Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!
The Lions loss to the Highlanders and the Sharks victory over the Stormers has well and truly opened up Africa Conference 2. While Africa conference 1 has also taken on a rather open looking dimension after the Cheetahs managed a comeback of note in Singapore last week. The Chiefs and Highlanders victories last week have seen them pull away from the other three teams in the New Zealand conference, although the Crusaders - who are five points off the conference topping Chiefs – do have a game in hand. Over in Australia, the Brumbies victory over the Force has seen them move five points clear at the top of the conference.
I think we could see these logs all receive somewhat of a shake-up this weekend with some evenly contested match-ups set to take place.
Sunwolves v Rebels | Saturday 19 March | Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium | 06:15
To Win (80 Mins)
Sunwolves 17/10 | Draw 28/1 | Rebels 9/20
Sunwolves (+5.5) 9/10 | Rebels (-9.5) 9/10
Saturday’s first fixture sees the winless Sunwolves host a Rebels side who managed to scrape home against the Reds last weekend. The hosts were magnificent against the Cheetahs during the opening forty last week, but fatigue and poor game management saw them slip to a narrow defeat.
The Rebels were also a lot stronger in the opening stanza than the closing. They did, however, manage to get the job done against a Reds side who came to Melbourne coachless but determined to claim a result. The hard-fought victory Rebels leapfrog the Waratahs into second place on the Australian conference standings. They will now be gunning to reel in the Brumbies who sit five points clear of them at the top of Australian Conference.
The biggest issue the Rebels are facing for this one is the amount of air miles they’ve put over the past fortnight. They had to fly back from Johannesburg to Melbourne after their defeat to the Bulls in the second round. And this week saw them make a 6057 Kilometer flight from Melbourne to Tokyo.
I reckon the Rebels boys won’t have to pay for another flight for the rest of their lives with the voyager miles they are racking up. On a serious note though, fatigue is going to be a factor this weekend. It was evident in the second half against the Reds and it’s likely to be even more telling against the Sunwolves.
Verdict: Sunwolves (+5.5) 9/10
I honestly thought we’d see more changes than the two made to the Rebels starting XV for this game. While I’m all for playing your best available squad, I think, as a coach, you have to be willing to rotate, especially when your side has done two long distance voyages in the space of ten days. I can see fatigue helping the Sunwolves keep the score within the plus +5.5 handicap.
Crusaders v Kings | Saturday 19 March | AMI Stadium | 08:35
To Win (80 Mins)
Crusaders 1/100 | Draw 40/1 | Kings 14/1
Crusaders (-35.5) 9/10 | Kings (+35.5) 9/10
Before we get stuck into this one, I’d just like to remind everyone that the Kings did managed some decent results in Australasia back in 2013, the best of which saw them secure a 28-28 draw against the Brumbies in Canberra. They were less impressive against the Crusaders that year going down by 35 points exactly.
Anyway, let's move away from the distant past and onto more recent events. The Kings were royally thumped by New Zealand opposition last weekend going down by 34 points to the Chiefs. The Kings had their moments in last week's fixture, particularly during the first 40 minutes, but their performance dropped off as fatigue set in.
I was highly impressed by the performances of flanker Chris Cloete and flyhalf Louis Fouche. Cloete simply does not know when he is beaten. He entered every ruck last week looking to win ball. He also made some ferocious hits that some of the Chiefs squad are likely to be still feeling today. While Cloete took a helter-skelter approach to last weekend’s game, Fouche was a lot more measured. The former Blue Bulls youngster kicked brilliantly out of hand and distributed the ball well. Both men will have vital roles to play this weekend if their team are to avoid a hiding.
The Saders enjoyed their first bye of the season last week, so they should come into this one refreshed and ready to go. Head coach, Todd Blackadder, has elected to make a slew of changes for this one. Wyatt Crockett and Ben Funnell will come into the front row while Luke Romano and Matt Todd also get a start. In the backline, fullback Marty Mckenzie and scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond get their first starts of the season.
Verdict: Crusaders (-35.5) 9/10
The Kings have shipped a lot of points in the second stanza and I fully expect the Crusaders to take advantage of those tiring legs and put a large score on the board.
Reds v Blues | Saturday 19 March | Suncorp Stadium | 10:45
To Win (80 Mins)
Reds 17/10 | Draw 28/1 | Blues 9/20
Reds (+4.5) 9/10| Blues (-4.5) 9/10
The Reds come into this one off the back of a much improved showing that not many pundits, myself included, would have predicted. While they didn’t manage to get a win last time out, they did stage a magnificent comeback against the Rebels that saw them gain a losing point.
The result came against a backdrop of uncertainty and doom with the Reds having been spanked by the Force the weekend prior. They had also lost their coach, Richard Graham, who was sacked shortly after that ignominious defeat at the hands of the Force.
While the Reds were reviving their season out in Melbourne, the Blues had their hearts broken by the Hurricanes. Trailing by four points and with the full-time hooter having gone, the Blues took full advantage of one of this season new rules by continually kicking for touch even though the 80 minutes were up. They set line five meter line out after five meter line out but could not breach a stoic Hurricanes defense, even after the Canes had Victor Vito sent off for collapsing the Blues lineout maul.
That defeat would have hurt the Blues, as they put in a monumental shift during the final 20 minutes at Eden Park. They have an ideal opportunity to bounce back this weekend, however, as the Reds, despite their improved showing last week, are still one of the weakest sides in the tournament.
Both coaches have opted to make a few changes for this one. Reiko Ioane will drop to the bench for this one with Stephen Lutua shifting to eight and Jerome Kaino moving to the flank. Lutua’s locking berth will be taken by Josh Bekhuis, who makes his 100th Super Rugby appearance. While Akira drops to the bench his brother, Rieko, will get his first start of the season. The talented youngster comes in on the right wing in place of Rene Ranger. The Reds have made just the solitary change for this one with Greg Holmes coming in for the injured Ben Daley.
Verdict: Blues (-4.5) 9/10
The Blues simply have too much quality for a Reds side that will be smarting following their narrow loss last week. I'm pretty confident the Blues clear this margin with minimal fuss.
To Win (80 Mins)
Stormers 1/1 | Draw 22/1 | Brumbies 8/10
Stormers (+1.5) 9/10 | Brumbies (-1.5) 9/10
The days of innovative backline moves off first phase ball, flying wingers dotting down in the corner, and counter attacking exhibitions must seem a distant memory for fans of the Western Cape-based franchise. Once the team that set the attacking standard in South Africa, the Stormers now look like a Bulls side circa 2007.
The blame can’t solely lie at the feet of the players nor new coach Robbie Fleck. While I think Fleck is well bellow the standard of coach required for Super Rugby, he has inherited a game plan from Allister Coetzee that is ingrained into all of these players.
At the end of the day the Stormers are a fantastic defensive unit but when your attacking game plan encompasses Schalk Burger standing at first receiver and crashing the ball up, you know you aren’t going to score many five-pointers .The Cape-based side will host a team that knows how to cross the whitewash this weekend.
The Brumbies have been immaculate on attack this term. They’ve managed to run in 15 tries in the opening three rounds. Their backs are capable of launching long-range counter attacks as well as opening up opposition midfields with well-worked moves. Their forwards have also been a class apart. Their driving maul is probably the best in the competition while their lineout and scrum have been rock solid.
In terms of team news for this one, Robbie Fleck is yet to announce his side at the time of writing but I expect he'll announce a very similar squad to the one that went down to the Sharks last week, although, Leolin Zaas may miss out as he looked to have sustained a nasty injury against the Sharks. Steven Larkham is also yet to announce his side, but I can’t see him making any unforced changes for this one.
Verdict: Brumbies (-1.5) 9/10
The Brumbies are simply a different class to the Stormers and I can see them cantering to victory at Newlands. I recommend getting on the Brumbies to clear this low handicap as soon as you can as it’s likely to increase within the next 24 hours.
Lions v Cheetahs | Saturday 19 March | Emirates Airlines Park | 17:05
To Win (80 Mins)
Lions 2/9 | Draw 25/1 | Cheetahs 3/1
Lions (-10.5) 9/10 | Cheetahs (+10.5) 9/10
The Cheetahs and the Lions will square off this Saturday in what’s sure to be a high-scoring affair. The duo both play an attacking brand of rugby, with neither backline shy of giving the ball some air and running from deep inside their own half.
The hosts for this one had their unbeaten run in the tournament come to an abrupt halt last week at the hands of the Highlanders. Despite ending their tour with a 34-15 defeat, Johan Ackerman will be extremely satisfied with his charges' overseas venture. His side also have the luxury of not having to leave the country until the final round of the conference stage.
The Cheetahs snapped their two-match losing streak last weekend with a come from behind victory over the Sunwolves in Singapore. Having gone into the half time break 15 points down, the Cheetahs faced a mammoth task to get back into the game. However, you can never discount a Cheetahs side, especially when a game is open ended. The men from Bloemfontein threw everything at the Sunwolves faltering defense and were rewarded with a narrow two-point victory.
Neither coach is yet to announce his starting line-up for this clash at the time of writing, but we may well see a few changes. The Lions will have Lionel Mapoe back in contention and I think Ackermann will be tempted to bring him back into the starting XV. One man who won't play a part in this fixture is Warwick Tecklenburg. The Lions flanker copped a one-week ban for a less than cautious entry into a ruck against the Highlanders.
Verdict: Lions (-10.5) 9/10
The Lions have a lot more quality than the Cheetahs. They’re also in front of their home crowd this weekend and I can see them handing their opponents an absolute hiding this Saturday.
Jaguares v Chiefs | Saturday 19 March |Estadio Jose Amalfitani | 23:40
To Win (80 Mins)
Jaguares 7/10 | Draw 20/1 | Chiefs 11/10
Jaguares (-2.5) 9/10 | Chiefs (+2.5) 9/10
Argentina will get its’ first taste of Super Rugby this weekend with the Chiefs coming to town. The hosts for this fixture enjoyed a bye last week and will be raring to go. While the Argentines were watching proceedings from the comfort of their couches, the Chiefs were putting on an exhibition of attacking rugby down in East London.
The New Zealanders, who came to South Africa off the back of a defeat to the Lions, ran in six tries on their way to hammering the Kings by 34 points. This weekend will be a much sterner test for the Waikato side especially with them having to journey to a completely foreign environment that no Super Rugby team is yet to traverse.
Neither coach has announced his match-day 23 at the time of writing but the Chiefs are likely to make a few changes to the team that ran the Kings rampant. One of which, should see Hika Elliot return to the starting hooker berth in place of Rhys Marshall.
Verdict: Jaguares (-2.5) 9/10
I think home ground advantage will see the Jaguares claim a famous win in front of a partisan crowd in Buenos Aires.
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