Round 11 was dominated by home victories. The only side to emerge victorious away from home were the table-topping Hurricanes who saw off the Reds in Queensland. There were some fantastic derbies, particularly the tight affairs between the ‘Tahs and Rebels as well as the cliffhanger between the Bulls and Stormers. Round 12 should also have rugby fans on the edge of their seats with some fantastic match-ups coming our way; the pick of Friday’s action will see the Brumbies take on the Waratahs for Aussie superiority whilst Saturday sees two epic derbies in the Republic as well as the ‘Canes taking on the Crusaders earlier in the day. The Sharks are back in action after a bye and are one of the many teams throughout the three conferences who are desperate to scrape their way into the playoff places. The combined as well as domestics logs should get a bit of a shake up as a lot of sides in similar positions on the logs do battle against each other.
Highlanders vs Sharks | Friday 01 May | Forsyth Barr Stadium | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Highlanders (-7.5) 9/10
Sharks (+7.5) 9/10
The Highlanders returned pointless from their short trip across the Tasman following their defeat to the Brumbies. They come up against a strangely makeshift looking Sharks side this coming weekend. The struggling Natalians are coming off a bye so they should be fresh and itching to go, although they will have to continue to do without the services of first choice pivot Patrick Lamble who remains sidelined with a neck injury. The Highlanders will be back to full strength with their All Blacks returning from their rest period. Both sides are chasing those wildcard places and this game may have a huge bearing on them ultimately making it to the knockouts.
VERDICT: Sharks (+7.5) 9/10
The Highlanders have really struggled to get going in the first half of games so I expect the Sharks to take a lead into halftime. The Highlanders will inevitably come out all guns blazing in the second stanza. It is going to be tight but I think a late Highlanders onslaught will see the men from Otago scrape it. The Sharks on the plus handicap offers decent value here.
Brumbies vs Waratahs | Friday 01 May | GIO Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Brumbies (-2.5) 9/10
Waratahs (+2.5) 9/10
The Brumbies returned to form with a timely bonus point win over the Highlanders; last weekend’s result saw the Brumbies extend their lead over this weekend’s opposition in the Aussie Conference. The Canberra men will be ecstatic with Jessie Mogg’s return to the side. He added an extra kicking dimension and counter attacking threat in their 31-18 win against the Highlanders. The ‘Tahs will be playing in their second consecutive Australian derby, their hard-fought win over the Rebels last weekend may see some tired Waratahs legs come the final quarter of this weekend’s game. This will be the second time these two sides have met this year with the ‘Tahs winning the first encounter 28-13. The battle between the two fetchers David Pocock and Michael Hooper will have a huge bearing on who takes the points in this one.
VERDICT: Brumbies (-2.5) 9/10
This is effectively a battle for top spot in the Australian conference. A win for the Brumbies will go a long way to securing their qualification for the semi-finals whilst a win for the Waratahs will see them close the gap between themselves and Steven Larkham’s men. With so much riding on the game and the teams so evenly matched I think it may come down to attrition and home ground advantage and these are two factors that the Brumbies have in their favour.
Blues vs Force | Saturday 02 May | Eden Park | 07:00
To Win (80mins)
Blues (-8.5) 9/10
Force (+8.5) 9/10
The Blues are back home after a 29-15 loss to the Crusaders and this result ensured that they are only one of two teams to notch up just one win this campaign. The Force are coincidentally the other side with only the single victory. Both teams haven’t had lady luck smiling upon them this year and the bounce of the ball has always seemed to go the way of the opposition when these two are involved. The Force will be without the services of number nine Ian Prior who has been suspended for three weeks following a spear tackle on Tim Nanai-Williams in last weekend’s loss to the Chiefs. The Blues will have skipper Jerome Kaino as well as fellow All Blacks James Parsons and Charles Piutau back in their starting fifteen after the trio sat out last weekend’s loss.
VERDICT: Force 28/10
These two teams are battling to avoid finishing at the foot of the combined table, the loser of this one will find themselves in that dreaded wooden spoon position as well as being the only team left on just one victory. It will be a tight affair but I’m going to go with the home team to scrape a win in front of their fans.
Hurricanes vs Crusaders| Saturday 02 May | Westpac Stadium | 09:35
Hurricanes (-3.5) 9/10
Crusaders (+3.5) 9/10
This is definitely the one to watch this weekend. The ‘Canes have only tasted defeat once this year at the hands of the Waratahs whilst their opponents are experiencing a below-par campaign. The Hurricanes’ bonus point win over the Reds last weekend saw them extend their lead over the Chiefs in the New Zealand Conference as well as open up the gap between themselves and the Brumbies to seven points on the combined log. The ‘Saders, on the other hand, are struggling to make the playoffs; they sit three points off the last wild card spot which is occupied by the Highlanders. The Canterbury unit will be without talisman Richie McCaw who misses the clash through concussion and New Zealand fullback Israel Dagg. The Hurricanes look to be at full strength and will bank on their vastly experienced and skilled centre combination of Nonu and Smith to make the difference in this clash. This will be the first time these two sides have met this year and emerging triumphant in this one will give the winner a psychological advantage come the reverse fixture in Round 16.
VERDICT: Hurricanes 6/10
This has all the makings of a classic New Zealand derby and is the pick of this weekend’s action. I can see the ‘Canes just scraping this one so I would recommend avoiding the handicap and taking the straight win for added safety.
Rebels vs Chiefs | Saturday 02 May | AAMI Park | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Rebels (+6.5) 9/10
Chiefs (-6.5) 9/10
The Melbourne Rebels need to start getting points quickly if they want to see their hopes of making the playoffs come to fruition. A determined display last time out against the Waratahs saw the Rebels pick up a losing bonus point. The Chiefs are coming off the back of a solid first half display against the Force; they did fall away in the second half however and this may give the Rebels a bit of encouragement. The Chiefs will have number eight Liam Messam back but will be without line-out king Brodie Retallick.
VERDICT: Rebels (+6.5) 9/10
The Rebels are probably the best team in the competition when it comes to losing within seven points; I think the +6.5 handicap is the best way to go when it comes to putting money on this one.
Cheetahs vs Stormers | Saturday 02 May | Free State Stadium | 17:05
To Win (80mins)
Cheetahs (+4.5) 1/1
Stormers (-4.5) 15/20
This encounter will see the top of the South African Conference come up against its dungeon dwellers. The Stormers narrowly beat the Bulls in Cape Town last weekend 15-13 with Duane Vermeulen’s late charge down on Handre Pollard’s drop goal ensuring the boys from the Cape came away with four points. The Cheetahs put in a spirited display against the Lions last weekend which secured them a losing bonus point. The men from the Free State will once again be without the services of mercurial talent Willie le Roux who is sidelined for the next five weeks; they will however have Coenie Oosthuizen back in the side after he sat out the Lions game through injury. The massive gap between the two sides in the South African conference will have little bearing on this game and we can expect a titanic battle come late Saturday afternoon.
VERDICT: Cheetahs 16/10
The Cheetahs always seem to get up for the big local derbies and with the Bulls game having taken its toll on the Stormers the Free State side may well fancy their chances of producing an upset.
Bulls vs Lions | Saturday 2nd May | Loftus Versfeld | 19:10
To Win (80mins)
Bulls (-7.5) 9/10
Lions (+7.5) 9/10
The Bulls will be determined to win this one and possibly climb back to top spot on the conference; they would already hold top spot had it not been for Duane Vermuelen’s charging down of Pollard’s drop goal attempt in the dying minutes last weekend. The Lions are now three points behind the Bulls and four off the Stormers after last weekend’s victory over the Cheetahs. The previous encounter between the Lions and the Bulls saw the Johannesburg based franchise beat the Pretoria union 22-18 at Ellis Park. This promises to be an exciting battle with the contrasting game plans sure to produce some entertaining rugby.
VERDICT: Lions (+4.5) 9/10
I can see the Bulls winning a tightly contested battle but not by much. Lions at 9/10 to lose within 7.5 points is well worth a punt.