Back to the drawing board for me this week with a few upsets and some uncharacteristic performances from once considered strong provincial teams. The Chiefs continue to win albeit in unimpressive fashion, while the Reds are starting to find their feat in an important year for Australian rugby. The Brumbies, Bulls and Crusaders all had some much needed time off and picked up the four points courtesy of the bye weekend. As we head into the business end of the season, things get interesting as matches take on extra importance, either from a playoff or job security standpoint. From an entertainment standpoint, three local derbies will make for mandatory viewing with those being the Hurricanes vs Chiefs, Crusaders vs Blues and the Waratahs clash with the Brumbies. We once again return to a weekend full of seven intriguing battles, so 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: Brumbies to win @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Reds to win @ $1.80 – Sportsbet
Best Multi: Sharks +6.5 (PYOL)/Stormers/Crusaders @ $2.32 – Sportsbet
Hurricanes ($2.30) versus Chiefs ($1.62)
The Hurricanes return to Wellington this weekend to play the reigning Super Rugby champions the Chiefs, in the windy city. Last weekend, the Hurricanes completed their South African tour with an impressive win over the tournament surprise packets the Cheetahs, culminating with a 50% tour record. The Chiefs have won three matches on the trot, but it would be a stretch to say that they have been convincing in any of those matches and even worse considering they were all bottom six teams. A loss for the Chiefs here could see them overtaken in the New Zealand conference.
It is a long trip home from South Africa, but it would’ve been made easier after their bonus point win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last weekend. It hasn’t been a pretty picture for the ‘Canes in recent weeks, but they certainly looked to have turned things around, and even so with captain courageous Conrad Smith on the sidelines. Beauden Barrett returned to his familiar of fly half last week and was a standout performer being named in a number of ‘teams of the week’ in various news sources. It was equally exciting to see Julian Savea return to form last week as well, with an excellent winger’s chip and chase to dot down untouched. Their defence has been the forefront of their issues in 2013, conceding almost 30 points per game, which is actually worse off than last year. If they are ever going to improve their playoff hopes and rid themselves and fans of these hit and miss results, their defence needs to tighten up. In saying that, the Chiefs haven’t been exactly defensively sturdy either, so I expect the points to pile up in this match, given the weather remains conducive to running rugby.
This is a season defining match for the Chiefs and if they want to repeat their feats of going all the way like they did in 2012, this is a must win encounter. They have stumbled in recent weeks, but when you look at the team they manage to put out onto the park every week, all rugby fans have come to expect more. They have a number of game breakers in the backs and their forwards very rarely take a step backwards. They will be looking for an improved performance from flanker Liam Messam who has been struggling of late, but youngster Sam Cane continues to grow and will no doubt add to his tally of All Blacks caps this year. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, he will join a number of Chiefs stalwarts on the sidelines this week. The loss of Gareth Anscombe to injury for six weeks will be a blow, but I expect Aaron Cruden to stand up and display the qualities and game management abilities like he has done since breaking onto the international scene at the Rugby World Cup in 2011. A sign of a good team is to deliver in the face of adversity, so this match will surely be a test of their character and desire to reign supreme again.
It will be a classic New Zealand derby on Friday with points a plenty given both teams inability to defend effectively in recent weeks. The jetlag will surely affect the Hurricanes in one way or another, so I am leaning towards the Chiefs in what promises to be an advertisement for running rugby.
Predicted result: Chiefs to win @ $1.62 – Sportsbet
Rebels ($3.00) versus Stormers ($1.40)
The Rebels head home to Melbourne this week to face an injury-depleted Stormers outfit that have failed to impose themselves on their opposition like they once did in 2012. The Rebels were gallant in defeat last weekend against the Blues. Trailing by 19 at the half, they looked dead and buried, but some stern words in the dressing room from coach Damian Hill propelled them to the brink of victory, before leaving Auckland with a losing bonus point. As aforementioned, the Stormers suffered a huge blow to their Super Rugby campaign in 2013 when the Waratahs eclipsed them towards the end of the match. It is safe to say that 2013 has certainly been an unlucky one for the men from Cape Town and a rise to playoff contention would be miraculous from here on in.
The Rebels have only managed two victories this season, both of which were against the Force. This was another match that just escaped their grasp and they have proven to be stern opposition to a number of the top sides in recent weeks, having not lost by a converted try since round seven. Uncompromising centre Mitch Inman continued his great season and was easily their best on ground, closely followed by the burly Scott Higginbotham and Hugh Pyle. The Kurtley Beale saga continues this week with the news that he has now ‘voluntarily’ checked himself into rehab. I personally think that he was told he wasn’t going to make the squad because of his ill-discipline off the field and was forced seek help, but let’s leave that for another time. James O’Connor suffered a sternum injury last week when a cohort of forward fell on him during a ruck and as he made his way to the back to try and recover, Rene Ranger picked him out and steamrolled over the top of him. I have no doubt this footage will feature on Rugby shows across the globe this week and he won’t enjoy watching again from the sideline.
I doubt anyone would’ve picked the Stormers to be four from ten at this stage in the season, especially when many suggested them to be conference champions. As we have come to expect, their defence has been resolute, however, their attack is laborious and they simply don’t look like a team capable of scoring four tries. In more bad news for the Stormers, back rowers Duane Vermuelen and Rynhardt Elstadt have returned home to South Africa with similar knee injuries sustained in the last ten minutes of the match. The grunt of these two beasts was certainly felt and you get the feeling had they stayed on the field, their composure and no nonsense attitude could’ve got them over the line in Sydney. But it wasn’t to be the case and with an injury list mounting, the Rebels will be a tough prospect. Given that they are now out of playoff contention, I am hoping that they throw the ball around a bit more and utilise the wealth of talent that currently exists in their backline and in the process give their fans something to cheer about.
This is an extremely difficult match to call given the varying form of these two sides. Discounting the bye round, the Rebels haven’t tasted victory since round 8, whilst the Stormers have lost two in a row. The Cape franchise has a knack of pulling out a good performance when their cards are down and they owe it to their fans to return home with a victory. For this reason, a margin of 1 – 12 looks the healthy option.
Predicted result: Stormers to win @ $1.40 – Sportsbet
Force ($2.10) versus Sharks ($1.74)
The Force currently sit at the foot of the Super Rugby log, but I have no doubts their passionate supporters in blue and the large contingent of South Africans in Perth will turnout to watch this matchup. The Force played above their weight last weekend in Hamilton, whereas the Sharks were completely outplayed by a firing Reds unit at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. Both of these teams won’t feature in the playoff series this year, but looking at the positives the Force have a match against the British and Irish Lions to look forward to, while the Sharks have the Currie Cup.
The Force gave the Chiefs a hell of a fright last week after surging home to lose by a single point. The disappointing result was evident on all of their faces, but it was another case of close but no cigar for the Perth based team. The Force have now lost five out of six matches to the Chiefs since their inception into Super Rugby and when comparing the squads, this doesn’t look like changing in the coming seasons. Then again, stranger things have happened, as we all know too well. This weekend provides another opportunity to knock over another perennial super power and what better time to play the Sharks. One thing is for certain is that they will be looking to improve their scrummaging performance this week after the Chiefs were extremely dominant in this area and South African sides pride themselves on this facet of the game. Is it going to be another successful giant-killing mission or will they mix brilliance with boring as they have done on so many occasions this year? I guess only time will tell.
Last year’s Super Rugby finalists have lost five consecutive matches and for such a proud and successful franchise, something needs to change. Captain Keegan Daniel added fuel to the fire this week stating that there is disharmony in the camp with the Afrikaaners apparently forming cliques amongst their ranks. On the field, there were only six non-Afrikaans players in the match day 22 last weekends. I find this hard to believe given that their squad has been rather consistent over the past few seasons and things only look like getting worse before they get better for the rest of the season. Against the Reds, winger Lwazi Mvovo was their most threatening attacker and he is certainly a player that the Sharks will want to give more ball to, given the other backs struggles in cutting holes in opposition defences. The Sharks have only made a few changes from last week’s match with Willem Alberts making his first start of the season and Jannie du Plessis returning to reinforce the scrum. Coach John Plumtree has been receiving heat back in South Africa from the media and has opted for a five – two split on the bench, so they acknowledge that the battle is going to be won up front, as always. Former Shark hooker John Smit has recently retired from playing rugby, however he will take up his position as the new Sharks CEO in the coming months. If he is half a boss as he was on the field (not so much in recent times), the light at the end of the Sharks tunnel will become bigger and brighter.
It is a clash of the desperates this week and with both teams well and truly out of the playoff race, I hope both teams bring a positive attitude to the game. The Force know how to grind other opposition down (most notably the Reds) and the clash of the forwards could very well determine the outcome of this match. On paper the Sharks have a better team and for that reason, they have my backing this week.
Predicted result: Sharks to win @ $1.74 – Sportsbet
Crusaders ($1.30) versus Blues ($3.55)
The Crusaders return to Super Rugby action this week at home in Christchurch when the red-hot Blues will run out onto AMI Stadium. The Crusaders are coming fresh off a bye after an impressive victory over the table topping Brumbies in Canberra. Despite losing to the Reds a few weeks ago by a solitary point, the Blues have been solid and are well in the running for the playoffs after defeating the Rebels last week.
Unsurprisingly this week, nine Crusaders were announced in the All Black training squad (Bird, Carter, Crockett, Dagg, Franks, Read, Romano, Taylor and Sam Whitelock) for the upcoming matches against Les Bleus. A notable omission once again was centre Robbie Fruean and he must be getting increasingly frustrated having not been able to crack the All Blacks thus far. The bye week came at the right time for them having beaten the Brumbies, so they will no doubt look to carry that confidence over into this match. The Crusaders will be up for this game and have recalled Kieran Read who has spent a number of weeks on the sidelines with injury and I have no reservations in saying that he will make an impact straight off the cuff. He is a class player and one of the best, if not the best number eights in world rugby. The Crusaders play finals rugby better than anyone, thanks largely to the wealth of All Blacks they can call upon, and although we aren’t quite there just yet, both teams will be hoping of playing home semi-finals, so this will count in their favour.
The Blues enter this match having not lost to any of their conference opponents this year, which is an extremely impressive feat. They have no problems finding their way to the try line, but what has been most impressive is their defensive patterns and line speed. Looking at last week, the Blues stormed out to a 29 – 10 halftime lead, courtesy of five tries within the first 34 minutes. However, they did take their foot off the gas in the second half, as the Rebels found their rhythm and ended up falling just short. Things are looking good for the Blues with eight players (Halai, Luatua, Mealamu, Piutau, Ranger, Francis Sailli, Weepu and Williams) being rewarded for their form by being named in an All Blacks training squad I spoke of before. I was interested to see Rene Ranger’s name called out given that he has plans to leave New Zealand shores at the end of Super Rugby, however, this might be the lifeline that he needed to become a regular on the world stage.
Very similar to the first New Zealand derby of the round, this promises to be an absolute cracker, as historically this is the biggest New Zealand derby. Both teams have won a combined 10 out of 17 Super Rugby championships and both teams are well in the hunt to add to their trophy cabinets this year. Many of these players will have All Black jerseys in mind and with three competition points separating the two, it is hard to separate the teams. I can’t ignore the way the Crusaders dismantled a well-oiled Brumbies outfit and their big match temperament is almost second to none and I think they will leapfrog the Blues this weekend, but at $3.35, they are over the odds and bookies have presented punters with a tasty price.
Predicted result: Crusaders to win @ $1.30 – Sportsbet
Waratahs ($1.88) versus Brumbies ($1.92)
Allianz Stadium in Sydney will play host to an important Australia conference matchup when the league leaders the Brumbies face off against a Waratahs outfit that has found form at the wrong end of the season. The Brumbies enjoyed the bye round last week after an arduous stretch of games that included matches against the Reds and the Crusaders. The Waratahs on the other hand returned to Sydney last week and all but ended the Stormer’s season with a gutsy performance led by an impressive forwards display.
The Waratahs have been one of the strongest performers in the competition in recent weeks having beaten the Chiefs and the Stormers, as well as demolishing the Kings in Port Elizabeth. They are finally starting to play a style of rugby that suits their extremely talented line-up and certainly look like a team that could go ‘hammer and tongs’ in the playoffs if they make it. Their poor start to the year could well come back to haunt them, but when coach Michael Cheika took over, it was all about longevity and not just a one year plan. The Waratahs were outmuscled and outclassed by the Brumbies in round four (35 – 6), so they will surely be looking to balance the season ledger this week. Up and coming prop Paddy Ryan replaces one part of the Tongan crew, Sekope Kepu in the front row and Drew Mitchell finds himself on the wing in place of speedster Peter Betham. Berrick Barnes will once again come off the bench, which I think is a good ploy given his brilliant game management skills and his current lack of fitness.
After an almost faultless start to season 2013, the Brumbies have faded in recent matches by playing out a draw with the Queensland Reds in Brisbane and succumbing to an impressive Crusaders display in Canberra. They still remain in second position, but the Blues and the Hurricanes will certainly test them over the coming weeks, so a win here holds extra importance. Scott Fardy, the bullocking second rower returns from injury and will help bolster the tight five, alongside Scott Sio who has also been included. The Brumbies have a great mix of flair, speed and power in the backline, which has held them in good stead this year, so the Waratahs backs will need to be on their toes and maintaining a steady line in defence. This is certainly a danger game for the Brumbies, but I have no doubts that super coach Jake White will have a ploy to keep Israel Folau and Bernard Foley out of the game whenever possible, as these two have wreaked havoc in opposition defences since their season turned around.
The Waratahs are starting to play some of the most attractive rugby in the competition, whilst maintaining a staunch defensive line in the process. Their Wallabies are starting to find their feet and some of their youngsters are starting to cement their starting places in the squad. On the other hand, the Brumbies have been one of the form teams of the tournament all year and despite the minor slipup against the Crusaders last time out, I have no doubts coach Jake White will have a trick or two up his sleeve to combat an improving Waratahs outfit.
Predicted result: Brumbies to win @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Best Bet: Brumbies to win @ $1.92 – Sportsbet
Bulls ($1.09) versus Highlanders ($7.50)
The Bulls return to action this week after some much needed R&R after a productive 2013. They currently lead the South African conference by a full house of points and will be licking their lips when a struggling Highlanders outfit comes to Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. The Highlanders returned to earth last week after a customarily disappointing performance against the Kings and will be looking to finish their tour off on a positive note this weekend.
The Bulls haven’t lost since the end of March when they dubiously came up short against the Brumbies on the stroke of fulltime in Canberra. Since then they have racked up wins against the Cheetahs, Kings, Waratahs and Hurricanes. They are a team that stick to their structures well and have formulated a primary game plan situated around their monstrous forward pack and accurate kicking, both off the tee and out of hand, through Morne Steyn. Some see it as one dimensional, but the Bulls have managed to cross the chalk on a number of occasions this year and do have the ability to score some great tries, once the have strangled the opposition into submission. This week, the Bulls have made five changes including welcoming back livewire Francois Hougaard and the impressive youngster Jan Serfontein into the inside centre position. What is surprising to me is that flanker Arno Botha still remains on the bench after some impressive performances on tour. It is hard to see the Bulls losing this one and I think the embarrassment of potentially slipping up here will hold them in good stead to come out of the weekend with another full house of points.
If the Highlanders want to return to Dunedin in a couple of weeks time, keeping in mind they have to make a pit stop in Perth next weekend, they need to pick up two victories. Much like South Africa and Australia, the New Zealand press is unforgiving and I have no doubts that heads will be on the chopping block if they head home with one win from almost four full months of rugby. I gave the Kings no chance to match it with the Highlanders last weekend, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. They are simply playing coach-killing rugby at the moment, but they need to take some confidence out of Hosea Gear’s late try to secure a losing bonus point because they played some good rugby in the phases leading up to it. It is not surprising that they have the least amount of international hopefuls selected in Gear, Hore, Nonu, Smith, Smith and Woodcock. I am surprised that Nonu did get picked because I think he needs a wake up call, however, with the current injuries in the New Zealand centre ranks, I guess they didn’t have too many other options.
Loftus Versfeld is one of the most difficult places to play in world rugby and if the Highlanders play like they have in recent times, they will simply get crushed. However, the Highlanders will want to bounce back following their defeat last week and the second match on tour generally yields a better performance. In saying that, it is hard to look past the Bulls in this match given their recent run of form and although it might be close early, the Bulls are known for running away with the match in the quarter. However, for those looking for an upset, the $7.50 is good value.
Predicted result: Bulls to win @ $1.09 – Sportsbet
Cheetahs ($2.03) versus Reds ($1.80)
The final match of round 14 is sure to be a high scoring affair as the Cheetahs welcome the confident Queensland Reds to Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs will want to return to the winner’s circle this week after a disappointing loss to the Hurricanes at home last weekend. The Reds on the other hand stormed out to an unassailable lead against the Sharks at Suncorp Stadium, before being pegged back in the second half. The win was still comfortable though and each week the Reds are starting to look more and more like the team that took out the championship in 2011.
The Cheetahs and the Blues have been the big improvers this year and both of them adopt a very similar game plan. The Cheetahs head into this match knowing they have a 3 – 0 record against Australian sides this year, but the Reds are a different beast altogether. Once again they have the luxury of announcing a distinctly familiar team, with only Elgar Watts making his first start of the season in the fly half jersey. This will certainly be a daunting prospect with Quade Cooper opposite him, but it will also be a good test of his character and skillset to see if he has what it takes to perform at this level. Additionally, he has a wealth of experience inside and outside of him, which will surely calm his nerves. Freight train prop Coenie Oosthuizen scored a brace of tries last week, one in which he carried a number of Hurricanes with ease over the try line from a considerable distance out. In the mould of the formidable Os du Randt, he certainly is a presence and almost unstoppable near the try line. Furthermore, the Cheetahs forwards will need to dominate this week if they are going to have any chance of overcoming the Reds.
A hallmark of successive Reds teams in the past has been watertight defence and sublime attacking play. What has impressed me most about Quade Cooper this year is his decision making. On his day, he is one of the best footballers to watch in any code, but as many New Zealanders will know from the Rugby World Cup, when he is off, his game self-destructs and creates numerous opportunities for the opposition. A lot of the flair and creativity Quade plays with is a catalyst of Will Genia’s rugby brain and distribution skills inside him. Put simply, the Reds season turned around for the better when Will Genia returned to action. He is an extremely influential player and expects 110% from everyone around him. Their back row continues to impress and winger Digby Ioane busts more tackles than anyone else in the competition. Things are starting to look good for the Reds and if they can overcome the Cheetahs this weekend, which they have done so with ease on the last two occasions, the Stormers will be deeply concerned next week.
The Cheetahs have had a great season this year and one that has been more successful than what their original goal would’ve been. However, this is a match where you will see the difference between a potential playoff contender and a potential champion and I expect the Reds big guns in Horwill, Genia and Cooper to stand up and control proceedings.
Predicted result: Reds to win @ $1.80 – Sportsbet
Best Bet: Reds to win @ $1.80 – Sportsbet