After last weekend’s entre of Super Rugby action from South Africa, we eat the first main course of the season with sevens matches televised live around the world. The first match of the season in Bloemfontein between last year’s fifth ranked team, the Cheetahs and the reinstated Lions from Johannesburg never really got going, however, the first upset of the season was recorded thanks to a clutch drop goal on 80 minutes to the visitors. The final match of the round saw a South African conference blockbuster between the Sharks and the Bulls at a very humid Kings Park in Durban. The Sharks sounded an early warning and reaffirmed why they may just be title contenders this season. This weekend, we kick things off with a huge clash in Christchurch between the Crusaders and the Chiefs, followed by a number of inter-divisional and cross-conference match ups. 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: Cheetahs to win @ $1.94 – Betfair
Best Bet 2: Blues to win @ $1.85 – Betfair
Crusaders ($1.58) vs Chiefs ($2.88)
AMI Stadium in Christchurch will host the first New Zealand derby of the season and most probably the match of the round, as last year’s champions the Chiefs take on the perennial superpowers, the Crusaders. The Friday afternoon fixture often hits heights unseen in later matches as New Zealand teams know how to play attractive rugby and the majority of players have an incredible ability to beat a defender one-on-one. The Chiefs currently have the wood on the Crusaders beating them both times during last year’s competition and whether they can repeat those feats this season remains to be seen.
The Crusaders are notorious for being slow-starters in Super Rugby and often they rely on a mid to late season run to solidify their playoff aspirations. In saying that, it has been five long years since the Crusaders last raised the trophy and another year without some silverware could very well see the end of coach Todd Blackadder reign. When you gaze your eyes across this weekend’s team sheet named by Blackadder, there are two notable omissions: Kieran Read and Dan Carter – one being the current IRB Player of the Year and the other being a former IRB Player of the Year. Any team that loses that much experience in two vital positions will be up against it, but if there is anyone that can face adversity, it is the men from Christchurch. There are three Crusaders debutants in the starting fifteen including prop Tim Perry, winger Nafi Tuitavake, and outside centre Rey Lee-Lo, whose face looks very similar to Steve Urkle. In the forward pack there are five All Blacks and Dominic Bird, who stands at 2.03 metres, the new tallest player in the competition after Stormers lock Andries Bekker moved to Japan in the off season. All Black great and future hall of famer Richie McCaw will captain the red and blacks and the leadership and comfort he brings to the players around him is second to none. Andy Ellis is a livewire at halfback and fly half Tyler Bleyendaal has huge pressure on him to keep his spot with Tom Taylor warming the bench. Ryan Crotty at inside centre has been one of the Crusaders most consistent performers over the last few seasons and his form was rewarded with an All Blacks call up last year. Keep an eye out for Johnny McNicholl who is a tall and pacey winger and his combination with Israel Dagg will be crucial from the back.
The 2014 season could easily launch the Chiefs into the history books should they win a third successive title. However, they will have to do it without a few of their cornerstone players after their exodus late last year to continue their careers overseas. The acquisition of Mils Muliaina (100-test All Black) and Robbie Fruean (future All Black) certainly bolsters the backlines and adds a further string to their bow in terms of excitement, go forward ball and elusive running. Dave Rennie and company have instilled solid values within the team and it is evident that their positivity and leadership has permeated throughout the squad. Despite a long list of injuries, Rennie has still managed to name a powerful line up featuring a number of All Blacks and other test playing Internationals. Jamie Mackintosh has made his way up from Dunedin in the offseason and he will be joined by Rhys Marshall and ‘Big Ben’ Tameifuna in the front row. Mike Fitzgerald partners one of last season’s best All Blacks, Brodie Retallick in the second row. A preseason injury to All Blacks number seven Sam Cane has robbed viewers of a mouth-watering clash with All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. His place has been taken by Tevita Koloamatangi, but he is well supported by captain Liam Messam and former Samoan International Kane Thompson. Augustine Pulu and Aaron Cruden are paired in the halves and their role is critical to the Chief’s cause with names like Tikoirotuma, Ngatai, ex-Crusader Fruean, Nanai-Williams and the 100 test All Black, Mils Muliaina outside of them. This could quite easily be the most dangerous backline in the competition, so onus will be on the forwards to be able to provide them with the front-foot ball they need to cause havoc for the red and black defensive wall.
Both of these teams know each other inside out as they clash twice a year in Super Rugby and at least two times in the ITM Cup (New Zealand provincial championship). Although many players speak of these clashes in terms of their team’s performance, the micro-battles that take place are just as important to them with All Black jerseys lying in wait. This is an extremely hard match to predict with the quality of players on both sides, however, the home field advantage and the Chiefs huge injury toll has me leaning slightly towards the Crusaders in an entertaining encounter.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win @ $1.58 – Betfair
Cheetahs ($1.94) vs Bulls ($2.14)
The second match on Friday evening (Saturday morning Australian time) sees both losers from round one clash in what should be an extremely physical encounter. The Cheetahs were huge favourites heading into last weekend’s fixture against the Lions, however, they were stung on the buzzer by a well-struck drop goal from what appeared to be a hungrier visiting team. In saying that, the Bulls weren’t a whole lot better and their first-half effort had them trailing on the scoreboard as a result of some substandard defence. Looking at the corresponding home and away series last year, the Bulls managed to win both, when they struck a rich vein of form en route to a nine-game win streak.
The Cheetahs couldn’t have asked for a worse start to the season after falling to the Lions in front of a dismal home crowd of only 8,000 last weekend. Coach Naka Drotske mentioned in his post-match press conference that the display his team put on was the worst he has seen for three years. Was it a case of ring rust or have the Cheetahs already lost their glow from 2013? Drotske knows what his best fifteen is and he has stuck to his big guns this week by naming an unchanged starting line up. The only replacement comes on the bench where the steady fullback, Hennie Daniller replaces Ryno Benjamin. Against the Lions, Willie le Roux showed glimpses of his best by creating two tries, however, he will have to develop patience and sometimes opt for a more conservative route if he wants to remain in the test arena. On the whole, the Cheetahs general discipline (namely, debutant Jean Cook), ball-handling skills and decision-making was poor, however, had their goal kicking been up to scratch, they may well would’ve won the fixture. There is a lot to improve on this weekend and by the end of the clash we will have a much better understanding of the character within the 2014 Cheetahs squad.
Not very often in Bulls history can you say that they have gone to Durban in what is billed as one of the biggest derbies in the country, to return with zero competition points, whilst handing the Sharks five. The Bulls had a slow start to the match and the mass-exodus of players that the Bulls have experienced in recent years looked obvious as they struggled territorially and with their game plan. Leaking three first half tries is suicide in Super Rugby and unsurprisingly, they failed to fight back, despite accounting for themselves a lot better in the second half. Francois Hougaard had a quiet game and it was no coincidence that when Piet van Zyl replaced him that the Bulls looked a different team. The return of Victor Matfield was one of great anticipation and although he didn’t fail to set the world a light, his experience and knowledge of the game will no doubt bring a sense of calmness to the players around him. Coach Frans Ludeke has resisted making wholesale changes this week by only bringing in Grant Hattingh in the second row in place of Paul Willemse and replacing the injured captain Pierre Spies with Jacques Engelbrecht.
Both teams will be reeling after last weekend’s slow starts to the season, but when you sum it up, the Bulls lost to what many think will be the best in the South African conference this year, whilst the Lions lost to the ‘worst’. Completely disregarding last week’s fixtures, I would lean towards the Cheetahs, however, the Bulls second half performance was strong, and had Lambie not scored in the corner in injury time, they would’ve won the second half. In saying that, the Cheetahs have the home ground advantage and they would love nothing more than to beat their old enemies. I expect their forward pack to improve and Johan Goosen will look to have a big game after shaking off last week’s ring rust, so I give them a slight edge in what will be an extremely physical encounter.
Predicted result: Cheetahs to win @ $1.94 – Betfair
Best Bet 1: Cheetahs to win @ $1.94 – Betfair
Highlanders ($2.86) vs Blues ($1.85)
The Saturday afternoon match comes to us from the closed-roof, Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin when last season’s biggest disappointment, the Highlanders welcome the developing and quickly improving Auckland Blues. Both teams have had mixed preseasons and they will look to get out of the gate quickly with some much tougher clashes with the Chiefs and the Crusaders to come. Last year’s series saw both of these teams win one game a piece on their home tracks, however, the match in Dunedin was one where the Highlanders produced their best display of rugby the entire season.
Without dwelling on last season too much, the Highlanders will be looking for a complete reversal in form and results this year. In saying that, Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has named a fairly inexperienced team with five players potentially making their Super Rugby debuts. Kane Hames, who plays his rugby for Bay of Plenty in New Zealand’s ITM Cup, will start at loosehead prop, alongside future All Black hooker Liam Coltman and the evergreen Chris King. Brad Thorne, one of the most decorated rugby players on the planet will pack down in the second row alongside Jarrad Hoeata. Nasi Manu returns to the fray as co-captain from number eight and he is joined by Shane Christie, who is a prolific fetcher on the deck, and Otago captain Gareth Evans. All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith is like a jack russell around the park and Lima Sopoaga will need to improve his game this year should the Highlanders feature when it matters most. Sean Treeby and Malakai Fekitoa form an exciting centre partnership and Patrick Osborne and Richard Buckman will no doubt be following fullback Ben Smith around the field on attack, given his ability to consistently break the line.
On many accounts, the Blues are considered to be one of the dark horses in this year’s competition. Coach John Kirwan now has a year under his belt and his work and relationship with super-coach Graham Henry will continue to reap rewards for a club with such a proud history. Kirwan announced his team late on Thursday and it features seven All Blacks in the starting fifteen. Kirwan has stated that 2014 will be the year that Ofa Tu’ungafasi announces himself in Super Rugby after an offseason that has seen him shed 10 kilograms. Charlie Faumauina and James Parsons make up the balance of the front row. Liaki Moli and the trooper Tom Donnelly will be in charge at lineout time and the back row of Steven Luatua, Luke Braid and Peter Saili will be familiar to Super Rugby viewers. 100-test All Black Piri Weepu will control things from the back of the scrum and at the base of the ruck and will more often than not feed the ball to fly half Chris Noakes. Francis Saili and Jackson Willison fill the number 12 and 13 jerseys and the outside back arrangement of Frank Halai, George Moala and Charles Piutau is as threatening as any and one of them is bound to get on the scoresheet. Unfortunately, Blues fans will have to wait at least another week for the return of former All Black Jerome Kaino, although one of the Blues biggest off season recruits, high-profile ex-rugby league star, will make his debut off the bench. It will be interesting to see whether he takes the field at fly half or a ‘safer’ position in the outside backs, but Kirwan has made mention that he still has a lot to learn in the fifteen man code.
The beauty of playing matches at the Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin is that teams can play running rugby, as they don’t have to worry about any impeding weather conditions. The Blues look a much more settled unit and although the Highlanders may surprise some, if the Blues forwards can gain parity, the class of the Auckland backs should be too much for the home team to handle.
Predicted result: Blues to win @ $1.85 – Betfair
Best Bet 2: Blues to win @ $1.85 – Betfair
Brumbies ($1.57) vs Reds ($2.74)
The first blockbuster clash of the Australian conference takes place at Canberra Stadium on Saturday night when last season’s finalists and Australia conference champions face-off against the 2011 champions and star-studded Queensland Reds. Along with the Waratahs, both teams contribute significantly to the national setup, so one could say that this would be the first Wallabies trial of the season. The 2013 season for these teams kicked off with this fixture and the Brumbies claimed an impressive 24 – 6 victory in Canberra, whereas the second fixture was drawn in a thrilling match that saw the Reds outscore their opponents three tries to one.
The ACT Brumbies turned back the clock in 2013 and produced their best display of rugby since the years of Paul, Gregan, Larkham and Roff. A number of their younger players stood up at provincial level and were duly rewarded with their national colours throughout the course of the year. Under the guidance of super coach Jake White, Laurie Fisher and Stephen Larkham, the Brumbies surprised many, but with the former having now departed from the nation’s capital, many believe that there may be an unfillable void. With Stephen Larkham at the helm, I expect the Brumbies to continue to look for territorial advantage on the back of their squeezing defence. Larkham has named a squad with a few changes to the line up that were outclassed by the Chiefs in last year’s Super Rugby final. The tight five of Sio, Moore, Alexander, Fardy and Carter are settled and the back row of captain Ben Mowen, David Pocock and Jarrad Butler looks very well balanced. Pocock has been in rehab for the past six months and based on some of his preseason form, he is fitter and as strong as ever and doesn’t look to have skipped a beat. Interestingly, number eight Butler left the Reds last season in search of more game time, so there will certainly be some emotions when he faces his old teammates. Looking at the backs, Minute scrumhalf Nic White and Matt Toomua have been selected in the halves with McCabe, Smith, Speight, Tomane and the elusive Jesse Mogg outside of them.
Coach Richard Graham has named a formidable line up to take on the Brumbies this weekend with six Wallabies in the forward pack and a further six in the backline. James Slipper, Saia Fainga’a and Greg Holmes form a solid front row with the enforcer Rob Simmons and captain James Horwill lining up in the second row. The back row of Quirk, Gill and Schatz is youthful, but seasoned and they will have a huge job on their hands combating the likes of Ben Mowen and David Pocock, in particular. Will Genia will marshal his backline and luckily for the Reds, the mercurial Quade Cooper has been passed fit by the medical staff to play after being on the receiving end of a dangerous tackle in last weekend’s trial loss against the Rebels. Mike Harris and Ben Tapuai, who both had quiet seasons in 2013 form the centre partnership and ex-Waratahs wing Lachie Turner will get his first start for the Reds alongside Dom Shipperley and Aidan Toua.
The Reds play four of their first five matches on the road at Canberra Stadium, Allianz Stadium, Kings Park and Ellis Park, which are some extremely iconic rugby venues and not an easy task. Richard Graham and the Reds will know that a strong start to the season could well determine whether or not they feature in this year’s playoff series. The Brumbies will be looking to go one better this year and they certainly appear to have the squad to do so. The clash between last year’s top two Australian teams will be fast-paced and ferocious, but the Brumbies are a more settled unit and I see David Pocock potentially being the difference between the two teams.
Predicted result: Brumbies to win in a nail-biter @ $1.57 – Betfair
Sharks ($1.23) vs Hurricanes ($5.60)
For the second weekend in a row, Kings Park and the Sharks will play host to the highly entertaining Hurricanes from Wellington. The Sharks got off to a blinder in week one dismantling the Bulls 31 – 16 and achieved a four-try bonus point in the process. On the other hand, the Hurricanes have a one win (over the Blues) and two losses (Rebels, Crusaders) preseason record. We have to go back to 2012 to when these teams last battled and in fact it was the Hurricanes that got up by their biggest margin in Wellington (42 – 18), which was impressive, as they hadn’t beaten the Sharks for six seasons.
As confidence continues to build and expectations begin to rise in Durban, especially with Jake White at the helm, the Sharks know that they can’t get too far ahead of themselves. Last weeks victory was on the back of some excellent forward play from the usual suspects and the backs made good use of the space and field position they were able to manufacture. Last weekend, Pat Lambie stood much flatter than he usually does and provided the bulldozing Francois Steyn with good go forward ball to regularly setup multiple phases. He is one of very few fly halves in South Africa, the other being Johan Goosen, that challenges the line keeping defensive players honest instead of simply sliding onto the next man. Jake White has resisted tinkering with his team this week to maintain some continuity and reward his troops for their solid effort against the burly Bulls.
The Hurricanes have always played one of the most attractive brands of rugby amongst the Super Rugby franchises, which is saying a lot considering they have to play the majority of their fixtures at the ‘Cake Tin’ (synonymous for wind and rain). However, their attack has rarely been supported by a strong defense and this is an area that they will need to improve on having conceded more points than 11 other teams last year. ‘Under-fire’ Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett has named four debutants in the starting 15 and a further two on the bench for his team’s season opener against the Sharks this weekend. It is an All Black front row of Ben Franks, Dane Coles and Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen with Jeremy Thrush and Mark Abbott (debut) forming the second row partnership. The back row consists of Faifili Levave, Samoan International Jack Lam and Blade Thompson will play his second match as a Hurricane. TJ Perenara and All Black utility Beauden Barrett form an exciting partnership inside of last year’s Southern Kings recruit Hadleigh Parkes and the best defensive centre in the world Conrad Smith. Furthermore, Julian Savea and Cory Jane, who both need no mention, round out the backs alongside Marty Banks, who has been rewarded after an exceptional ITM Cup season last year for Tasman.
With players like Tim Bateman, Brad Shields and Victor Vito all on the sidelines, it would take a remarkable performance to knock the Sharks off their early season perch in such humid conditions. However, the Hurricanes are a team that you can never count out as they have firepower and solid ball runners from one to 15. With 11 Springboks in the starting fifteen and seven out of eight in the pack for the Sharks, the Hurricanes will know on Sunday morning that they were involved in an extremely physical encounter. Put simply, their forwards will need to muscle up and be highly competitive in the set pieces and the breakdown if they want to take some points out of the match – something that may be a bit of a stretch playing first up away from home.
Predicted result: Sharks to win @ $1.23 – Betfair
Lions ($4.30) vs Stormers ($1.30)
Ellis Park will be buzzing on Saturday night when the Lions play their first home fixture of the season against one of the best defensive units in recent times, the Stormers from Cape Town. Lion’s fans (and players) would’ve partied long into the night after beating the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein courtesy of a last minute drop goal by Marnitz Boschoff. The Stormers on the other hand, will open up 2014’s account after a solid preseason, where they managed to beat the Bulls and the relegated Southern Kings.
At the time of writing, Johan Ackermann has not released his squad for this week’s clash with the Stormers. I don’t expect too many changes from the match against the Cheetahs, except replacements for scrumhalf Michael Bondesio and winger-come-centre Lionel Mapoe. The incoming players will most probably be Faf de Klerk and Alwynn Hollenbach. Marnitz Boschoff had a great game with the boot last weekend kicking six penalty goals and the all-important drop goal that sealed the match. However, they did concede two tries and one gets the feeling that should they give the Stormers that many opportunities to score, when the referee blows the final whistle, they will be well down on the scoreboard.
Like many other coaches, Alastair Coetzee has named a team with five debutants in his match-day 23. The forward pack is extremely strong with Steven Kitshoff and Springbok Frans Malherbe down as props and last year’s Currie Cup Player of the year, Scarra Ntubeni at hooker. With Eben Etzebeth out until at least May with an ankle injury, Rynhardt Elstadt is joined by Argentinian lock Manuel Carizza in the second row. Siya Kolisi, co-captain Schalk Burger and Duane Vermuelen also make up one of the competition’s strongest back rows. In the backs, Southern Kings fly half Demetri Catrakilis will hope to convert pressure into points off the boot and Springbok captain Jean de Villiers will partner Michael van der Spuy in the centres. The latter has reaped a lot of praise locally and could be one to keep an eye on this season. The diminutive Gio Aplon has been selected at fullback alongside Kobus van Wyk and Damian de Allende on the wings.
Having looked at the Stormers team for their first clash of the year, it certainly doesn’t have the lustre of their teams from recent years. In saying that, their forward pack is immense and they should easily get on top of the Lions eight. Looking back at the history between these teams, the Lions haven’t defeated the Stormers since 2001, and I can’t see them mirroring last week’s performance against a forward pack anchored by Springboks.
Predicted result: Stormers to win @ $1.30 – Betfair
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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