Best Bet 1: Rebels -4.5 (vs Reds) @ $1.90 – William Hill
Best Bet 2: Brumbies -17.5 (vs Sunwolves) @ $1.90 – Sportsbet
Note: More plays may be released on twitter closer to kick-off so follow me @S15_TheProfits.
HIGHLANDERS ($1.35) VS BLUES ($3.20)
The first full round of Super Rugby fixtures for the 2018 season kicks off at Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday afternoon when the Highlanders host the Blues. The 2015 Champions and 2017 Quarter-finalists will be looking to get their season off to a flying start against a Blues team that has avoided the playoffs for the last six years. The Highlanders won both clashes against the Blues last year, albeit in close-fought encounters (26-20 in Dunedin and 16-12 in Auckland) and you have to go back to 2011 for the last time the Blues were able to win in Dunedin.
This match has all the ingredients of being a classic Friday afternoon New Zealand derby. The Highlanders head into this campaign under their third coach (Aaron Mauger) in as many seasons and without a handful of some of their favourite sons (Gareth Evans, Marty Banks, Malakai Fekitoa, just to name a few). However, Mauger has still named a team with a gritty forward pack, a proven halves combination and two crafty centres. Additionally, co-Captain and fullback Ben Smith comes back into the equation after taking a six month sabbatical and reports out of Dunedin are claiming he has been setting personal bests in pre-season strength and conditioning tests. His partnership with Tevita Li and Waisake Naholo will be a real handful for the Blues.
The Blues are a team that have been together for close to three years now and have a plethora of talented rugby players, however, their recent results have been nothing short of inexcusable. Another string of poor results will see Tana Umaga lose his position as head coach, so the team will be out to prove they have what it takes to jag a playoff spot. The forward pack lacks a bit of punch with Pauliasi Manu and Patrick Tuipulotu named on the bench and captain Augustine Pulu will be looking to put his best foot forward alongside third-choice flyhalf Bryn Gatland. Sonny Bill-Williams and George Moala are a dangerous centre combination and World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year, Rieko Ioane finds himself on the left-wing.
Both teams have the talent to get the result in this match, but the Highlanders have been the more consistent team of late and deserve to be favourites over a Blues team that is still a couple of years shy of being genuine contenders. I don’t see this match being a blowout either way, but games of this nature are typically determined by a moment of brilliance or a well-controlled halves pairing, both areas where I think the Highlanders have the edge. This match rarely ever sees a blow-out though.
Predicted result: Highlanders to win @ $1.35 – Sportsbet
REBELS ($1.45) VS REDS ($2.75)
A new-look Rebels outfit welcome the Reds to AAMI Park in Melbourne on Friday night for the first Australian Conference match-up of 2018. The Rebels have had the best recruitment drive of any Super Rugby team as a result of the Western Force’s demise and both players and fans are confident of their best season yet. They face a youthful Reds outfit that is coached by Brad Thorn and the Melbournians will be seeking revenge having lost to the Queenslanders in the solitary match played last season. The Reds do have a dominant record in Melbourne though, winning five of the seven matches played there.
Rebels coach Dave Wessels has named his first squad of the year with no less than ten Internationals in the starting line-up (nine Wallabies and one Japanese). The Rebels have a mix of regular starters and ex-Force players with Adam Coleman set to lead by example up front. The back row of Lopeti Timani, Angus Cottrell and Amanaki Mafi is a dangerous one and could prove to be the difference for the home team. The Rebels have lacked a classy halfback since their inception and Will Genia fills that void nicely. Flyhalf Jack Debreczeni will be in charge of creating space for the likes of Sefa Naivalu, Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty. I expect Bill Meakes to find his way into the centres in place of Tom English in the coming weeks, with English a player that has had a lot of time in the starting team, without making the most of his opportunities. Winger Marika Koroibete is also due back in round three to add to an already potent backline.
Looking at Brad Thorn’s first Reds squad, it includes two changes to a team that struggled to narrowly defeat an invitational Fijian line-up in pre-season, with the inclusions of lock Izack Rodda coming in for the overrated Kane Douglas and Eto Nabuli replacing the injured Izaia Perese. James Slipper is a big inclusion having missed the majority of last season and captain Scott Higginbotham will be looking to wind back the clock by finding some form against his old club. Jono Lance has got the nod at flyhalf over youngster Hamish Stewart and pressure will be on Duncan Paia’aua and Samu Kerevi in the centres. Aidan Toua, Karmichael Hunt’s replacement, will also have a lot to do from fullback and can’t afford to make any mistakes.
I expect the Rebels to be the most improved team in 2018 and I foresee that starting with a win over an over-hyped Reds outfit on Friday night.
Predicted result: Rebels to win @ $1.45 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 1: Rebels -4.5 (vs Reds) @ $1.90 – William Hill
SUNWOLVES ($6.50) VS BRUMBIES ($1.11)
The Sunwolves and the Brumbies will open up their 2018 campaigns when they clash at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo on Saturday afternoon. The Brumbies have been the most consistent Australian team for a number of years and this was rewarded with another Quarterfinal appearance last year. The Sunwolves entering their third season of Super Rugby continue to be a disappointment having only won three matches from 30 attempts. The only match played between these two saw the Brumbies coast to a comfortable 66-5 thrashing back in 2016.
The Sunwolves have recruited former Highlanders coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown to lead the team, as well as bringing in Michael Leitch, the former Chiefs number eight to add some experience to a young team. Leitch isn’t available for this fixture, but they have also managed to beef up their forward pack with players like Grant Hattingh and Lappies Labuschagne (both former Bulls players) and added some talent to their back line (Robbie Robinson and Jason Emery), accessing players who currently base themselves in Japan that play in the Top League.
The Brumbies head into this competition as favourites to win the Australia Conference as they did last year. Under new coach Dan McKellar the Brumbies pack a lot of power up front (Allan Alaalatoa and Sam Carter) and have a back row that will mix it with the best, especially when David Pocock returns from injury in a couple months. The re-introduction of Christian Leali’fano to the fray having spent some time with Ulster is a huge boost and both he and halfback Joe Powell will be in charge or orchestrating a settled backline spearheaded by Tevita Kuridrani, Henry Speight and the flying Tom Banks.
The Sunwolves first match of the season in 2017 saw them get thrashed by the Hurricanes 17-83 in Tokyo. The fact that the Japanese Top League only wrapped up a few weeks ago will work against them and given that they have nine starting players making their Sunwolves debut and further six on the bench will create real cohesion issues. It is also a shame to see a poor representation of Japanese players across the match day squad. Unfortunately for their passionate fans, I foresee another comfortable win to the visitors.
Predicted result: Brumbies to win comfortably @ $1.10 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Brumbies -17.5 (vs Sunwolves) @ $1.90 – Sportsbet
CRUSADERS ($1.40) VS CHIEFS ($3.00)
The clash of the weekend sees the reigning Champion Crusaders host the Chiefs at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Saturday evening in a 2017 Semi-final rematch. The Crusaders constructed a near-perfect season in 2017, ending the regular season with just one defeat before coasting through the playoffs and becoming the first team to cross the Indian Ocean to win the Title. The Chiefs weren’t far off the mark in 2017, but will have to contend with another mass exodus of experienced players. The Crusaders won both clashes against the Chiefs last season, however, it is interesting to note that the visitors have won three of the last four matches in Christchurch.
Scott Robertson, victorious in his first season as a Super Rugby coach, has named a strong starting 15 featuring nine All Blacks with 281 Test caps between them. Their tight five will lay a solid platform for the team in the set pieces and Pete Samu and Jordan Taufua are two physical backrowers that complement Matt Todd’s breakdown prowess. Bryn Hall and Richie Mo’unga proved last year that they were the most consistent halves pairing with Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue, still a very underrated centre pairing. George Bridge, Seta Tamanivalu and David Havili are a balanced back three that showed last season that they know their way to the try line. The Crusaders depth is something that has always been one of their biggest strengths and that is no different this week with a strong bench named including Scott Barrett and Mitchell Drummond.
Colin Cooper has named a combative line-up to tackle the Crusaders and one that includes five All Blacks in the pack. Brodie Retallick has been one of the best players in the world for a number of years and captain Sam Cane is as tough as they come in the back row. Halfback Brad Weber has had a long injury lay-off but showed in pre-season that he could be one to keep an eye on this season, especially in the anytime try scorer market. Damien McKenzie, the Super Rugby Player of the Year over both of the last two seasons finds himself at flyhalf, primarily at the request of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. I think this move is ridiculous given the way McKenzie has been able to dice opposition from the back and I think the Chiefs won’t be as potent as a result. Co-Captain Charlie Ngatai has been given the fullback jersey and he will anchor what is also a very dangerous back line that will look to run the ball more often than not.
Given the near-perfect season the Crusaders had last year, it’s hard to back against them. They seem to have all of their bases covered and although they may be a metre or two off the pace this weekend, they have shown they know how to win the big matches and I expect them to win this one, especially at home.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win @ $1.36 – Sportsbet
WARATAHS ($1.35) VS STORMERS ($3.20)
The Waratahs will open up their season with the first of the cross-conference fixtures against the Stormers at Allianz Stadium in Sydney on Saturday night. The Waratahs were single-handedly the biggest disappointments in 2017, only managing four wins and an eventual 16th place finish. On the other hand, the Stormers topped their Conference before falling to the Chiefs in their Quarter-Final match in Cape Town. The Waratahs won their most recent clash against the Stormers in 2016, however, the Stormers won the last match played in Sydney and have a strong 50% win record in New South Wales.
The Waratahs will be out to restore some pride in the sky blue jerseys and get the fans coming back through the turnstiles at Allianz Stadium this season. They have a squad that is rich in talent and experience in key positions and really have no excuse for the way they have been performing since Daryl Gibson took over in 2016. Gibson has named 8 Wallabies in his first team of the season. Michael Hooper will lead a pack that has a point to prove and one that needs to find a way to give their star-studded back line front-foot ball. Halfback Jake Gordon isn’t far away from a Wallabies call-up and Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau are some of the best in the world in their positions when on form. Beale’s return to New South Wales is a huge boost not only for the Waratahs, but for the Wallabies as he showed last season.
The Stormers arrived in Sydney earlier this week brimming with confidence after an opening round victory over the Jaguares. With young-gun flyhalf Damien Willemse pulling the strings for the Stormers, the home team looked good making a weekend-leading 21 clean line breaks and topping the majority of other offensive stats categories. However, they were guilty of conceding 14 turnovers, which prevented them from racking up a bigger scoreline. They were forced to defend for long periods of time in the second half with Nizaam Carr (14), JD Shickerling (14), Siya Kolisi (11) and Willemse (11) among the top tacklers of the weekend. In saying that, I am inclined to believe it was more about a bad performance from the Jaguares than a genuinely good performance by the Stormers.
The Waratahs will be hungry to get their season off to a good start and although they will more than likely be a little bit rusty, I expect them to take care of a jet-lagged and injury-ravaged Stormers line-up in Sydney on Saturday night in a high-scoring match. They will need a big performance from their tight five which looks a little bit susceptible, but I expect Raymond Rhule’s ‘turnstile’ wing to be targeted all night.
Predicted result: Waratahs to win a close one @ $1.35 – Sportsbet
LIONS ($1.13) VS JAGUARES ($6.00)
The penultimate game of round two sees the Lions host the Jaguares at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The Lions got their 2018 campaign off to a good start with a hard-fought 26-19 victory over the Sharks, whereas, the Jaguares slow start cost them in a 20-28 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town. These teams squared the two-match series last season one-all, however, the Lions did send a ‘B’ team to Argentina and were deservedly outplayed. The Lions have won both matches played at Ellis Park.
The Lions have had many doubters heading into this season given the departure of coach Ruan Ackermann and with some key personnel out injured, but they showed against a physical Sharks outfit last week that they are still more than capable of extending their dominance in South Africa this season. Hooker Malcolm Marx was his typical hulking self and commandeered a scrum performance that will have coach Swys du Bruin extremely satisfied. However, their line-out does need some work and I expect the Pumas to target them in that department on Saturday. Halfbacks Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies were some distance off their best, but players like Lionel Mapoe (two tries), Aphiwe Dyanti (one try on debut) and Andries Coetzee all had solid outings.
The Jaguares will be extremely disappointed having dropped points to the Stormers on Saturday. Their discipline (yellow card to Joaquin Tuculet) and over-eagerness to offload the ball positioned them behind the eight ball during the first 60 minutes of the match, which saw them having to play at the wrong end of the field. A late onslaught orchestrated by Emiliano Boffelli and a more direct approach by the forwards was promising, but wasn’t enough to secure even a losing bonus point in their first outing of the season.
I expect both teams to tidy up their handling errors to some degree this week and be much better prepared after last weekend’s season-opener, but the Lions have the pack to contain the Jaguares and wrestle them into submission, much the same way the Stormers did. With so many attacking weapons on both sides, I expect this to be a really entertaining game.
Predicted result: Lions to win @ $1.13 – Sportsbet
BULLS ($6.00) VS HURRICANES ($1.13)
The final game of the round comes to us from Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, where the Bulls take on the Hurricanes. This will be the Bulls first match of the season having had the bye last week and it’ll be a tough contest against the team I believe is in the box seat to win Super Rugby this season. The Hurricanes have won the last three matches against the Bulls, including the last two in Pretoria.
With the appointment of former All Blacks coach John Mitchell as head coach, there is more confidence this year than there has been over the past few seasons in Pretoria. I’m not entirely convinced that it is warranted though as the Bulls have failed to lure any top talent to the region and have lost a handful of players including Arno Botha and Jan Serfontein. Mitchell has named a team that features four Springboks in the starting fifteen (Lood de Jager, Handre Pollard, Jesse Kriel and Warrick Gelant) and former Springbok Captain Adriaan Strauss on the bench as reserve hooker. There are a few exciting youngsters in the team including lock RG Snyman and flanker Roelof Smit, with reserve scrumhalf Embrose Papier a player highly regarded by Mitchell.
The Hurricanes head into this season, the last one under the guidance of Chris Boyd, as one of the tournament favourites and its easy to see why with five All Blacks in this week’s starting 15. Toby Smith, Ricky Riccitelli and Ben May form an experienced front row with Vaea Fifita and Sam Lousi, two imposing locks. The backrow of Brad Shields, Ardie Savea and Gareth Evans are also well versed at this level of rugby. Halfback TJ Perenara will lead the team at halfback inside Ihaia West, with Boyd only able to name reigning World Rugby Player of the Year on the bench. Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso, last year’s leading try-scorers form a dangerous centre pairing, and I would imagine they will get their fair share this season as well. It is still a strong backline despite not being able to call upon Nehe Milner-Skudder or Jordie Barrett for a few more weeks. I will be interested to see how Julian Savea goes on the right wing after struggling last year and falling out of favour at both provincial and national level.
There is a lot of hype around John Mitchell’s influence at the Bulls, but I’m simply not buying it. Although they face a Hurricanes team that is well short of their best personnel, I can’t see the home team keeping this one within single digits. Hurricanes to win a high-scoring and entertaining game.
Predicted result: Hurricanes to win @ $1.13 – Sportsbet