Four rounds of exhilarating Super Rugby action have come and gone with last week seeing the highest-scoring matches (or weakest defense) of the season thus far. The top three remains the same with the Sharks securing a bonus point victory against their above ground equals, the Lions, whilst the Waratahs and the Chiefs had the weekend off. The fourth round got underway in Wellington, where the home team failed to win again against the Brumbies and the Reds downed the Cheetahs in a game that had everything from some excellent tries to some unexplainable schoolboy errors. The Crusaders narrowly achieved their first win of the season against the Stormers, the Western Force turned it on against the Rebels and the Bulls walloped the Blues, which I admit came as some what of a surprise. We will be treated with a full complement of matches this weekend with the Brumbies hosting the Waratahs and the Sharks battling the Reds, no doubt the matches of the round. Three stalwarts of the tournament in Tanerau Latimer, Jean de Villiers and Conrad Smith will also play their 100th games, which is an outstanding achievement given the ferocity and intensity that they face each week. Two out of three best bets last weekend was a positive and 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: Total Match Points Over 41.5 – Sportsbet -6.0 @ $1.91 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 2: Crusaders -6.0 @ $1.91 – Sportingbet
Best Bet 3: Waratahs to win @ $1.95 – Sportsbet (early Twitter play)
Best Bet 4: Blues -3.5 @ $1.91 – Sportingbet
Chiefs ($1.30) vs Stormers ($3.60)
The New Zealand Conference leaders the Chiefs return to Hamilton this weekend to face the Stormers from Cape Town to open round five’s action. The Chiefs will be well rested after last weekend’s bye, whereas the Stormers will be smarting after dominating most of the match before getting overtaken at the end of the match against the Crusaders. Historically, these teams have been very even, however, the last time they clashed in Hamilton in 2011, the Chiefs prevailed as victors by a score of 30 – 23.
The Chiefs have only played two fixtures in the 2014 season so far and without being overly convincing, they have gotten the job done, as all championship teams do. After this round, the Chiefs embark on a three-match road trip to face the Western Force, the Bulls and the Cheetahs, all matches that they are likely to pick up at least four competition points in. This weekend, the Chiefs welcome back a number of their players from injury. Coach Dave Rennie, one of the most astute in the competition, has made a host of changes. Jamie Mackintosh and Brodie Retallick return to the tight five, and Liam Squire comes off the bench to play at number eight alongside Liam Messam and Tanerau Latimer. The latter is a veteran of Chiefs and New Zealand rugby and will run out for his 100th appearance this weekend. In the backs, James Lowe (wing) and Tom Marshall (inside centre) take their places in the starting fifteen and Gareth Anscombe has been selected at fullback for his first game of the season after recovering sufficiently from a double shoulder reconstruction. Furthermore, the bench is packed with power and I expect Robbie Fruean and Asaeli Tikoirotuma to get adequate game time in the second half. An interesting statistic heading into this fixture is that the Chiefs have won 100% of their own ball at scrum time, which gives them a huge advantage in the opposition’s half for their backs to launch a tirade at the opposition.
Last weekend, the Stormers came within a whisker of winning their first match on tour, however, an ill-disciplined Michael Rhodes was too eager on defense and Tom Taylor snatched the victory for the home team with a well taken penalty goal and a late try-saving tackle. It was a largely improved performance from the Stormers compared to their preceding matches this season, however, another loss this weekend will push them even further back in the South African conference standings. It will be a huge match for Springbok and Stormers captain Jean de Villiers, who will play his 100th match for his franchise. He is a reliable around the field and his leadership abilities have come on in leaps and bounds in recent seasons. Two huge positives coming out of last week’s match against the Crusaders was the workman-like performance by Schalk Burger, who played his first match in New Zealand for three years and the electric performance by centre Damian de Allende, who looks likely to receive higher honours at some point in his career. Coach Alastair Coetzee has made three enforced changes this weekend bringing in the burly hooker, Tiaan Liebenberg and Brok Harris for Scurra Ntubeni and Frans Malherbe. Flanker turned lock, Michael Rhodes has although withdrawn from this fixture, so Ruan Botha will receive his first start of the season.
The Chiefs have one of the best attacks on the provincial scene and equally, the Stormers have one of the best defensive lines. This clash of styles will make for an entertaining fixture, but when it is all said and done, the Chiefs have a lot more to lose, and despite a number of injury concerns, the Stormers just aren’t gelling as a unit and they should struggle in Hamilton. The overs would’ve cashed in the last five encounters.
Predicted result: Chiefs to win @ $1.30 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 1: Total Match Points Over 41.5 – Sportsbet -6.0 @ $1.91 – Sportingbet
Rebels ($3.15) vs Crusaders ($1.48)
AAMI Stadium and the Rebel Army in Melbourne will welcome back their men following a disastrous trip to Perth, when they face the puttering Crusaders on Friday night. What a difference one week can make in Super Rugby, as the Rebels came crashing back to earth after being blitzed away in the first half against the Force. The Crusaders were also on their way to another uncharacteristic defeat, however, their big names stood up when it mattered most and they escaped with a one-point victory in front of their home fans. The most memorable match between these two clubs took place in Melbourne two years ago, when the Rebels brought the crowd to their feet after stunning the Crusaders, 28 – 19.
It has been quite incredible to see the Rebels skyrocket themselves to cloud nine one week against the Cheetahs and then plummet uncontrollably to the Western Force last week in Perth. Although they won the second half (7 – 0), they allowed the Force to play the best 40 minutes of their nine-year duration in this competition. Coach Tony McGahan made six changes last week and that really disrupted the flow and momentum that they had generated from their strong victory over the Cheetahs. Not surprisingly, McGahan was seething after the match and has opted for the same team that took on the Bloemfontein based outfit for this match against the Crusaders. Having played under Tony McGahan at schoolboy level, his attention to detail is impeccable and he has a huge focus on the breakdown and defense. The Rebels currently are ranked third in ruck success (95%), which is a huge improvement on last season and a direct correlation to the signing of ‘Dumper’. Their standout forwards in this year’s competition have been Toby Smith, Luke Jones and Scott Higginbotham, however, some of their unheralded players like Pat Leafa have also been playing well. In the backs, a lot depends on the combination between Luke Burgess and Bryce Hegarty, along with the goal kicking of Jason Woodward and Tom English’s tackle-busting runs. It will be a true test of where they are at against the Crusaders on Friday.
Last weekend the Crusaders kept their 32-match unbeaten run against South African opposition in Christchurch alive thanks largely to Tom Taylor and replacement Keiron Fonotia, who scored the match-winning try. It was a real battle all night and the Crusaders were guilty of turning down a couple of kickable penalties, however, fortunately for them those decisions didn’t end up costing them. In the majority of their matches so far, the Crusaders have had a wealth of territory and possession, but they haven’t had that clinical edge that once separated them from everyone else in the competition. Without Dan Carter at flyhalf, the Crusaders look rudderless, but in good news for the Crusaders, Carter looks set to return after the International Test window in June. Under fire coach Todd Blackadder has made a number of changes, albeit more positional, as he looks to get the most out of the players in his squad. The forward pack is powerful and has a very All Black look to it and the halves combination involves All Blacks Andy Ellis and Colin Slade. Tom Taylor shifts to inside centre and Israel Dagg returns to fullback in a more conventional backline. Keep an eye out for Nemani Nadolo in jersey number 23. He is a man mountain that has exceptional pace and he has caused huge problems for International defences when he plays for Fiji. I actually expect him to nail down a starting birth over the next month or so after he regains some match fitness and sheds some of that extra weight that South Sea Islanders often possess.
One comprehensive victory followed by a blowout loss only resurfaces the inconsistency issues the Rebels have faced in season’s past. Under a new coach with a relatively new group of players, the Rebels will have a tough task on their hands this week against a more conventional looking Crusaders team that knows a loss in Melbourne isn’t an option.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win @ $1.48 – Betfair
Best Bet 2: Crusaders – 6.0 @ $1.91 – Sportingbet
Hurricanes ($1.41) vs Cheetahs ($3.15)
The Hurricanes will play their second fixture of the year at Westpac Stadium on Saturday afternoon when they welcome a Cheetahs outfit that has lost almost all of the momentum they generated in their breakthrough season last year. The ‘Canes are currently cellar dwellers and have a ‘2013 Highlanders’ feel about them, with no wins and a measly bonus point to show from three outings. Similarly, the Cheetahs aren’t doing much better sitting two spots above them after another loss to the Reds last weekend in Brisbane.
The Hurricanes made a meal of their South African Safari and were made to pay last weekend when the Brumbies coasted to a four-try bonus point in front of a measly 8000 fans in Wellington. Mark Hammett has tried to instil the Crusaders culture into the Wellington setup, however, he has had very minimal success, despite having a wealth of high-profile provincial and international players. Former All Blacks prop Craig Dowd made mention during the week that the ‘Canes just simply don’t appear to be sticking to their game plans. When a team buys into a game plan, it becomes second nature, but often the Hurricanes are caught out with very few options and little direction from their leaders. This is something that needs to be rectified before the Hurricanes can move forward and consistently be a challenge. Speaking of leaders, centre Conrad Smith will play his 100th game for his franchise. Smith has achieved it all in rugby and his defensive play in the number 13 jersey is unrivalled in the game. Coach Mark Hammett has made a number of changes this week bringing back Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen and Faifili Levave, as will as giving Ardie Savea his first start of the season in the open side flanker jersey. There are three further changes in the backline with Chris Smylie replacing TJ Perenara at halfback, Hadleigh Parkes comes back into inside centre and Samoan International Alapati Leiua replaces Cory Jane on the wing, as Jane is suffering from a broken nose.
In recent years, the Cheetahs have been one of the stronger South African touring teams, however, losses to both the Rebels and the Reds, has really taken the lustre off of their performances last year. Their defensive line has taken a battering and although they have a number of the top tacklers (Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labushcagne, Francois Venter) in the competition, they have also slipped off too many to look like they could threaten again this year. Coach Naka Drotske has made three tactical and one positional change for his team’s clash with the Hurricanes this week. Halfback Sarel Pretorius, Raymond Rhule and Cornal Hendricks all return to the starting fifteen and Willie le Roux will find himself wearing the fullback jersey. Le Roux has made the most running metres in this year’s competition and the more space he has, the more dangerous he is, so the shift to the back might be prove to be a good decision.
It is quite surprising that the Hurricanes and the Cheetahs, two of the tournament’s most exciting teams to watch, are currently in the running for the competition’s wooden spoon. Both teams certainly have the players and the systems to press for higher honours. Although confidence is low, these teams have scored some fantastic tries and with defensive lines that aren’t quite watertight, I expect a high-scoring contest and a much-needed win to the Hurricanes.
Predicted result: Hurricanes to win @ $1.41 – Betfair
Highlanders ($1.30) vs Force ($4.10)
After a well-earned rest, the Highlanders return to the enclosed Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin to face a Force team that will be brimming with confidence after one of their best performances in franchise history. Two weeks ago, the Highlanders were on the brink of a rare victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton, before they conceded a late try that saw them go down on the scoreboard. Last weekend, the Force lifted for their Captain Matt Hodgson’s 100th Super Rugby match by beating the Rebels in a first half romp that had the crowd on their feet. The Highlanders are certainly the Western Force’s ‘bunnies’, as the Perth-based outfit has never tasted defeat in five matchups.
The Highlanders are coming off the bye and are raring to go in front of their home fans this weekend. The men from Dunedin currently sit mid table and before the season started, the Highlanders would’ve circled this clash as a must win. The Highlanders pack is strong with a blend of youth (Hames and Coltman) and experience (Chris King) in the front row, and Jarrad Hoeata and Joe Wheeler will be the locking pair behind them. John Hardie had a monstrous game in his last match and forms an exciting loose trio combination with Shane Christie and Co-Captain Nasi Manu. Aaron Smith seems to be getting the most out of Lima Sopoaga and Sean Treeby and Malakai Fekitoa are an extremely underrated centre partnership. Richard Buckman plays well above his weight on the wing and Kurt Baker, a New Zealand Sevens expert will take his place on the other wing, supporting Ben Smith at Fullback.
This is not something I have said very often, but the Western Force were absolutely sublime in the first half against the Rebels last week. In Captain and eventual man-of-the-match Matt Hodgson’s 100th game, the Force fired on all cylinders wrapping up the four-try bonus point inside of the half hour mark, which was a first for the franchise. The match was all but over at this point, but the Western Force will be looking to play for 80 minutes after taking their feet off the gas in the second half. Coach Michael Foley, who would’ve breathed a huge sigh of relief after that performance, has maintained an unchanged line up for the clash with the Highlanders in Dunedin this weekend. The Force’s traditional strong suit is their back row and players like Hodgson, Ben McCalman and Angus Cottrell have all had exceptional starts to the season. The outside backs combination of Luke Morahan, Nick Cummins and Jayden Hayward can also hold their heads high after contributing heavily in last week’s victory. Most importantly, their defensive systems also held strong against what was considered to be a pretty flashy Rebels backline.
Surprisingly, the Highlanders have never beaten the Western Force from five attempts, however, with the ‘Zoo’ in full voice and a rested Highlanders team, the home side should have to much for the Force and bring them back down to earth following their blindsiding of the Rebels last weekend.
Predicted result: Highlanders to win @ $1.30 – Betfair
Brumbies ($1.94) vs Waratahs ($1.90)
On Saturday night, the Brumbies will face the undefeated Waratahs in what should be a blockbuster in Canberra. The Brumbies currently sit in fifth place on the competition ladder and just off the pace in the Australian conference behind the Waratahs. Since losing to the Reds in round two, the Brumbies have started to rebuild well with wins over the Force and the Hurricanes. On the other hand, the Waratahs have only played two matches against the Force and the Reds and they collected a full house of points on both occasions. Historically, these teams have been very even, however, the Brumbies have won three of the last four matches played and the last seven from nine in Canberra, which is something the Waratahs will want to change.
With the Queensland Reds hot on their heals, this match is shaping up to be a huge one for the Brumbies, especially in front of their home fans. There are still questions over whether Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher have the nous and technical ability to build on Jake White’s brief legacy, but some of those will be answered this week against the red-hot Waratahs. The Brumbies like to secure territorial advantage by using Nic White, Matt Toomua and Jesse Mogg to pin down their opposition in their own half. At this point, they use their lineout, which statistically has the Brumbies as the most successful in the competition. The Brumbies secure approximately 93.5% of their own ball, where Ben Mowen is often the target (20 takes). Their counterattacking game is also elusive with Henry Speight and Robbie Coleman on the wings and Jesse Mogg ready to pounce on any open space. In saying that, I don’t think their defensive line has been pressured like they will this weekend, let alone the Waratahs counterattacking ability. Coach Larkham has decided to stick with his big guns this week by naming an unchanged team to face the Waratahs in what will be an almighty grudge match. The mindset and confidence of this playing group will be under the spotlight this week and should they pass this early season test, they could announce themselves as real threats again for this year’s title.
For the first time in a number of years, there is a lot of positivity and genuine expectation surrounding the 2014 squad. The plans and systems that Michael Cheika has put in place seem to be coming to fruition and a number of offseason acquisitions have added some much needed depth and competition within the team. Coach Cheika has made one change to his line up this week by bringing back Dave Dennis who has returned from a knee injury in place of Stephen Hoiles. Waratahs fans will be thrilled to see players like Tatafu Polota-Nau and Wycliff Palu injury free so far this season, as their impact in both attack and defense is a huge cog in the Waratahs engine. The front-foot ball that the pack has been able to provide the backs has made things easier for Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale, who appear to be forming a potent combination. Furthermore, players like Betham, Alofa and Israel Folau are clearly thriving by having world-class playmakers inside of them, with the latter already racking up five tries from two matches, thanks also to his sublime support play and definitive running angles.
Australian derbies have generally lacked any real entertainment value over the last few seasons, however, each inter-conference clash can basically be seen as a Wallabies trial. Although the Brumbies have resurrected themselves back into the title picture over the last 24 months, the revitalised Waratahs have a point to prove and they’ll want to knock over their neighbours as they did to the Reds a few rounds ago.
Predicted result: Waratahs to win @ $1.90 – Betfair
Best Bet 3: Waratahs to win @ $1.95 – Sportsbet (early Twitter play)
Lions ($2.40) vs Blues ($1.62)
Ellis Park, one of the most iconic grounds in world rugby will host the penultimate match of the round when the Lions take on the Blues. After a promising start to the season, the Lions head home on the back of two successive losses to the Bulls and the Sharks last weekend. Likewise, the Blues also fell to the Bulls last weekend so both teams will be searching for a win. Looking at the history between these two provinces, the Blues have an exceptional record over the Lions winning 10 out of the last 11 matches played and they usually rack up a bunch of points in the process (average of 35).
After a year in the wilderness, the Lions and their Coach Johan Ackermann will be more than content with their 2-2 start this season. They are also in the positive (+3) in terms of points differential, which I am sure is something that 99.9% would’ve bet against in preseason. Their scrum has been strong (ranked third), Marnitz Boshoff has been a revelation at flyhalf with his accurate goal kicking, however, their discipline has begun to let them down in recent weeks having conceded three yellow cards. At this level, there is simply nowhere to hide and most teams don’t need a second invitation to put you to the sword. This week, Coach Ackermann has made a plethora of changes bringing in hooker Robbie Coetzee and Willie Britz (flanker) in the forwards and youngster Courtnall Skosan (wing), JW Jonker (wing) and Coenie van Wyk at fullback. After a failed experiment last week against the Sharks, Marnitz Boshoff returns to the flyhalf jersey and Elton Jantjies will take his place on the bench.
The Blues headed to Pretoria last weekend one the back of a strong performance over the Crusaders the week before, however, they felt the wrath of Loftus Versfeld and a big Bulls pack going down 38 – 22. The Blues were never really in the match and their backs never really threatened, which didn’t help their cause. Sir John Kirwan has announced this week that the Blues still remain adamant to make the playoff picture this year, but they know that they must pick up some points this weekend before teams higher up on the ladder start creating some more breathing space. Unfortunately, All Blacks hooker Kevin Mealamu was sent home midweek due to a niggling calf injury that has plagued him throughout his entire career. Moreover, James Parsons retains the number two jersey and All Blacks Tony Woodcock and Charlie Faumuina will accompany him in the front row. The evergreen Tom Donnelly partners Patrick Tuipulotu in the second row and Peter Saili has been ruled out with a knee injury, so Steven Luatua shifts to the back of the scrum and Brendon O’Connor returns to the fold at flanker. In the backs, Chris Noakes gets another opportunity after Simon Hickey was dropped at flyhalf, Pita Ahki will start at 12 after scoring the Blues only try last weekend, and Benji Marshall’s much anticipated first start at fullback has pushed Charles Piutau to the wing.
The Lions appear to be the fighters of this year’s competition and played some good rugby at times against the star-studded Sharks. The Blues are still developing, but they have the mould to become a very strong team, especially with Sir John Kirwan and Sir Graham Henry at the helm. Even without Ma’a Nonu and Jerome Kaino, who should return shortly, I think they Blues slickness in the backline will ensure a solid victory in Johannesburg in what could be a high scoring match and their first away victory for almost a year.
Predicted result: Blues to win @ $1.62 – Betfair
Best Bet 4: Blues -3.5 @ $1.91 – Sportingbet
Sharks ($1.30) vs Reds ($3.55)
Without doubt, Kings Park in Durban will host the blockbuster match of the round as the Reds make the trek across the Indian Ocean to face the undefeated and table-topping Sharks. The Sharks returned to action last week with a four-try bonus point win over the Lions to keep up their good start to the season. The Reds also beat the Cheetahs in a high-scoring affair, but question marks have certainly been raised about their ability to restrict teams from scoring this season. In this corresponding fixture last year, the Reds ended the Sharks title hopes with a strong 32 – 17 win, courtesy of Quade Cooper and his bag of tricks, so the Sharks will be out to get some revenge.
The Sharks appear to be the real deal in 2014 and although they didn’t blow the Lions away last weekend, there was enough in their game and their structures that would give everyone in Durban hope for a successful year. Coach Jake White’s influence on Frans Steyn was clearly evident last week, when he had his best game for a long time in the flyhalf jersey. For the first time this season, the Sharks have been forced to make three changes this week, as both Paul Jordaan (injury) and Odwa Ndungane (compassionate leave) have been ruled out and inside centre Heimar Williams has been relegated to the bench. Patrick Lambie comes into the ten jersey, which moves Frans Steyn to inside centre and JP Pietersen will play his first match for the Sharks this year having returned from Japan. In somewhat of a surprise, White has named S’bura Sithole at outside centre. He has played on the wing so far so it will be interesting to see how he handles the extra responsibilities of the 13 jersey.
The Reds currently occupy sixth position on the Super Rugby table having won two out of three fixtures. If the Reds were to beat the Sharks, they would leap frog either the Brumbies or the Waratahs, depending on whoever is triumphant in Canberra. I made mention before that the Reds defense has looked a little bit shaky this year, however, stats don’t lie and prove otherwise, as the Reds have the highest successful tackle percentage in the competition (90.7%), which signifies the strength of their defensive systems. The Reds have leaked an average of 27 points per match this season and what this indicates to me is that teams are capitalising on the Reds mistakes (intercepts, dropped ball, kicks etc.). I have no doubts that their defense will be put under the pump this weekend in Durban, however, Coach Richard Graham has brought back James Slipper (prop) and Saia Fainga’a (hooker) in the front row, and ex-Waratahs outside back Lachie Turner replaces Dom Shipperley on the right wing to strengthen the line up. Chris Feauai-Sautia also retains his place at outside centre courtesy of scoring three tries from the two matches he has played this season.
This clash is shaping up to be one of the more important bouts of the first few rounds, as it will showcase some of the best players in world rugby. Should the Sharks prevail, there will be little doubters that they could go all the way in this year’s competition, but should the Reds win, the men from Brisbane may breathe some life back into the Australian conference. Having coached the Brumbies against the Reds on four occasions during his tenure in Australia, Jake White’s inside knowledge will be invaluable for the Sharks this weekend. Put simply, the Sharks have the better forward pack and a backline that is starting to work in unison, and I don’t see jetlag as the only problem the Reds get handed to them on Saturday night.
Predicted result: Sharks to win in a brutal affair @ $1.30 – 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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