Last weekend saw the remaining teams cut down from six to four, with South Africa’s sole representatives and the Chiefs bowing out at the hands of the Brumbies and Highlanders respectively. We are now into the penultimate week of the competition and everything is on the line for the four sides that remain. The first semi-final sees tournament favourites the Hurricanes come up against the last-placed playoff qualifiers, the Brumbies, in Wellington. The game is followed by the second trans-Tasman affair, which takes place in New South Wales between the Australian conference-topping Waratahs and tournament underdogs the Highlanders. With the tournament fast approaching it’s close, this weekend will provide punters with one of the final opportunities to make some good money from Super Rugby for the year. Make sure you have your bets on good and early to ensure you don’t miss out on Hollywood’s Super Rugby Promotions.
Hurricanes vs Brumbies | Saturday 27 June | Westpac Stadium | 09:35
To Win (80mins)
Hurricanes (-7.5) 9/10
Brumbies (+7.5) 9/10
Competition favourites the Hurricanes will play host to Steven Larkham’s men in Saturday’s early kick off. The ‘Canes have enjoyed a fantastic season which has only seen them taste defeat in two encounters; they are however yet to play the Brumbies this year due to the competition draw. On to team news and the men from Wellington have been sweating on the availability of utility backs Cory Jane and Nehe Milner-Skudder for the majority of the week. Coach Chris Boyd announced his starting fifteen early on Thursday morning and has confirmed Milner-Skudder is fit enough to take the right wing spot whilst Jane hasn’t sufficiently recovered from his injury and is replaced by James Marshall who comes in at fullback. Blade Thomson and Matt Proctor have recovered from their injury niggles and will strengthen an already formidable Hurricanes bench.
Combinations have been key for the Wellington based franchise this season and with the injury gods being kind to them once again they will be able to field a relatively unchanged team for this encounter. In terms of those combinations the ‘Canes possess arguably the best centre pairing in the world in the shape of All Blacks Nonu and Smith; these two know each other’s games like the back of their hands and will look to dominate the Brumbies pairing of Matt Toomua and Tevita Kuridrani. The men in black and yellow also have the Savea brothers who link up so much that they’re almost like a second centre pairing themselves. Younger brother Ardie Savea has been formidable this season and with an All Black call up being touted he will definitely want to put in another barnstormer. The young flanker will be joined in the loose trio by veterans Brad Shields and Victor Vito; these three men will be responsible for keeping Brumbies turn over machine David Pocock quiet at the breakdown. Despite these numerous game breaking combinations and having a plethora of individuals with the much hyped x-factor, it’s knockout rugby which means the men most likely to decide it all will be the fly-halves. With Beauden Barrett returning to the starting fifteen the ‘Canes have just the man to do the job at ten.
Despite running rampant last weekend in Cape Town the Brumbies go into this encounter as massive underdogs. Brumbies coach and former Wallaby ten Steve Larkham has attempted to introduce some Eddie Jones-esque mind games this week by claiming that the Hurricanes’ bye may lead to Chris Boyd’s charges being a little rusty coming into this encounter. Larkham probably doesn’t believe a word of what he’s saying in all honesty, but will be looking to use any form of motivation to get his side fired up for this encounter, especially with winger Henry Speight missing this clash through suspension. With Speight out, last weekend’s hat-trick hero Joe Tomane will have to produce similar heroics this weekend. Tomane will be joined in the back three by Lausii Taliauli who takes Speight’s place on the wing whilst Jesse Mogg continues at fifteen. Unlike their opponents for this weekend’s encounter, the Brumbies are rock solid at lineout time with locks Rory Arnold and Sam Carter calling the shots and offering assured jumping options. The Brumbies have used the rolling maul from lineouts as an attacking weapon and out of the 51 tries they’ve scored this season more than half have come from said rolling mauls. This is the third time in a row that the Brumbies have made the semi-finals. They went down to the Waratahs 26-8 in last year’s semi whilst 2013 saw them scrape to victory over the Bulls by 26 points to 23 at Loftus.
VERDICT: Hurricanes (-7.5) 9/10
Despite going into this one on a high after their clinical performance in Cape Town, I don’t fancy the Brumbies to repeat the dose in Wellington, especially when you consider the amount of travelling they’ve had to do in the last two weeks. Larkham’s charges may start this one full of vim and vigour but I think those intensity levels will drop off as the game wears on.
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Waratahs vs Highlanders | Saturday 27 June | Allianz Stadium | 11:40
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-4.5) 9/10
Highlanders (+4.5) 9/10
Like the Hurricanes, the Waratahs also had the luxury of a weekend off last time out. They will host the second trans-Tasman derby of the weekend on Saturday morning. The last time these two sides did battle was way back in round five with the Highlanders emerging 26 - 19 victors in Dunedin. On the team news front, Michael Cheika has been forced to make a change in the centre with playmaker Kurtley Beale unable to complete training on Thursday due to a quadricep problem. He will be replaced by Matt Carraro who comes into the inside centre berth. Apart from Beale, the rest of the squad is fit and healthy so Cheika has been able to field an almost full strength side. In terms of strategy, the ‘Tahs will look to their forwards to assert their dominance at both the set piece and breakdown. The key man to attaining the upper hand at the set piece will be their talismanic lock Will Skelton, who will partner skipper David Dennis in the second row. The duo will provide some extra weight and grunt at scrum time whilst also providing jumping options at the lineouts. The dynamic lock duo are joined in the pack by flanker Michael Hooper, who will be responsible for turnover ball and keeping the Highlanders honest at the breakdown. The most pivotal figure in knockout rugby is usually the man assuming the kicking duties and the ‘Tahs have a cool head in this regard in Aussie ten Bernard Foley; Foley illustrated just how cool he is under pressure in last year’s final, slotting a late penalty which guided the Waratahs to a victory over the Crusaders.
The counter attacking kings once again illustrated how dangerous they are in open play against the Chiefs last weekend, their 24-14 victory over their Waikato rivals saw them advance to this semi-final. Rank outsiders for a playoff spot two months ago, the men from Dunedin have undergone a renaissance of sorts; the revival has been led by talismanic fullback and co-skipper Ben Smith and the All Black international is probably the most astute counter attacking force in world rugby at the moment and will want to cement his starting role for the national side with a few more impressive performances. Smith is joined in the backline by his namesake and All Black colleague Aaron Smith who has been the form scrumhalf in this year’s tournament. Aaron Smith’s crisp service to flyhalf Lima Sopoaga has made the young ten’s life a lot easier. Aaron cannot take all the credit for this however as his forward pack has provided some excellent ball for him to work off. Coach Jamie Josephs has confirmed that the third All Black in the Highlanders ranks - Malakai Fekitoa - has overcome an eye injury picked up against the Chiefs and will retain his place at outside centre. There is one area of concern for Josephs however, with openside flanker Dan Pryor out with a fractured elbow. He will be replaced by young gun James Lentjies, who is inexperienced at this level. This will be the Highlanders’ first appearance in a semi-final in a decade and a half.
VERDICT: Highlanders 17/10
Some readers may think I’m a bit of a madman for backing the Highlanders to overcome the Waratahs at the Allianz. I feel that the Highlanders back three of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osbourne will be able to launch some devastating counter attacks which could well see the Highlanders reach their first final since 1999.