The final round of the first phase of this year’s competition takes place this weekend with 14 teams in action. From next week, the International June Test Series kicks off with the majority of the tier one teams schedule to play with the All Blacks facing England, the Wallabies taking on the French and South Africa playing a World XV, Wales and Scotland. I was lucky enough to be in Albany last Friday evening to watch a clinical Sharks outfit outclass the Blues, before the Waratahs handed the Rebels their third biggest defeat of the season in Melbourne. The final match on Friday night saw the Bulls trample the Brumbies in Pretoria in a match that could be season-defining for both teams. Saturday’s action kicked off with a thriller in Dunedin that saw the Crusaders narrowly escape defeat before the Hurricanes trounced the Chiefs 45 – 8 in a one-sided contest that not many would’ve predicted. Saturday’s triple-header was finished off when the Force overpowered the Lions before the Stormers showed what they are capable of when they held the Cheetahs scoreless and ran in four tries of their own in miserable conditions. The aforementioned results saw the Brumbies plunge from second to seventh and the Chiefs fell from third to eighth.
In what will make for entertaining viewing, all matches this weekend will have playoff implications, however, I am particularly keen on the Chiefs match with the Waratahs in New Plymouth on Saturday afternoon. Below I will analyse each match and provide some plays that I believe are favouring us, the punters. Make sure you follow me on Twitter (@S15_TheProfits) for last minute tips, game coverage, expert insight or just for a chat. Good luck!
Best Bet 1: Highlanders – 2.0 @ $1.91 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 2: Hurricanes @ $1.85 – Sportsbet (early twitter play)
Best Bet 3: Bulls -7.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 4: Crusaders/Brumbies/Bulls @ $2.08 – Sportsbet (early twitter play)
Crusaders ($1.18) vs Force ($5.00)
The Crusaders and the Western Force will kick off the final round of this phase of the Super Rugby competition at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Friday night. The Crusaders will have breathed a huge sigh of relief when a match-winning Highlanders try was disallowed by the TMO last weekend in the final moments of the match. The Western Force also boosted their Super Rugby finals hopes with a hard fought 29 – 19 victory over the toothless Lions in front of a faithful sea of blue fans in Perth.
The Crusaders will have breathed a huge sigh of relief after last weekend’s narrow win over their southern rivals. Israel Dagg’s last ditch tackle was the difference between topping the New Zealand Conference for the first time this season and languishing in 9th or 10th place with only a month to go. Blackadder will take a lot out of last weekend’s match against a Highlanders outfit that plays the game at tempo. Their attack has been solid over the past few rounds and it will need to be once again this weekend as they come up against one of the stingiest defences in the tournament. Coach Blackadder has only opted to make the one change this week bringing back the reigning IRB Player of the Year Kieran Read in place of Luke Whitelock. Read has been on the sidelines for a number of weeks battling a concussion that was more serious than initially thought. Nemani Nadolo and Johnny McNicholl continue to make huge strides at Super Rugby level, but the Crusaders forward pack reinforced by a number of All Blacks has really been the key to their resurgence after a slow start to the season. I also feel that the Crusaders really have the edge in this game on the bench, with stalwarts such as Wyatt Crockett, Corey Flynn, Owen Franks, Luke Romano and Willie Heinz certainly not there just to make up the numbers.
Last weekend’s victory over the Lions in Perth was their eighth victory of the season, which in turn has made 2014 the most successful year ever in franchise history. Led by their inspirational skipper Matt Hodgson, the Force have come on in leaps and bounds this year under the guidance of Coach Michael Foley and their South African recruitments that were brought in during the off-season. This weekend’s matchup against the Crusaders will be one of their most difficult of the season given the Crusaders good recent form and their strong record at home. Matt Hodgson will play a key role in this match and given his position at the top of the total tackles and total pilfers statistical categories, another good performance, this time against Richie McCaw, would put him well in contention for a Wallabies birth. The Force are somewhat depleted this week with a number of their stars including Luke Morahan, Alby Mathewson, Kyle Godwin still on the sidelines, but they have proved in recent weeks that they now have the depth to negate their unfortunate circumstance. At the time of writing, Foley was yet to release his team, but I can’t see too many changes from the team that successfully defeated the Lions last weekend.
It is well known in rugby circles that the Western Force are the Crusaders bogey team. Last season, the Force secured a narrow 16 – 14 victory over the men from Christchurch in Perth, but they haven’t won in two attempts in New Zealand’s south island (one draw). The Crusaders now top the New Zealand conference and have won six of the last seven matches and the Force have won eight of their last ten. There is a lot to play for, but I expect the Crusaders forwards to nullify their opposition and break the game open through players like Ryan Crotty and Nemani Nadolo.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win fairly comfortably against a dogged Force outfit @ $1.18 – Sportingbet
Reds ($2.16) vs Highlanders ($1.72)
The bottom of the table Reds return to Suncorp Stadium for their third match in a row when they host the sixth placed Highlanders this weekend in Brisbane. The hapless Reds have been this season’s biggest disappointments having lost their last six matches, but they will be well rested after receiving a much-needed bye last weekend. The Highlanders have won five of their last seven matches but they will be gutted having just fallen short of the Crusaders last weekend at home and eager to get a vital win.
Richard Graham has been forced to make a number of changes to the team that lost to Rebels two weeks ago. James Slipper makes a timely return to the fray after serving his three-week suspension, however, injuries to Quade Cooper (season), Eddie Quirk (season), Saia Fainga’a and Jono Owen have weakened the Reds squad significantly. As the Reds will be heading for the showers early this season, it is likely that Richard Graham will start experimenting with some of his talented youngsters and look to mould future combinations. With this in mind, hooker Andrew Ready, prop-forward Sef Faagase and centre Samu Kerevi are all in line to make their debuts off the bench. Will Genia will also play his 100th match for Queensland and becomes the 29th player to do so this weekend. Graham has also been fortunate to add Liam Gill to the bench this weekend and the former Gregory Terrace student will be out to make a statement having been left out of Ewen McKenzie’s initial squad for the French Test Series.
The Highlanders are showing the form in 2014 that many thought they would be able to produce last year and it is a welcome relief for their fans in the south of New Zealand. The Highlanders put up a spirited performance last week against the Crusaders and players like Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Smith and Patrick Osborne displayed once again why they are some of the best attackers in the competition. Fekitoa’s stocks continue to rise and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is in the first Test squad to face the English in just one week’s time. The Highlanders are still within striking distance of ending the season in the playoff picture as they currently sit in sixth position, equal on 36 points with the Force and the Hurricanes. Coach Jamie Joseph has named a similar team to face the Reds this weekend. Although largely unheralded, the Highlanders pack is gritty and dogged around the park and should they gain parity with the more experienced Reds eight, their backs could well run riot in Brisbane.
Based on this season’s form alone, the Reds don’t have much of a chance this weekend against the Highlanders, however, you can never count any team out in this competition. The Reds will be looking to elevate themselves off the foot of the ladder, but the Highlanders will be hungrier with more at stake and should come away with their first victory against the Reds since 2009.
Predicted result: Highlanders to win @ $1.72 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 1: Highlanders – 2.0 @ $1.91 – Sportingbet
Chiefs ($1.66) vs Waratahs ($2.25)
The Chiefs return to Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth for the second time this month for a hugely important clash against the Australian Conference leading Waratahs on Saturday afternoon. The Chiefs have hit more than just a road bump in recent weeks and last weekend’s loss against the Hurricanes was their biggest since their 61 – 17 Super Rugby Final loss to the Bulls in 2009. On the other hand, the Waratahs have found their mojo after comprehensively avenging last season’s loss to the Rebels in Melbourne.
After one of the worst displays from the Chiefs last weekend during the Dave Rennie tenure, the Coach has made a sweeping amount of changes this week in a quest to return to the winner’s circle. In the forwards, former Highlanders prop Jamie Mackintosh returns to the starting line up in place of Pauliasi Manu and Matt Symons will pack down in the second row next to Brodie Retallick with Mike Fitzgerald dropping down to the bench. Liam Messam moves to the blindside flanker role and Liam Squire, who is having a superb breakout season, will lock the scrum at number eight. In the backs, Aaron Cruden returns to the number ten jumper with the task of marshalling his troops around and Andrew Horrell will now partner Tim Nanai-Williams in the centres. As a result of these changes, the Chiefs have a powerful bench that includes Mo Schwalger, Tanerau Latimer, Gareth Anscombe and Bundee Aki and you would expect all of them to be called on.
Coach Michael Cheika has showed faith in the troops he selected last week for their battle this round against the Chiefs. Having won the last three fixtures, all with four-try bonus points, the Waratahs are starting to look like the team that many people expected them to be throughout the season. The forwards are doing their jobs well and their domination up front is creating space for the likes of Foley, Beale and Folau to thrive out wide. Folau only requires one more try to overtake Peter Hewat as the Waratahs leading try scorer, which is a remarkable achievement in only his second year of rugby union. The biggest concern for the Waratahs this week is their poor road record this season. They have only won two matches from sixth attempts outside of Sydney and the Chiefs certainly won’t be a walk in the park. A win for the Waratahs this weekend would really make a statement, and the quality on display on both sides of the ledger will make this an extremely physical and entertaining fixture.
Both teams have been evenly matched over their past ten encounters having won five a piece, however, the Waratahs won this corresponding fixture last year in Sydney. The Waratahs have won three in a row for the first time this season, whereas the Chiefs have been far from their championship winning form of the past two seasons. This will be a colossal encounter with Test match intensity, but it is hard to ignore the Waratahs poor road form and the inclusion of Aaron Cruden might just make the difference. In saying that, I will stay away from betting in this match, but if I had to pick something, I would have the Waratahs with the handicap.
Predicted result: Chiefs to win a close one @ $1.66 – Sportsbet
Blues ($2.00) vs Hurricanes ($1.82)
The Blues will travel just down the road from last weekend’s venue on Saturday, when they face the confident Hurricanes at the sacred home of world rugby, Eden Park. The men from Auckland were outmuscled and outclassed at North Harbour Stadium in Albany by a more clinical Sharks team and their chance of progressing to the playoffs was ended. By contrast, the Hurricanes played their best match of the season after handing the Chiefs their biggest defeat in five years and forced their way back into fifth position.
The Blues are currently languishing at the bottom of the New Zealand conference, a full nine points behind the fourth-placed team, the Chiefs. The competitive nature of the New Zealand Conference will make for some fascinating viewing after the June International window, but it is safe to say that the Blues won’t feature in the title race this year. However, given their talented roster, they will have the ability to be a bit of a banana skin for their upcoming top-six opponents including the Force, Crusaders and Chiefs.
Coach Sir John Kirwan has named a strong forward pack to combat the Hurricanes this week. The front row remains immense with Tony Woodcock, Kevin Mealamu and Charlie Faumauina and the second row is unchanged with Tom Donnelly and Patrick Tuipulotu. Jerome Kaino will start at number eight with Captain Luke Braid and Peter Saili named as the breakaways for this match. In the backs, the young Hawkes Bay talent Ihaia West takes over from Simon Hickey for his first start in Super Rugby and will partner Bryn Hall in the halves. Ma’a Nonu and Pita Ahki form a dangerous centre pairing with George Moala shifting to the wing alongside former Sevens ace Frank Halai and Lolagi Visinia.
The Hurricanes will be buzzing with confidence after easily disposing of the reigning Super Rugby champions last week in record fashion. All Blacks winger Julian Savea scored two of his team’s six tries and reiterated his billing as one of the best wingers in world rugby. The forward pack outmuscled the Chiefs, something not many teams have been able to do over the past few seasons and a number of them were also rewarded with tries of their own. Beauden Barrett has been in exceptional form this season and has orchestrated his team brilliantly with accurate kicking, deft passing and insightful running. He will bring up his 50th Super Rugby match this weekend and is really staking a claim for All Black honours again this year. The only changes Mark Hammett has made this weekend have been injury enforced with Matt Proctor replacing the elusive Andre Taylor and Reggie Goodes looks set to start at loosehead prop in place of Ben Franks, who is in doubt with a groin strain. Otherwise, Hammett has opted for consistency and why wouldn’t he after such a dominant display last weekend.
Little over a month ago, the Hurricanes put the Blues to the Sword with a strong 39 – 20 victory in Wellington, so the Blues will be out for revenge. Both teams will be missing their fullbacks and potentially their most dangerous players in Charles Piutau and Andrew Taylor, but they both still have talent to burn. The Hurricanes look the more complete squad and have showed more consistency this season, so I expect them to achieve the season double in Auckland.
Predicted result: Hurricanes to win @ $1.82 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Hurricanes @ $1.85 – Sportsbet (early twitter play)
Brumbies ($1.25) vs Rebels ($4.00)
The Brumbies will be grateful about returning to Canberra Stadium on Saturday evening when they face the Melbourne Rebels. The Brumbies had a disastrous tour of South Africa losing to both the Cheetahs and the Bulls and in turn, now find themselves outside the top six. Last weekend, the Rebels were also defeated in Melbourne at the hands of a more composed Waratahs outfit. The Rebels will also be buoyed by their eight-point victory over the Brumbies in Round Seven.
The Brumbies will be looking to get their campaign back on track this weekend against a very stingy Rebels defense. After their loss to the Bulls, the Brumbies have fallen out of the top six for the first time this season and this weekend is vital should they wish to remain contenders. Coach Stephen Larkham has made a number of changes this week in order to rediscover the form that made them dangerous opponents early on in the season and to tighten up a defensive wall that has come crumbling down over the past two weekends. Ben Alexander, Leon Power, Robbie Coleman and Jesse Mogg have all been alleviated from starting duties with Pat McCabe (fullback), Clyde Rathbone (wing), Fotu Auelua (flanker) and Ruan Smith all given an opportunity in the run on team. In a surprise recall, Clyde Rathbone will feature for the first time this season and I expect him to get a lot of attention given the time he has spent away from the pitch.
The Rebels were victims of a Waratahs onslaught last weekend, but they will be well and truly up for this game against the men from Canberra. Coach Tony McGahan will be proud of his men in his first season in charge, but one must admit that the Rebels could be higher up on the ladder if they had been more clinical and converted some of the pressure they have put other teams under, into points. Coach McGahan has made a number of changes this week with a few players returning from injury and international duties in Japan. The front row of Toby Smith, Pat Leafa and Laurie Weeks, who will bring up his 50th cap for the Rebels, has worked well this season with Cadeyrne Neville and Luke Jones behind them. The back row of Colby Fainga’a, Scott Fuglistaller and Captain Scott Higginbotham round out a strong forward pack. Ben Meehan and Bryce Hegarty make up the halves combination and Mitch Inman will be happy to have former All Black Tamati Ellison back alongside him in the centres. Tom English, Male Sau and Jason Woodward form a pretty strong outside back combination, with the latter in the best form of his young career.
The Brumbies will be eager to return to the winner’s circle this week and know that they cannot afford to lose out on vital competition points in Canberra. Under the tutelage of Tony McGahan, the Rebels have improved significantly, however, I expect the class and experience of the Brumbies to be the downfall of the visitors this weekend.
Predicted result: Brumbies to win @ $1.25 – Sportsbet
Lions ($1.32) vs Bulls ($3.60)
After an expectedly poor tour of Australasia, the Lions return to Ellis Park in Johannesburg this weekend to face an in-form Bulls outfit. En route back to South Africa, the Lions made a pit stop in Perth, only to be brushed aside by the competition’s biggest improvers, the Western Force. Their opponents this week, the Bulls, looked extremely good in derailing the Brumbies playoff hopes when they run out comfortable 44 – 23 winners, so it is going to be a confrontational battle.
After another loss last weekend to the Force, the Lions have now lost seven in a row and haven’t tasted victory since Round Seven against the Reds. As the victories have been hard to come by, Lions Coach Johan Ackermann has continued to tinker with his team to counteract injuries and to find some combinations that have potential to blossom over the coming seasons. A strength of the Johannesburg-based franchise has been their scrum, but this hasn’t stopped the burly Ackermann from replacing the whole front row of Corne Fourie, Armand van der Merwe and Ruan Dreyer for Schalk van der Merwe, Robbie Coetzee and Julian Redelinghuys. Jaco Kriel and Captain Warren Whitely have been two of the Lions’ best this season with the former stealing five balls at the breakdown last weekend. The lively scrumhalf Faf de Klerk remains on the bench and Namibian fullback Chrysander Botha replaces Anthony Volmink on the wing. The other changes see Stokkies Hanekom, who has one of the best names in the competition, replaces Deon van Rensburg at outside centre and Courtnall Skosan has recovered from injury to take his place in the number 14 jersey.
The Bulls have come of age over the last few weekends and have really elevated their chances of making the playoff picture once again this year. The influence that Bulls and Springboks legend Victor Matfield has been evident and it is no surprise to see him called into the Springbok squad, as well as helping the Bulls possess the best line out in the competition. The Bulls and Springbok legend will watch from the stands this week after earning a well-deserved rest. Matfield was initially due to be rested during their recent tour of Australasia, however, some untimely injuries and suspensions instilled him back into the deep end. As a result, Grant Hattingh moves from number eight into the second row, which opens up the door for former Kings back rower Jacques Engelbrecht. Promising tighthead prop Marcel van der Merwe also rotates with Werner Kruger in the only other change to the starting 15. The Bulls know that they have to win pretty much all of their remaining fixtures to become the second South African team behind the Sharks in the finals and you would think that this is a match that shouldn’t cause them too many problems.
We have to go back to Round Three when these two teams last played, when the Bulls won 25 – 17 courtesy of solid game from flyhalf Jacques Louis-Potgieter. The Lions have been one of the victims of what has been a long and arduous competition, whereas the Bulls have won their last three matches since touring Australia and New Zealand. For me, there will only be one winner in this match and I expect the Bulls to do it fairly comfortably.
Predicted result: Bulls to win easily @ $1.32 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 3: Bulls -7.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Sharks ($1.35) vs Stormers ($3.25)
The final match of the round comes to us from Kings Park in Durban where the table-topping Sharks host the ever-improving Stormers. The Sharks had an extremely successful tour of Australasia winning three of their four matches played and in the process, really set up their chances of playing a home final in this year’s competition. Their win in Auckland last week was solid without being spectacular, but their composure and attention to detail was truly evident and a class above. The Stormers have also been one of the form teams in the last few weeks and their 33 – 0 victory over the Cheetahs in wet conditions was a fair reflection of this.
The Sharks have been one of the favourites to win this year’s competition since the early rounds of this competition and after their successful Australasian tour, it is going to take a good team to beat them. Upon arrival back in South Africa, a number of the Sharks players went into Springbok camp, so preparations will have been disrupted slightly, but given the break many of them are about to endure, one more victory against the Stormers would solidify their chances of a home semi-final. This weekend, Jake White has stuck largely with the squad that defeated the Blues in Albany, by making just the one change – and a big change it is. Marcell Coetzee, who was one of the Sharks best players in the early rounds, returns from injury in place of the veteran Jacques Botes who drops out of the match day 23 all together. Heading into the June break, there are some concerns over the fitness of Frans Steyn, who has struggled with knee complications over the past few weeks. He has been put on ice and won’t be selected by the Springboks, so the fact that he is playing this weekend is somewhat questionable.
Over the past few weeks, the Stormers have looked a lot better than their 11th placing suggests and certainly a team that could pose a few challenges to some of the finals contenders. However, their injury ward has increased after last weekend’s promising victory over the Cheetahs with Schalk Burger, young prop Oliver Kebble and winger Kobus van Wyk all suffering setbacks. The loss of these three players is offset somewhat with the Argentinian lock Manuel Carizza due back and ready to rumble, as is flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis. The team still looks strong on paper with a solid back row and an exciting backline, however, they are coming up against the best in the competition and their bench looks significantly weaker and far more inexperienced. Duane Vermuelen has been entrusted with the captaincy armband and I am really looking forward to how Damien de Allende and Juan de Jong matchup with Paul Jordaan and S’bura Sithole in the centres.
Many will regard this match as a mini Springbok trial with a number of Internationals selected in both line-ups. Since the Stormers have changed their game plan to be more attacking, they have looked significantly better, but the Sharks possess the best defense in the competition and they should suffocate their opposition in front of their home crowd in Durban.
Predicted result: Sharks to win @ $1.35 – Sportingbet
All of the above are the opinions of the author and are not recommendations or advice. The author may not be taking every bet listed above. Bet at your own risk.
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