverage, expert insight or just for a chat.
Best Bet 1: Stormers +3.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Chiefs/Reds/Waratahs @ $2.31 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 3: Sharks +7.5 (PYOL)/ Hurricanes +12.5 (PYOL) @ $2.31 – Sportsbet
Blues ($1.60) versus Stormers ($2.35)
The first match of round twelve involves two teams on the rise in this year’s competition, The Blues and the Stormers in Auckland. Despite losing to the Reds last weekend in Brisbane, the Blues will be extremely gutted as they fell short against the Reds at the rugby fortress known as Suncorp Stadium. The Stormers on the other hand travelled to Wellington last weekend and inflicted the Hurricanes first home loss in almost three months in a tightly contested affair on the back of an impressive blue and white wall in defence.
The Blues were unlucky to leave Brisbane with a losing bonus point last week an I have no doubt they will be both physically and emotionally drained, and the Stormers base their game around physicality via a staunch forward pack and a solid goal kicker. Where the Blues might look to target the Stormers is with their size out wide and Piutau, Halai and Ranger will be a threat if they are given too much space on the flanks. I mentioned last week that the Blues run into the playoff series is one of the more difficult ones, so you get the feeling that if they don’t pick up wins at home, they will be heading for the showers early this year after a surprisingly strong start.
The Stormers put in a gutsy performance last week and another win this week over one of the stronger Super Rugby teams would propel them further up the ladder and provide them with the confidence they need after a slow start to the season. Seasoned Springbok, Bryan Habana was inspirational in his return from injury securing crucial turnovers and charging down a vital conversion just on the stroke of half time that proved to be the difference at the end of the match. Gio Aplon doesn’t often get the credit he deserves given his small stature, but week-in and week-out he fronts up and plays well above his weight. With a host of players returning from injury including Siya Kolisi and rising talents Eben Etzebeth and Elton Jantjies to come off the bench, they will pose the Blues a different threat to what the Reds did last week.
The Blues surprised me last week at how they pushed the Reds to the brink of defeat and have had the luxury of a limited casualty ward for much of the season, but the Stormers can ill-afford any defeats at this stage of the competition and will be insistent that they heap the pressure back on the sides above them in the South African conference. The Stormers are one of the better travelling sides from South Africa and have a good record in Auckland and I expect them to come up trumps again this weekend.
Predicted result: Stormers to win @ $2.35 – Sportsbet
Best Bet: Stormers +3.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Rebels ($3.50) versus Chiefs ($1.30)
The Rebels head home this week to play a Chiefs outfit that managed to eek out an important victory last weekend against the Sharks. The Melbourne Rebels fans will be hoping of more of the same from their unit this week having pushed the Crusaders for 65 minutes in Christchurch before some late substitutions severely stifled the momentum of the away team.
Things don’t get any easier for the Rebels as the reigning Super Rugby champions will look at building on their momentum created by last week’s victory. Their superstars James O’Connor and Scott Higginbotham really stood up last week and their leadership was infectious as the team played with renewed confidence. However, they have only recorded two wins so far in 2013 and other teams will be banking on ‘easy’ points against them. Kurtley Beale returns to the fray this week after a month on the sidelines and the Rebels bank on scoring tries given their defensive deficiencies to date. The Chiefs will be a tall order this week and the Rebels go into this match outclassed on the team sheets, but by the way things have panned out this year with the ‘minnows’ posing real threats to the more fancied sides, the Rebels will be hoping not to be blown away in front of their home fans.
The Chiefs have been far from the clinical unit that took out the 2012 Super Rugby championship trophy, but you get the feeling that it is only a matter of time before things click for the Waikato-based side. The Chiefs lowest score this year has been 19, despite coming up against some strong defensive structures. When you look at their backline, there are attacking threats from nine to 15 and they have scored a number of opportunistic tries on the back of opposition turnovers. Centre Richard Kahui will be on the sideline this week, which will be a real blow, especially considering how impressive he has been after returning from a shoulder reconstruction. Look out for Patrick Osborne to make a huge impact off the bench in the second half, as the flying Fijian has an eye for a gap and looks graceful in full flight.
Despite the Rebels nail-biting loss to the Crusaders last week, I doubt any money will be put on them and rightly so. They have had an inconsistent season, highlighted by a tumultuous tour of South Africa. The Chiefs on the other hand are well aware of the job at hand and I think things could get ugly for a stung Rebels outfit.
Predicted result: Chiefs to win @ $1.30 – Sportsbet
Highlanders ($1.81) versus Sharks ($2.00)
The Highlanders return to action this week fresh off a bye when the Sharks come to town in need of some vital points. The Highlanders have been dismal in 2013, despite a number of promising signings in Nonu, Thorn and Woodcock. Once a playoff hopeful, the Highlanders are now out of the running and will use the back half of the season to elevate themselves off the bottom of the table, and in turn release their grip on the wooden spoon. Against the odds, the Sharks were extremely impressive in patches last weekend and you get the feeling that if they weren’t missing some of their seasoned veterans, the match was there’s for the taking against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Eight matches played, eight matches lost with two bonus points. What is there left to write about the Highlanders? To be fair, there are a number of games that they could’ve won, but simply didn’t. Their back row isn’t up to standard in this competition and week after week they are exposed and lose possession at crucial stages of the match. Their basic skills have been substandard which is hard to believe given the amount of All Blacks in the squad. This week, Tamati Ellison returns to the backline and will no doubt bring his All Black experience to the table, which might take some much needed pressure off Ma’a Nonu. If the Highlanders are ever going to strike, this is their time as a wounded Sharks outfit stands in front of them. The pressure gauge continues to rise for both players and managers alike so I have no doubt the Highlanders will throw everything they have at the Sharks.
After a strong start to the season, the Sharks are starting to plummet down the ladder with injuries rather than form, more to blame. Teams just cannot cope with the amount of injuries the Sharks have received and in this tournament there is nowhere to hide. The Stormers proved last year that you can go far in this competition with a solid defence having not acquired a four-try bonus point, but the Sharks defence simply cannot protect their offensive weaknesses. Patrick Lambie continues to pile on the points with his boot, but given their current log position, they need more than just a standard win from now on in. By my calculations, they can potentially afford to lose two of their remaining matches (if some other results go their way), but this is a match they NEED to win. A number of superstars including Willem Alberts and Bismarck du Plessis will be making their returns imminently, but for the game’s sake, a firing Sharks side is impressive to watch (e.g. demolition of the Rebels).
Something tells me that this week the Highlanders are going to show why they were heavily considered as potential champions this year. Coming off the bye, you would assume that they will be fresh and niggle free, however, based on their season to date, one cannot back them. Despite having a team full of injuries, the Sharks are traditionally one of Super Rugby’s strongest travelling sides and they will be out for blood knowing that nothing less than a win will suffice this week.
Predicted result: Sharks to win @ $2.00 – Sportsbet
Force ($3.20) versus Reds ($1.35)
An insipid and inconsistent Force team return home to their faithful sea of blue in Perth this weekend as they host a resurging Queensland Reds outfit. The Reds were taught a rugby lesson in Canberra last weekend as the tournament leaders coasted to a huge victory. The Reds on the other hand were involved in the match of the round and their championship qualities shun bright having fought back to claim the match in the final minutes.
The Western Force are an extremely frustrating team to watch given that they go from being giant killers one week to absolute cellar-dwellers the next. They will be able to take some confidence out of the fact that they have beaten the Reds in their last two encounters, however, you would have to rule out complacency from the Reds this week having already lost to the Force in Brisbane in round five. They were taken to the cleaners last time out against the Brumbies, and although they will most likely put in a much improved performance this week, it is hard to see them matching up against Reds outfit that has finally hit their straps.
The Reds have the ability to top the competition this week if the Brumbies fall to the Crusaders, and this incentive will no doubt have them focused for this clash. The Reds have won five matches on the trot and their results have been buoyed by their ability to name a consistent starting line up for the past few weeks. The Reds have gone for a five-two split on the bench, which indicates they think the Force are going to target them up front. Notwithstanding this, they can afford to with Ben Lucas being considered a utility back who is capable of playing halfback, fly half or fullback.
The Reds will be eager to settle the ledger against the Force this weekend and I get the feeling that they will come out extremely hard with a point to prove. Do the Force have it in them to cause another upset? I can’t see it happening and with the British and Irish Lions tour fast approaching, some of the seasoned Reds will make sure that every play counts.
Predicted result: Reds to win @ $1.35 – Sportsbet
Kings ($3.35) versus Waratahs ($1.32)
The Kings return to Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday night to play a Waratahs outfit laden with Wallabies who will be out to keep their mathematical chance of making the playoffs alive. Once again the Kings met their match last weekend, failing to cross the chalk in Bloemfontein and their over-reliance on kicking ace Demetri Catrakilis is beginning to cost them dearly. The Waratahs on the other hand were involved in an extremely physical encounter and suffered their eight consecutive loss to the Bulls on the Highveld in the process.
The Kings have surprised many in 2013, having already beaten the Force (home), the Rebels (away) and drawing with the table topping Brumbies in Canberra. Since then, they have slumped to the Bulls (34 – 0) and the Cheetahs (26 – 12). The rigours of this competition are catching up with them and their leadership qualities and lack of experience are being exposed. Additionally, you get the feeling that the Kings will be focussed on next week’s match against the Highlanders in Port Elizabeth, as it will be a grand final of sorts for them. For this reason, it appears that another defeat is on the cards.
It was another case of déjà vu last weekend, as the Waratahs haven’t beaten the Bulls in Pretoria for 11 years. It must be said that the men from Sydney pushed the Bulls last week leading by 19 – 15 heading into the final quarter, before letting the Bulls score 15 unanswered points late in the match. As another inconsistent season unravels, it only takes a look at their home and away record to see where their problems lie. The Waratahs are four wins from five at home, however, they are winless on the road this season in four attempts, which the Kings will take great confidence out of. Led by coach Michael Cheika, the ‘tahs have a much stronger arsenal of weapons, led by a colossal forward pack, the crafty distribution of Bernard Foley and the flashy feet and aerial prowess of Israel Folau.
It is quite clear that the Kings are starting to tire and the more they play, the more their weaknesses will be exploited thanks to the use of technology and general rugby nous. The Waratahs need a win this weekend and having had the experience of playing in front of a boisterous Loftus crowd, they will be better for it and should canter to a win here.
Predicted result: Waratahs to win @ $1.32 – Sportsbet
Bulls ($1.25) versus Hurricanes ($4.00)
The Bulls play their second match in a row at Loftus Versfeld this weekend, when the entertaining Hurricanes come to Pretoria. The Bulls currently sit atop the South Africa conference, albeit by a point over the Cheetahs, and will be looking to cement their position by beating a jetlagged Hurricanes outfit. Last week, the Hurricanes came up short against the Stormers at the speedway in Palmerston North as they failed to consistently penetrate a virtually impregnable Stormers defence.
Against popular opinion, the Bulls have handled themselves exceptionally well this year despite fielding a number of youngsters and missing some notable Springboks of yesteryear. They currently hold the ‘yellow jersey’ in the South African conference with a 6 – 3 record, with two of those losses near victory opportunities against the Reds and the Brumbies away. With three wins in succession, the Bulls juggernaut is beginning to role, but the Hurricanes pose attacking threats across the park including Barrett, Savea and Taylor, so any lapses in concentration or aimless kicking will no doubt be punished. At this stage, the Bulls are in control of their own destiny, however, despite scoring some wonderful tries in recent weeks, their defence has been slightly shaky. The Bulls have their biggest inter-conference derbies ahead of them in the Sharks and the Stormers, who base their games off strong ‘D’, so a win this weekend holds extra importance.
Similarly to the Waratahs last weekend, the Hurricanes are in for a bruising encounter and teams often don’t play to their potential in their first match on tour. In the last month, the Hurricanes have had a win-loss-win-loss record, but on closer look their victories have come against sub-standard teams. Coach Mark Hammett has named a strong side on paper with Julian Savea making his return to the wing and Victor Vito getting through some injury worries in recent weeks to maintain his spot at the back of the pack. A standout performer for the Hurricanes this year has been flanker Brad Shields, who has come on in leaps and bounds and at 22 looks to be a future All Black. The Hurricanes only know one style of play and that is to throw the ball around and run the opposition forwards ragged, and this game plan has upset the Bulls structures in the past, so I suspect this will be a high-scoring and entertaining fixture.
If the Hurricanes are to contest this year’s playoff series, they will need to have a successful tour of South Africa. It is a short trip of only two matches, but the Cheetahs and the Bulls away are daunting fixtures. The Bulls are four from four this year in Pretoria and with a number of home matches remaining, Loftus could very well regain it’s status as a fortress that they have relinquished in recent seasons. The Hurricanes will put up a good fight, but in my eyes they will have more of a chance of winning next weekend.
Predicted result: Bulls to win @ $1.25 – Sportsbet
Brumbies ($1.62) versus Crusaders ($2.30)
In what will be the match of the round, the Brumbies will host the perennial superpowers, the Crusaders, at what is expected to be a full house in Canberra. The Brumbies were extremely clinical last weekend in their annihilation of the Force and saw their championship odds plummet as a result of such a convincing victory. The Crusaders on the other hand were lucky to get out of jail against a much-improved Rebels display in Christchurch.
This year, no Super Rugby teams have done to the Force what the Brumbies did to them last week, but this article is being written prior to the Force vs. Reds clash on Saturday. The Brumbies picked the Force apart and regained the confidence and momentum they had lost after two draws in their last three matches. Their forwards are domineering on both attack and defence and often provide the much-needed front-foot ball that allows playmakers Matt Toomua and Christian Lealifano to thrive. When you throw in Joe Tomane (equal 4th top try scorer), Henry Speight (leading try scorer) and Jesse Mogg (equal 3rd top try scorer) out wide, if they get an inch they take a mile as they have done so on countless occasions this year. They have scored four more tries than anyone else this year, with the Crusaders sitting in third place, so I am hopeful of seeing a showcase of stern defence and end-to-end rugby. This match will have a test match feel to it and with some important internationals coming up, this is one of the last chances these players will get to exhibit their skills in a pressure cooker environment.
The Crusaders have lost their venom in recent seasons despite a star-studded squad representing the province each week. They are renowned for their composure, patience and their ability to adapt to the opposition and what is in front of them. In recent weeks, they have failed to string together consistently clinical performances that served them so well on the way to seven Super Rugby championships. The Crusaders need this victory to keep their home semi-finals chances alive and one gets the feeling that if they can get into the playoffs from here on in, they will be of real concern to any opposition. Dan Carter returns to the helm, but the continued absence of Kieran Read has been more detrimental than one would have first thought. They will also be looking for a big game from Robbie Freuan returning from a week on the sidelines and at his best, he will pose a number of questions to what is usually a study Brumbies defence. In other team news, the Crusaders have relegated star All Black Israel Dagg to the bench after an inconsistent season, but he could play a starring role off the bench as he has done for the world’s best test team on many occasions.
This game can be looked at as a season-defining match for both teams. The Brumbies have the Australian conference trophy in sight, and the Crusaders are looking to break into playoff contention. On form, the Brumbies have the edge, but the Crusaders are the last team I would discount in this competition. They have class across the park, players with big match temperament (BMT) and the hunger to return to the top of the pile after a few lean seasons. Something extremely special is brewing in Canberra and despite not having an all-star fifteen, their combinations are working in unison and need the victory to remain at the top of the competition. Based on form, I will pick the Brumbies, but this is a match that I would rather sit out and enjoy it for what it is.
Predicted result: Brumbies to win @ $1.62 – Sportsbet