After three rounds of fascinating Super Rugby action, the genuine contenders are starting to make themselves known, dark horses are lurking and some of the perennial superpowers are occupying unfamiliar spots in the lower half of the ladder. The Chiefs, Waratahs and Sharks remain unbeaten, whilst the Crusaders, who were tournament favourites, sit just above the winless Force on points differential. The tipping nightmare continued as the Blues upstaged the Crusaders, the Rebels demolished the Cheetahs and the Stormers edged the Hurricanes on Friday night. The Saturday fixtures saw the Chiefs come from behind to beat the Highlanders, the Waratahs outclass the Reds, the Brumbies nullify the Force and the Bulls achieved their first win of the season over the previously unbeaten Lions. It was also interesting to note that six from seven home teams were victorious. This weekend, the reigning champions the Chiefs, the Highlanders and high-flying Waratahs all have the bye to rest and recuperate after a frenetic start to the season. In saying that, some of the teams lower down on the log will have the ability to make up some much needed ground. 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: Brumbies +2.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Stormers +11.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 3: Blues +4.0 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Multibet: Blues +10.5 (PYOL) / Sharks -6.5 @ $1.89 – Sportsbet
Hurricanes ($1.81) vs Brumbies ($2.26)
Westpac Stadium in Wellington will play host to the first fixture of round four and their first of the season as the winless Hurricanes welcome last year’s finalists, the Brumbies. The Hurricanes returned from their ‘African Safari’ with a solitary losing bonus point, but it quite easily could’ve been more had the Stormers not scored in the final few minutes. On the other hand, the Brumbies returned to the winner’s circle last weekend against the Force in what was a dominant opening sixty minutes. Last year, the Brumbies won this corresponding fixture in Canberra by a score of 30 – 23 and there certainly is potential for this match to be a high-scoring encounter.
The Hurricanes have the ability to play some exceptional rugby, however, they have failed in recent seasons to achieve any sort of consistency. After a winless tour to South Africa, where they came second best against both the Sharks and the Stormers, the Hurricanes returned home with their tails between their legs. Coach Mark Hammett has made two changes to his team this week, one in the forwards and one in the backs. Adam Hill will start his second game in the blindside flanker jersey replacing Samoan International Faifili Levave, who had a storming game last week, both in attack and defense in Cape Town. The other change sees Marty Banks dropped in favour of Taranaki utility back James Marshall. Surprisingly, Hammett has resisted to thrust Ardie Savea into the spotlight on the side of the scrum, hinting that he will get a lot more game time in the coming weeks. There are still eight past and present All Blacks in the squad, but they will need the experience and skill of all of them if they want to cause the Brumbies any trouble in Wellington.
The Brumbies were all business last weekend in Perth dominating the opening 60 minutes on all counts (points, possession and territory) before the Force dotted down late on two occasions in the final five minutes. In unfortunate news overnight, Brumbies flanker David Pocock has undergone his second knee reconstruction on the same knee after re-damaging ligaments during last week’s match. With Number 8 Fotu Auelua still on the sidelines, the Brumbies back row stocks are limited, however, there are rumours that George Smith might be make a surprising return to Canberra. As a result, Scott Fardy has moved into the blindside flanker role, with Jarrad Butler moving to open side, with Ben Mowen captaining the team from Number eight. Coach Stephen Larkham has announced that Leon Power will make his first start of the season at lock and Andrew Smith replaces Pat McCabe who returns to the bench. McCabe left the field on a stretcher last week and there were severe concerns that he may have reinjured his neck, however, thankfully it was only a muscular issue. Henry Speight has been in blistering form on the wing, but he will have a big challenge on his hands this week against All Blacks winger, Julian Savea.
The Hurricanes have made the long trek back from Cape Town to Wellington, where the Brumbies will be looking to gain some ground on the Australian conference leaders, the Waratahs. Although the Brumbies have had to travel back from Perth, I still believe they have the firepower to cause the Hurricanes a great deal of problems, especially given the strength of their forward pack. The clash of the backs will be worth the price of admission alone, but I expect the Brumbies big-name players to lay the platform for a tight victory and achieve their fourth successive victory over the Hurricanes.
Predicted result: Brumbies to win @ $2.26 – Betfair
Best Bet 1: Brumbies +2.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Reds ($1.27) vs Cheetahs ($4.40)
The Reds will be eager to return home to Suncorp Stadium on Friday night to get their season back on track against the Cheetahs in front of what should be a healthy crowd at Suncorp Stadium. There was a huge amount of hype and anticipation for their match against the Waratahs at ANZ Stadium in Sydney last weekend, but they were comprehensively outplayed and outclassed against a much more clinical Waratahs outfit. The Cheetahs also felt what it was like to be dominated as the Rebels continued to build on their preseason form with a promising victory. The Reds will also be looking to get revenge from their 27 – 13 defeat in Bloemfontein last season.
The best thing about Super Rugby for teams that fail to win the week before is that the players get another opportunity to reverse their fortunes in search of continuous improvement the following week. In saying that, Reds coach Richard Graham has wielded the axe following last weekend’s one-sided home win by making five personnel changes. Four Reds players, Rod Davies (wing), Chris Feauai-Sautia (outside centre), James Hanson (hooker) and Ben Daley (prop) will be lining up for their first starting spots of the year in place of Lachie Turner (injury), Ben Tapuai (bench), Saia Fainga’a (bench) and James Slipper (bench) respectively. Mike Harris also returns to inside centre in place of Anthony Fainga’a, after recovering from an ankle injury that saw him pull out of last week’s match late in the build up. Based on the Cheetahs performances to date, the Reds are presented with their best opportunity of the season so far to play an attacking brand of rugby, so I expect players like Will Genia and Quade Cooper to up the ante and dominate proceedings like they have done so many times on the international stage.
The Cheetahs will be looking to turn things around in Brisbane this weekend, having spent a ‘relaxing’ few weeks on the Gold Coast. It has been reported that Coach Naka Drotske has ‘read the riot act to his players and demanded a better performance’ after conceding over 25 turnovers in Melbourne. They were also very lethargic on defense and didn’t ask any questions on attack, despite a squad that has a number of attacking and intuitive players. Statistically, the Cheetahs currently have four players in the top five for tackles made in this competition, which indicates the amount of time that they have had to spend on defense. Additionally, Willie le Roux has been up to his usual tricks in open space and currently sits atop of the metres made column with 280 from three fixtures, however, he has had very little extra support. Drotske has made three changes and one positional switch to his team this week. Those changes are Maks van Dyk for the injured Coenie Oosthuizen, Rayno Benjamin replaces Cornal Hendricks on the wing, and Hennie Daniller returns to fullback shifting the livewire Willie le Roux to the wing.
Eight clashes for four wins a piece sets the game up at Suncorp Stadium very nicely this weekend. The Reds are a different team at home and the Cheetahs seem to be somewhat off the pace from their record-breaking season last year. I can’t see the Cheetahs regrouping in time despite being immersed in the luxuries of the Gold Coast all week, and I expect the Reds to bounce back in style at their fortress, and one of the best rugby stadiums in the world.
Predicted result: Reds to win @ $1.27 – Betfair
Crusaders ($1.20) vs Stormers ($4.50)
The Crusaders will be desperate to secure their first win of the season when the Stormers visit Christchurch this weekend. Both of these teams have been in the top echelon of performers over the past few seasons, however, 2014 is a completely different story and one where the power has shifted even more in their respective conferences. Last weekend, the Crusaders suffered badly at the hands of the Blues and the Stormers narrowly escaped with a victory over the travelling Hurricanes in Cape Town. Last season, the corresponding fixture saw the Crusaders pip the Stormers 19 – 14, thanks largely to the boot of Tyler Bleyendaal.
During the opening minutes of last week’s contest, the Crusaders showed glimpses of what they are capable of racing out to an early lead. However, Tom Taylor’s wobbly early goal kicking, their lack of attention to detail and their frequent ability to make elementary mistakes at this level cost them severely. For the second week in a row, the Crusaders left empty-handed in terms of competition points and I cannot remember, if ever, the Crusaders conceded 29 unanswered points on a match. I have made mention of it before, but I truly do believe that Todd Blackadder will be given the boot at some stage this year, as it is quite startling to see the demise of such a proud rugby province.
Crusaders and All Blacks great, Richie McCaw has been struck down with injury again as he underwent thumb surgery during the week, which will see him ruled out for approximately eight weeks. With Dan Carter already on the sidelines, the Crusaders have lost a lot of experience, but I do expect Kieran Read to shoulder a lot of the responsibility. Matt Todd, who is an outstanding talent in his own right, has replaced McCaw and I foresee him cementing his place in the number seven jersey for most of the season. Coach Blackadder has made a number of additional changes: Luke Whitelock replaces brother George, Willie Heinz has been chosen over Andy Ellis, Israel Dagg makes a comeback on the wing and Jonny McNicholl replaces Nafi Tuitavake. Whether or not this breathes life into the Crusaders campaign remains to be seen, but continuity certainly hasn’t worked for them so far this season.
Despite beating the Hurricanes last weekend, coach Alastair Coetzee has made four changes to his team that will face off against the once mighty, red and blacks. Flanker Rynhardt Elstadt has been ruled out for six weeks and De Kock Steenkamp, who will play his first match of the season, will take his place. Argentinian import Manual Carizza was also injured against the Hurricanes and the Stormers have replaced him on the bench with Ruan Botha. Siya Kolisi, who announced himself at this level last year, will also sit out this match, but Coetzee has the luxury of calling upon future Springbok great, Schalk Burger. The final change sees Nic Groom swap with Louis Schreuder at halfback, after some fairly innocuous performances by the latter over the past two weeks. Other than that, the backline remains the same and centre Damian de Allende had an exceptional game last week inside of Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, having moved in a few positions from the wing. I am also interested to see how much game time Demetri Catrakilis receives, given that Peter Grant is back on the replacement bench as the Japanese season has now culminated for another year.
For a number of years, the Crusaders have been the Stormers’ ‘hoodoo’ team, with the ‘Saders winning the last four encounters and 12 of the last 14. The loss of Richie McCaw has only rubbed salt into the wound, however, there is enough class, poise and determination to continue their streak over a jet-lagged and uninspiring Stormers team on Friday.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win @ $1.20 – Betfair
Best Bet 2: Stormers +11.5 @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Force ($2.60) vs Rebels ($1.59)
The Force Field, as it is now affectionately known as, welcomes back their beloved Western Force as they face the potential dark horses of the competition, the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday night. Last Saturday, the Force showed very little resistance to a Brumbies onslaught, despite scoring two late tries. The night before in Melbourne, the Rebels came out of the blocks at rapid-fire pace, roaring past the Cheetahs for the first time ever in a convincing 35 – 15 victory. Last season saw the Rebels win both fixtures against the Western Force, ironically by the same score line of 30 – 23.
2014 appears to be the same old story for the Western Force having lost the first two matches of their campaign. Coach Michael Foley will be starting to feel the pressure and I believe he is the favourite to be sacked from his position before the season ends – unless of course his troops can turn things around in a hurry. They have a number of players who consistently perform at a high level including number eight Ben McCalman and rising start Kyle Godwin, however, there is very little support and very few players on their books that can turn a match on it’s head. At the time of writing, Michael Foley has not released his team, but I can’t see many changes, unless some players have dropped out due to injuries.
Much to the delight of their home fans and Coach Tony McGahan, the Rebels started their season with a bang last weekend. Winger Tom English has had a strong start to the season with his elusive running game, having beaten 11 defenders in the two matches played so far. But up front, captain Scott Higginbotham and Hugh Pyle were huge and played a key role in dominating the breakdown, a pivotal area in any match. What was most exciting about the Rebels was their willingness and ability to move the ball wide and they achieved a four-try bonus point in the process. It is also good to see Luke Burgess back on home turf and his work around the park was a significant part of the success of the Rebels last weekend. Surprisingly coach Tony McGahan has made six changes to his team this week. Max Lahiff, Cadeyrne Neville and Colby Fainga’a (brother of Anthony and Saia) will all make their first starts in the pack. Angus Roberts takes over from Bryce Hegarty at standoff and Tom Kingston, who possesses explosive pace, starts ahead of Lachlan Mitchell. McGahan has stated that he is very pleased with the depth that the club now has, however, it will be interesting to see if it slows the momentum that they created last week.
The Western Force are currently in the box seat for this season’s wooden spoon, while the Rebels, another preseason spoon candidate, have shown that they might have turned a leaf in 2014. The Rebels have won their last four matches against the Western Force (home and away) and they will be brimming with confidence and probably have too many weapons in their arsenal for the struggling Force in Perth.
Predicted result: Rebels to win @ $1.59 – Betfair
Bulls ($1.65) vs Blues ($2.56)
The Bulls from Pretoria and the Blues from Auckland will clash in what should be an open affair in Pretoria on Saturday night. In miserable conditions, the Bulls handed the Lions their first loss of the season last weekend, whereas the Blues didn’t let a bad start affect them, after they ran out convincing winners against the Crusaders. The Blues will also be looking to avenge last season’s loss to the Bulls at Eden Park, 28 – 21.
The Bulls have a huge challenge on their hands, as the developing Blues will look to run their big forwards ragged and capitalise with some of their young and exciting backs. South Africa’s most successful current South African Super Rugby coach, Frans Ludeke has made three changes to his team (two rotational and one positional), with all of them coming in the forwards. Werner Kruger continues his rotation with tighthead prop Frik Kirsten, Deon Stegmann a serial offender at the breakdown replaces Grant Hattingh, with Jono Ross shifting to number eight. Flip van der Merwe, one of the Bulls lineout specialists has received more ball at the set piece than any other player in the competition, which isn’t surprising given the Bulls territorial tactics. With lineout ace Victor Matfield alongside him, this is an area the Bulls will certainly look to dominate and pressure the Blues. One of the Bulls rising stars is number eight Jacques du Plessis, who has had a barnstorming start to the season in terms of ball carries, with the two-metre blindside flanker already racking up 34, two ahead of Cheetahs star Willie le roux, and Bulls fullback Jurgen Visser. Looking at the backs, Bulls flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter’s performance has been hailed as the difference in his side’s victory over the Lions, which should see Louis Fouche and Handre Pollard receive little game time over the next few weeks unless an injury occurs. Winger Akona Ndungane will also play his 100th Super Rugby match, which is a fine feat and he will be the ninth player in their franchise’s history.
Last weekend against the Crusaders, the Blues found themselves down on the scoreboard early, before wingers Frank Halai and Tevita Li scored two sensational tries in the space of two minutes. After the half time interval, the Blues kicked on and held the Crusaders scoreless in the second term. The Blues counter-rucking was sensational, however, they will be working overtime on their lineout this week, as it has been shambolic in the early parts of the season. The Blues have had a very light training week in Pretoria having had to make the long trek from New Zealand, Coach Sir John Kirwan has stipulated that this week would be more about mental preparation than physical. There were noises that Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu might make the trip over to South Africa, however, that hasn’t been the case. Kirwan has brought back All Blacks duo Tony Woodcock (prop) and Kevin Mealamu (hooker) as he knows the battle up front will be mammoth. The woolly-haired Liaki Moli will take Patrick Tuipulotu spot in the second row and the back line has been rewarded for their performance last week and is unchanged. Unfortunately, Benji Marshall has dropped out of the match day 23, but Coach Kirwan did state that he did remain in their plans moving forwards.
The Bulls and the Blues collectively have six Super Rugby trophies, however, the way I see it the Bulls are on the way down and the Blues are on the way up. Loftus Versfeld is a difficult place for any touring party, but the Blues are youthful, exuberant and well coached (more so Graham Henry than John Kirwan) and I think they will cause the Bulls a few problems and sneak a close victory in Pretoria.
Predicted result: Blues to win @ $2.56 – Betfair
Best Bet 3: Blues +4.0 to win @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Sharks ($1.21) vs Lions ($6.00)
The final battle of round four sees the South African conference favourites, the Cell C Sharks face the Lions who are surprisingly sporting a two win, one loss record. The Sharks had the bye last weekend, so they will be well rested for this match, whereas the Lions tasted defeat for the first time when they were involved in a bruising encounter against the Bulls in Pretoria. 2012 was the last time these two teams battled and interestingly, the Lions were victors on that occasion in a high scoring contest, 38 – 28, but I would be very surprised if things panned out the same way in Durban.
The Sharks will be relaxed and refreshed after their bye last weekend and for the third match of the season, coach Jake White has been able to name the same unchanged line up. The seven strong Springboks forward pack looks menacing and the backline is balanced and poised to run the Lions ragged. Centre Paul Jordaan, who missed the bulk of last season with injury, will look to add to his clean line breaks tally of five this weekend, where he has been the second most successful player using this metric, behind the freakish tri-code convert Israel Folau. In the press this week, Frans Steyn has mentioned how they want to lay down a marker in Super Rugby this week with a dominant and complete performance over the Lions. Steyn played under Jake White when the Springboks won the 2007 Rugby World Cup and his guidance and tutelage does wonders for his game, having had a strong start to the season after a couple of seasons of lethargic and uninspiring rugby. We all know that the Sharks have the ingredients to make a lethal potion this season, but it will be important for them to pick as many bonus points up as possible, especially against teams that occupy the lower half of the draw.
The Lions have played some solid, but rather uninspiring rugby so far this season, but having won two games already, I see them continuing to rely heavily on their defense and the boot of Marnitz Boshoff. Coach Johan Ackermann has made one change to the pack this weekend bringing in former Bulls hooker Willie Wepener in place of Robbie Coetzee. The return of Elton Jantjies to the flyhalf jersey, sees a shuffle in the backline. Marnitz Boshoff shifts to fullback, Namibian fullback Chrysander Botha moves to the left wing and the nuggetty Deon van Rensberg moves to outside centre. He will partner centre Stefan Watermeyer, who has scored a brace of tries in this year’s completion and currently sits joint-second on the tournament’s top try scorer’s table. The Lions are yet to face a team with the calibre and weaponry of the Sharks, so this will be a true litmus test to see how strong they actually are.
The Sharks have a strong record against the Lions in Super Rugby, winning 14 of the 20 matches played, along with two draws. Similarly, to the Waratahs and the Chiefs, the Sharks look to be a class above their opposition this season, and I can see their forward pack dismantling the Lions and should they keep their discipline, they will hand the Lions a substantial and morale-depleting loss.
Predicted result: Sharks to win easily @ $1.21 – 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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