As Super Rugby heads into the second half of the season some matches will have no bearing on the playoff picture, some will have minimal and others will be played in test match-like atmosphere and intensity with the championship carrot dangling and up for grabs. Super Rugby form in 2013 is hard to predict and no amount of research or knowledge could have predicted some of the results, but that is a sign of a good competition and we couldn’t ask for anything for more. As the Stormers and the Sharks begin their overseas sojourns, victories are a must and bonus points are vital. The match of the round once again will be played at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane and if the Blues are going to mount a challenge this year, they will need to pick up the points against the Reds. Once again, the Brumbies look likely to end the round in pole position, but then again stranger things have happened. With seven matches ahead of us, happy tipping, punting or predicting and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@S15_TheProfits) for game coverage, expert insight or just for a chat.
Best Bet 1: Stormers +2.5@ $1.90 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Reds/Chiefs/Brumbies/Cheetahs/@ $2.25 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 3: Stormers +12.5/Chiefs -5.5 (PYOL)/Brumbies -6.5 (PYOL) @ $2.82 – Sportsbet
Hurricanes ($1.74) versus Stormers ($2.10)
The Hurricanes will once again open this weekend’s Super Rugby account as they welcome an injury ravaged Stormers outfit to the regional venue of Palmerston North on Friday afternoon. Dependent on other results, both teams have the ability to finish the weekend in playoff contention having collectively achieved victories in their last encounters over the Force and the Sharks. The Stormers week off will no doubt have provided some recuperation for a few players with niggling injuries, however, the trek to New Zealand isn’t an easy one and this could play a part towards the latter stages of the match.
The Hurricanes are currently unbeaten at home in 2013 and they will thrive on the confidence that this record has created, despite not always playing in front of a ‘healthy’ crowd. Victor Vito makes a timely return from injury and will no doubt showcase his exceptional skills that were honed from the IRB Sevens circuit. Last week, fellow forward Jeremy Thrush made a superb return from injury as he took control of the lineouts and made his presence felt with bullocking runs and rock solid defence. Unfortunately, they will be without the services of blockbusting winger Julian Savea, as he has been dropped in the wake of a recent assault charge for rough conduct towards his girlfriend. He will be a huge loss given the impetus and attacking threat that he has consistently provided over the past two seasons, but the ‘Canes have assembled one of their strongest squads for this important match on Friday.
The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for the Stormers given the mounting injury toll they have accrued including Etzebeth, Jantjies, Taute, Grant, Liebenberg, and Burger just to name a few. Their retched run of injuries has mirrored their 2012 season, but superstar Bryan Habana’s return couldn’t be better timed and will no doubt look to make the most of his opportunities to once again make the number 11 Springbok jersey his own. With upcoming matches against the Blues and the Waratahs, this is an extremely important game for the Western Cape franchise and they will look to their experienced heads to stand up and make a real fist of this encounter, particularly in the forwards.
The Hurricanes come into this match with a better record and in better form, but you can’t look into this too much given the class of opposition both teams have had to play against in recent rounds. As many teams have experienced in the past, the first match on tour is often the most difficult, however, teams are in a much better position in comparison to yesteryear with the scientific reengineering of training loads and ability to adapt to jetlag. This match will have a huge impact on the current log jam between positions six and ten, but traditionally the Stormers have been a strong touring team and I will go out on a limb and suggest that they could get the chocolates against the Hurricanes.
Predicted result: Stormers to win @ $2.10 – Sportsbet
Best Bet: Stormers +2.5 @ $1.90 – Sportsbet
Reds ($1.40) versus Blues ($2.95)
Suncorp Stadium will once again be the host of the weekend’s biggest match as the Reds host the tournament dark horses, the Auckland Blues on Friday night. Last weekend, the Reds and the Brumbies played out an emotionally draining draw, despite a wealth of possession, territorial advantage and playing one man up for twenty minutes in the second half. Conversely, the Blues are coming fresh off a bye and will head to Queensland’s capital quietly confident on the back of a morale boosting domination of the Hurricanes to weeks ago.
The Reds will be looking for their first ever clean sweep of New Zealand opposition having already disposed of the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes (they don’t play the Crusaders this year). Their attacking intent has won them many new fans, but they will need to be smarter in the opposition half having turned done a number of kickable penalties last week that would’ve seen them win the game had they been on target. Digby Ioane has announced that this year will be his last at the Reds as a result of some third-party contractual complications which will no doubt affect them as he is currently leading a number of key stats and obliterating his key performance indicators. Ben Tapuai and Quade Cooper sit just behind him in metres gained and their stats and form in general have reached new heights since the return of stalwart Will Genia at halfback.
The Blues have favourably been the recipients of two byes so far, which has seen them notch up an additional eight points in the process. Sitting atop the New Zealand conference, they have more than exceeded expectations in John Kirwan’s first year as head coach. Rookie Charles Piutau has continued to develop after a breakthrough season of ITM Cup rugby in New Zealand and has the most running metres in the tournament. With other attacking threats like Frank Halai and Rene Ranger, their backline is a handful for any opposition that they come up against. Kevin Mealamu will once again feature off the bench and this is a ploy no doubt instigated by John Kirwan and the NZRU to ensure that he peaks towards the latter half of the competition and in this season’s international fixtures. The Blues are well placed at the moment, but keep in mind they are yet to tour and this week will no doubt paint a picture of where they really are in terms of development and potential to compete this season.
The Reds squad are physically fit and healthy and are starting to play like a championship side, but really should’ve beaten the Brumbies at home last weekend. Although the Blues have been strong in patches and currently lead the New Zealand conference, I expect them to start dropping a few points as the come up against tougher opposition. You can’t bet against the Reds this week and I expect them to take care of the Blues like they have done in seasons past.
Predicted result: Reds to win @ $1.40 – Sportsbet
Chiefs ($1.20) versus Sharks ($4.60)
The first match on Saturday afternoon sees a rematch of last year’s grand final as the Chiefs return home to Hamilton to front up against an injury-depleted Sharks outfit. Both teams are a long way off playing their best football with the Chiefs dropping points in Sydney last week to the struggling Waratahs and the Sharks failing to pick up a win at home last weekend against the Cheetahs in Durban.
After beginning the season as early pacesetters, the Chiefs have had a bad run in recent weeks having not won since round seven. Every team goes through peaks and troughs throughout the course of a season and I am sure everyone is expecting them to return to winning ways. The loss of Tawera Kerr-Barlow has been bigger than expected, as Cruden doesn’t seem to have as much time and space and the Chiefs look less of a threat at the base of the ruck. Coach Dave Rennie has shown in the past that he knows how to get the best out of his players and I get that feeling that things could open up this week for them. He has made a staggering nine changes for this encounter and the new faces will have pressure on them to produce the goods. The Chiefs have scored the most points (joint leaders with Brumbies – 240) in this year’s competition, whereas the Sharks have conceded the fewest, but coming up against an understrength team from Durban, you get the feeling that the Chiefs will be licking their lips.
The Sharks are far from the team that managed to beat both the Reds and the Sharks away before falling to the Chiefs in the playoff stages of last year’s tournament. They currently have the highest injury toll of any team and it is quite clear that their depth cannot cater for what has occurred this season. Besides their injuries, they have managed to scrape a few victories together whilst underperforming in many others. In miserable conditions in Durban, the Sharks attempted to play an attacking game despite contributing to a staggering match total of 79 kicks. This was officially one of the worst games I have ever seen, but the Cheetahs made the most of their chances and ended up on the right side of the scoreboard. The Chiefs are a team that will throw everything at them in defence and attack and with a number of new faces (2 to make their Shark’s debuts), the Sharks will be brave but an away victory here would be nothing short of miraculous.
The Hamilton fans must be questioning their side after two disappointing performances in a row to the Reds and the Waratahs. On the other hand, the Sharks have had just as many injuries as the Reds had last year and we saw what happened with them. It is going to be a tight tussle for a while, but the Chiefs will force the Sharks to score tries if they want to win this encounter and I just don’t think they have the offensive efficiency or player power to do that at the moment. Plus, the Chiefs are a quality side and I can’t see them losing three on the trot.
Predicted result: Chiefs to win @ $1.20 – Sportsbet
Brumbies ($1.20) versus Force ($4.60)
A confident Brumbies team returns home to Canberra Stadium this week to play a Force side that is more inconsistent than referees are with awarding justified scrum penalties. The Brumbies are well aware that they probably should’ve come away from Brisbane last week with nothing more than a losing bonus point, but their poise and determination kept the scores level. The Force on the other hand jetted off from Wellington with a bonus point, which really doesn’t mean whole a lot in the scheme of things, but showed glimpses of a franchise moving forward.
The Brumbies once again regained the top spot on the Super Rugby log after playing out a thrilling draw against the Queensland Reds. With the amount of territory, possession and the Reds numerical advantage on two occasions, most teams would’ve folded and conceded a number of points, however, this Brumbies outfit are showing signs of championship potential. The Brumbies have only tasted defeat once this season, but they have been involved in two stalemates against the Kings and the Reds. Jesse Mogg was in scintillating form last week and did his chances of a Wallabies call up no harm. Additionally, Henry Speight is one of the form wingers in Australia, if not the competition and with Joe Tomane on the other wing, they have an extremely dangerous back three. The only thing that can go against the Brumbies this week well be the mental drain and anguish they were put through in Brisbane, but with experienced heads like Moore, Smith and Mowen in the squad, the hurdle shouldn’t be too high to jump over (or run through).
The Force are lodged in 13th place on the competition ladder and it isn’t really a fair reflection of where they are currently at given a number of narrow losses this year. Last week the Force recorded their sixth consecutive loss to the Hurricanes and haven’t tasted success against them since the 2007 season. They currently average 18 points a game and have crossed the chalk on fifteen occasions thanks largely to players like Alby Mathewson, Alfi Mafi and in more recent weeks, sevens convert Junior Rasolea. Since their inception into Super Rugby, the Force’s main strength has been their back row and captain Matt Hodgson, Angus Cottrell and Richard Brown will no doubt be posing a few headaches for the Brumbies coaching staff. The Force will take confidence out of being the so called giant-killers having beaten both the Reds (away) and the Crusaders more recently at home, but this Brumbies outfit is in a class of their own at the moment and it would be a tall order to come away with the points in Canberra.
The Brumbies are back on track and can ill-afford to lose any matches against teams in the bottom half of the competition. Although, the Force have surprised many this year, a professional Brumbies squad know that nothing less than a win and perhaps a full bag of points will be acceptable and they have enough steel and class to break the Force down for an ‘easy’ win.
Predicted result: Brumbies to win @ $1.67 – Sportsbet
Bulls ($1.30) versus Waratahs ($3.60)
The Bulls are starting to stamp their authority on the South African conference after a tough Australasian tour and this week they welcome the Waratahs who are coming fresh off a victory over the reigning Super Rugby Champions, the Chiefs. Last weekend the Bulls travelled to Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth and completely shutout the home team 34 – 0, in front of 44,000 screaming Kings fans. In Sydney, the Waratahs caused a huge upset by somewhat derailing the Chiefs campaign with a surprising victory against an out of form Hamilton side.
After a slow start to the season for the Blue Bulls franchise, things are starting to look more positive in Pretoria. They way in which they disposed of the brave Kings last week was more than impressive and had shades of their attacking dominance of yesteryear. It was announced midweek that Zane Kirchner will leave South African shores to continue his rugby for the northern hemisphere superpowers, Leinster. Although this will come as a relief to many South African fans, he has been a consistent player for the Bulls and certainly played a part in their successes. Coach Frans Ludeke has announced the return of Bjorn Basson, Dewald Potgieter and the infamous Dean Greyling to the starting line up, with Francois Hougaard sure to make an impact when given some time off the bench. Once the Bulls get up a head of steam, they are extremely hard to break down and I have no doubts the Waratahs will be in for a very physical and open encounter at Loftus on Saturday.
For the first time in a few seasons, the Waratahs are starting to play how many of us expect them to given their talent pool of players. Having won three of their last four matches (Blues, Chiefs and Force) and relatively injury-free, the Waratahs are going to be a difficult matchup for anyone heading into the business end of the season. They have tightened up their defence and as a result were the first team to hold the Chiefs scoreless at halftime this season. Coupled with some exciting talent in the back line, including fly half Bernard Foley and the ever consistent Adam Ashley-Cooper, things are moving in a positive direction for New South Wales rugby. Israel Folau is one of the form fullbacks of the competition and is really putting his hand up for Wallaby selection after some consistently strong performances. Although his tenure in AFL was far from being labelled as successful, his ability to diffuse bombs and turn attacking kicks into try scoring opportunities has been second to none. Pretoria is one of the hardest places to travel to and when Kane Douglas fronted up to customs this week, they asked him who the ‘Tahs were playing and when responding with ‘the Bulls’, he was told, ‘they are going to smash you – you will never beat them’.
The Bulls are starting to find the right combinations and step-by-step are putting the pieces of their puzzle together and although the Waratahs played well last week, to travel across the Indian Ocean and win in Pretoria is a huge challenge. Both teams will have international players scattered across the park, but the Blue Bulls know they can’t let this one slip and I expect them to win in a bruising encounter.
Predicted result: Bulls to win @ $1.30 – Sportsbet
Cheetahs ($1.12) versus Kings ($6.50)
The Cheetahs head back to Bloemfontein this weekend after an important victory over the Sharks in dreadful conditions, where the Kings await. The long and arduous season seems to have caught up with the Eastern Cape franchise after they failed to score a solitary point in front of an impressive crowd in Port Elizabeth. Another loss would see the Cheetahs enter into dangerous territory and the Kings will sink further down the table if they come up short at home.
The home team are currently experiencing their most successful Super Rugby campaign to date, which speaks volumes about their determination, attitude and leadership qualities of both players and coaching staff alike. Adriaan Strauss, arguably the most important and influential captain of any Super Rugby team, continues to heap pressure on an injured Bismarck du Plessis for the Springbok’s hooker jersey. He has come on in leaps and bounds in recent seasons and his no fear attitude has been infectious throughout their squad. Naka Drotske once again has the luxury of announcing an unchanged starting fifteen for this match and the more this happens, the stronger their combinations will be and the more confidence and momentum they will develop. Currently sitting in second spot in the South African conference, this game is a must win for the Cheetahs and a bonus point would ease the pressure on them slightly by providing some daylight in the standings.
It is evident that the Kings don’t play well on the back of a long journey having been demolished by the Chiefs when they arrived in New Zealand and similarly being manhandled by the Bulls last week in Port Elizabeth. Their defence was weak and their attack was non-existent and they will have watched the tape of last week’s match to pinpoint their deficiencies. Consequently, coach Matt Sexton has made a number of changes with captain Luke Watson notably benched. I suspect that they will put in an improved display this week, but I get the feeling that their round 14 bye can’t come soon enough.
When it is all said and done, the Cheetahs will prevail in what should be a regulation victory and although they probably won’t win by a similar margin than the Bulls did, they have a balanced squad that will surely be too hot for a tiring Kings squad to handle.
Predicted result: Cheetahs to win @ $1.12 – Sportsbet
Crusaders ($1.04) versus Rebels ($11.00)
The final match of round 11 sees the Rebels travel to AMI Stadium in Christchurch to play the Crusaders who returned to the winners circle last week after comfortably beating the tournament cellar-dwellers, the Highlanders. After a poor start to the season, the red and black dragon awoke before losing to the Sharks and surprisingly succumbing to a brave Western Force team in Perth. The Rebels two victories in 2013 have come against an inconsistent Force side and other than these wins, there hasn’t been a lot to write home about.
Back on track, the Crusaders will be looking to improve on their result last weekend. Despite a wealth of possession and an extreme territorial advantage, they only managed to cross the try line once through Robbie Fruean. The signs are certainly there that they can pose a threat to any team this year, but they will just need to be more ruthless and rediscover the killer instinct that they were once synonymously known for. At this time of writing this article, the Crusaders haven’t named their team, however, I expect Dan Carter to return if not in the run on side, on the bench. There is also a slight chance that Kieran Read will return to the fray and his leadership and presence on the field would be a welcome addition. The Crusaders have five of their last eight games at home and given they are yet to lose in Christchurch, they could finish in a handy position, which is ominous for other teams.
The Rebels will have had nightmares in recent weeks as the last time they ran out onto the field, tournament rookies, the Southern Kings scraped through with a narrow three point victory courtesy of a late drop goal. The Rebels currently have the worst defensive record in Super Rugby, thanks largely to a record-breaking loss to the Sharks in Durban. The Crusaders are a team that pose attacking threats from one to fifteen so there is a possibility that this match opens up in the second half. Kurtley Beale’s absence has certainly been felt, and James O’Connor and Scott Higginbotham performances haven’t peaked yet. Additionally, the Rebels have an exciting backline but haven’t been able to settle on a fly half with JOC and Angus Roberts often trading places. The area in which they will need to improve if they are ever going to start challenging their superiors is in the forwards and the Crusaders are one of the best provincial teams in the world to exploit any weak links.
I don’t give the Rebels a chance this week based on their recent form and the class of the opposition they come up against this weekend. The Crusaders are a different beast at home and sparing another unconvincing performance, they will walk over the Rebels and reignite their season in the process.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win @ $1.04 – Sportsbet