Super Rugby Round 4 (Friday)

Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!

We’ve already had three weekends of pulsating Super Rugby action and the fourth round will be upon us soon enough. Round 3 saw some thrilling rugby, as well as a classic South African coastal derby between the Stormers and Sharks. Things are still a bit up in the air in terms of the form guide but this week may prove to be a better indicator as to who’s going to set the pace in the four conferences.

The weekend’s action kicks off with two trans-Tasman derbies, the first of which will see the seemingly rejuvenated Hurricanes take on the Western Force at the Central Energy Trust Stadium in Wellington. That fixture will be followed by a mouth-watering clash between the Waratahs and Highlanders. While the final fixture of the day is a local derby between the Bulls and the Sharks.

Hurricanes v Force | Friday 18 March | Central Energy Trust Stadium | 08:35

To Win (80 Mins)
Hurricanes 1/8 | Draw 30/1 | Force 11/2
Hurricanes (-15.5) 9/10 | Force (+15.5) 9/10

The scars from their opening day mauling at the hands of the Brumbies may have healed but the Canes still don’t look anywhere near the all-conquering force that took the group stage of last year's tournament by storm. The Canes were absolutely dire on that particular Friday. Their youthful centre pairing looked well and truly out of their depth, and their forwards struggled to keep up with a fitter, stronger Brumbies pack.

While there were signs of life in the Hurricanes' showing against the Highlanders in round two, it was still a performance that was nowhere near the calibre that the men from Wellington produced week in and week out last year. They also put in a decent display against the Blues last week but it still wasn’t vintage Canes rugby.

You can’t really fault them for not living up to last year’s achievements, though, they’ve had the spine of their team removed and the men who have come in to fill those gaping holes are extremely inexperienced. To make matters worse for the Canes, they’ve now lost the mercurial Nehe Milner-Skudder for six months due to a shoulder injury. Milner-Skudder’s injury has left the Canes backline rather devoid of experience. Pivot Beauden Barrett, scrumhalf TJ Perenara, and winger Julian “the bus” Savea are going to have to guide this youthful backline.

Their opponents for this weekend put in a magnificent display against a red-hot Brumbies outfit last Friday. While the Force didn’t manage to pick up a losing bonus point, they were able to front up to a Brumbies side who tore the Hurricanes apart in round 1. The result could have been even more positive had it not been for a late Brumbies try and a yellow card in each half.

In term of team news for this one, Hurricanes hooker, Dane Coles, will make his first appearance of the season having overcome a hamstring injury. He will be joined in the front row by Chris Eves who comes in for the injured Reg Goodes. The other change to Canes pack sees Vaea Fifita come in on the blindside flank for Brad Shields. While Cory Jane comes in for the injured Milner-Skudder in the only change to the Canes starting backline. The Force have also made a fair amount of changes to their starting XV. Peter Grant finally gets a start and will partner Alby Matthewson in a rejigged half back pairing. They will be joined in the backline by Grant’s countryman, Marcel Brache, who comes in for Luke Morahan on the left wing. There are also a few changes to the Force’s forward pack with flanker Angus Cottrell and Nathan Charles being handed a start.

Verdict: Hurricanes (-15.5) 9/10
The Force are much stronger at home than they are away and I can see them struggling in Wellington this week. Back the home side to clear the -15.5 Margin at 9/10.

Waratahs v Highlanders | Friday 18 March | Allianz Stadium | 10:45

To Win (80 Mins)
Waratahs 7/10 | Draw  22/1 | Highlanders 11/10
Waratahs (-2.5) 9/10 | Highlanders (+2.5) 9/10

The Highlanders must be starting to feel a lot like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Their second Friday fixture of the year pits them against an opponent that they came up against in the knockout stages of last year’s tournament. They managed to replicate their 2015 final result by downing the Canes on the opening day of this year’s competition but will they be able to win back to back games in New South Wales?

I honestly think they are in with a shout. Their performance against the Lions, while opportunistic, still oozed quality. The Smiths were on fire and pulled the strings. They managed to produce an early contender for try of the tournament during their second-half blitz that all but ended the Lions hopes of getting anything out of the game. The try itself was a thing of beauty, with Ben Smith taking a quick throw in and finding Aaron Smith. After a decisive dart from the scum half the ball was recycled and moved on to the man who started the move to dot down for a vital five-pointer.

While the Canes were going toe to toe with the Lions, the Tahs squad were enjoying their first bye of the year.  Whether this will work in their favour – fresh legs and all that jazz – or it ends up being a hindrance – lack of playing time and momentum stopped – will be interesting to see. They were decent against the Brumbies in the first week although the 32- 15 scoreline in favour of the Brumbies suggests otherwise. It must be remembered, however, that Stephen Larkham’s men did score two late tries to add a lot of gloss to that particular scoreline.

The teams news coming out of the Waratahs camp for this one is that Wycliff Palu will make his first appearance of the year. The big man will come into the eighthman berth. The only other change to the Tahs' starting XV is in the pack, with Tolu Latu coming in for the injured Tatafu Polota-Nau. The visitors also suffered some casualties last week with Joe Wheeler, Dan Pryor,  and Luke Whitelock all sustaining injuries. Wheeler’s locking berth will be taken by Tom Franklin, while Shane Christie and Liam Squire come in for Pryor and Whitelock. In the backline, Ryan Tongia comes in for the injured Patrick Osbourne on the wing.

Verdict: Highlanders 11/10
They may be struggling with injuries but I can see the Smiths leading the Canes to victory an upset victory in New South Wales this Saturday.

Bulls v Sharks | Friday 18 March | Loftus Versfeld | 19:00

To Win (80 mins)
Bulls  21/20 |Draw 20/1 | Sharks 8/10
Bulls (+1.5) 9/10 | Sharks (-1.5) 9/10

The Sharks come up against local opposition for the second time in the space of six days this Friday. While their victory at Newlands was a fantastic result for Gary Gold and his charges, the manner in which they claimed that win did leave a bit of a sour taste in mouth – and I’m not talking about the controversial try, as that could have really gone either way. My issue with the fixture is more related to the brand of rugby that both teams implemented. I understand that coaches are paid to get results, but while good old ten man rugby may net you a few victories against local opposition, it’s not going to win you games against the better New Zealand and Australian sides.

This weekend’s game is likely to follow a similar script to last week’s snore-fest in Cape Town. The Bulls – despite Nollis Marais preaching a brand of attacking rugby before the season started – kicked more ball away than the Aston Villa back four when they took on the Stormers in the opening round. To be fair to Marais and his charges, they did play a much less conservative brand of rugby in their second round fixture against the Rebels. But that was against an overseas side, and I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar that the Bulls will go back into their shell this Friday and look to play the territory game.

The Sharks have also demonstrated their flair for the conservative. While their second half display against the Kings has fans of the coastal franchise, myself included, optimistic about the brand of rugby they were going to implement this term, their subsequent two fixtures saw the Natalians revert to the dull brand that has hamstrung the side since 2013. I can’t understand why they do this, though, yes they have gone three from three and they are leading Africa conference two, but this conservative game plan is going to backfire at some point against one of their local rivals who are also astute at implementing the traditional brand of South African rugby.

Anyway, let’s move on from my rant/preview and onto the team news. The Bulls will have young gun Jessie Kriel back in their match day twenty-two. The current South African Players Player of the Year, is likely to make a big impact off the bench. While Kriel will play off the pine, another man who enjoyed a breakthrough season last year, Jamba Ulengo, gets a start on the wing. The former Blitzbok flyer comes in for Trevor Ismael. In the forward pack, Nollis Marais has also opted to replace Nic de Jager with Roelof Smit. On the Sharks side of things, Gary Gold has opted to make a few changes to his run-on XV. Lwazi Mvovo comes in for Odwa Ndungane on the wing while Michael Classens comes into the scrumhalf berth in place of Cobus Reinach who drops to the bench. In the pack, Kyle Copper gets a start at hooker, while Philip van der Walt comes in for the injured Jean-Luc du Preez.

Verdict: Sharks 8/10
I fancy the Natalians to come out on top in what is likely to be a battle of attrition at Loftus.

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