Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!
The seventh week of the 2016 Super Rugby season is upon us, and for some of the franchises, it’s a week that could have a massive bearing on their respective campaigns.
Friday will see three fixtures take place, the first of which is an all-New Zealand affair with the Chiefs taking on the Blues in Waikato. We then head across the Tasman for a clash between a plucky Western Force outfit and a Crusaders side who are coming off the black of a highly successful tour of South Africa. Our final game of the day will see an injury-ravaged Stormers side host the still winless Sunwolves.
Chiefs v Blues | Friday 8 April | FMG Stadium Waikato | 09:35
To Win (80 Mins)
Chiefs 1/5 | Draw 25/1 | Blues 33/10
Chiefs (-11.5) 9/10 | Blues (+11.5) 9/10
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’d just like to comment on Damian McKenzie. The diminutive fullback has set the tournament alight thus far. He is the embodiment of what a Super Rugby back should be and illustrates why there is such a gulf in class between backs representing the New Zealand franchises and those that turn out for the South African sides.
He would not be able to demonstrate his skill set were it not for the style of play that is encouraged by the New Zealand franchise coaches. Two of the most positive minded mentors in New Zealand rugby will square off this weekend. Mckenzie’s coach, Dave Rennie, and Blues boss, Tana Umaga, have got their charges playing an attractive brand of rugby, although, it must be stated that Rennie's men are having a lot more success than their counterparts.
The men from Waikato racked up their sixth win of the tournament last weekend with an impressive 25 point drubbing of the Brumbies in Canberra. The 23-48 result has seen the Chiefs pull 7 points clear at the top of the Australasian Conference - although they do have the Highlanders breathing down their necks on the New Zealand Conference. With the Highlanders likely to gain a full points haul from their clash with the Reds on Saturday, the Chiefs will be going all out to get a bonus point win over the Blues.
While Rennie’s men have currently have a points differential of +108, their opponents for this weekend have a -9 differential. The Blues currently average just over 22 points for per game, which is not bad going but falls well short of the standards set by the former All Black skipper early on in the season. What will be frustrating Umaga even more, is that his side have had a chance to win all of their fixtures – excluding the game against the Crusaders where they were outclassed and went down by 15 points. Having taken a substantial lead into the half-time break during their round 4 fixture against the Reds, the men from Auckland conspired to draw the game. Round 3 also saw them fail to take advantage of an opportunity to win a game. Having trailed the Hurricanes for the majority of the 80 minutes, the Blues were given a penalty on the stroke of the final whistle, they kicked the ball into touch and set line out after line out but failed to get past a Hurricanes defensive line that was a player short.
The Blues did manage to avoid the self-destruct button last week, although, it must be noted that it was against a severely depleted Jaguares side. The 24-16 victory may not have moved them up any places on the New Zealand Conference log but it hopefully gave them a morale boost.
While last week’s victory may have lifted the Blues' spirits, they’re likely to be a bit deflated after seeing the Chiefs matchday 23. Locks Dominic Bird and Brodie Retallick will both return to the starting XV which means the Chiefs lineout, which has been a slight area of weakness, will be back to it’s best. Rettalick is joined in the matchday 23 by fellow All Black Tawerra Kerr-Barlow. On the Blues side of things, Tana Umaga has made two changes with lock Hoani Matenga being handed a Super Rugby debut and prop Sam Praterly being given his first start of the 2016 campaign.
Verdict: Chiefs (-11.5) 9/10
I can see the Chiefs putting twenty points past their local rivals in what should be a rather open affair. If you’re looking for an almost guaranteed return though, I would take them to clear the -11.5 handicap at 9/10.
Force v Crusaders | Friday 8 April | nib Stadium | 13:00
To Win (80 Mins)
Force 28/10 | Draw 25/1 | Crusaders 1/4
Force (+10.5) 9/10 | Crusaders (-10.5) 9/10
Having enjoyed a stellar jaunt to South Africa, the Crusaders will be looking to cap off their tour with a third consecutive victory. The men who stand in their way have shown a lot of grit in recent weeks however, and will be no pushovers.
The Force really impressed me last week against the Highlanders. I had proclaimed to anyone that would listen that the New Zealanders would canter past the -18.5 handicap. How wrong I was. The Force had managed to keep the scoreline within 12 points when all was said and done at Forsyth Barr. While they didn’t garner a losing bonus point, the result would have been viewed as a resounding success by all those involved in the Force setup. I mean the defending champions are in great form and to keep them within a twelve point victory margin is a massive achievement for a side who are likely to be sitting in the mid to lower half of the Overall Conference come the close of the season.
While the Force secured their first victory of the season last weekend, the Crusaders notched up their fourth. The men from Canterbury came out on top in a high-scoring affair with the Lions last Friday evening. The 37-43 victory was moved the Crusaders within 4 points of the second-placed Highlanders on the New Zealand and only a further 2 points behind the Chiefs. The ‘Saders are rather well placed at this point in the season as they still have a game in hand and their remaining fixtures are all taking place in Australasia.
In terms of team news for this one, the hosts will welcome back lock Steve Mafi. The only other change is to the reserves bench with former Western Province loosehead Francois van Wyk getting a spot on the pine. Todd Blackadder has done a lot more tweaking to his side than his counterpart. The Crusaders mentor has made five changes to his starting XV. Sam Whitelock and Jordan Taffuoa come into the forward pack while Mitchell Drummond, Sean Wanui, and Ben Volavola coming into the backline.
Verdict: Force (+10.5) 9/10
The Force just seem to get better with each passing week and I think the Crusaders may be a bit leggy coming off the back of a successful but testing tour. Back the hosts to stay within the +10.5 margin at 9/10.
Stormers v Sunwolves | Friday 8 April | DHL Newlands | 19:00
To Win (80 Mins)
Stormers 1/25 | Draw 40/1 | Sunwolves 8/1
Stormers (-24.5) 9/10 | Sunwolves (+24.5) 9/10
The Stormers were handed devastating news this week with pivot Kurt Coleman being ruled out of the remainder of the tournament with an ACL tear. Coleman is the second Stormers flyhalf to be sidelined this season with the impressive Robert du Preez sustaining a knee injury in mid-March. These injuries have severely hamstrung the Western Cape-based franchise as their only backup pivots are inexperienced, to say the least.
Despite the massive injury blow, the Stormers are likely to come into this one a reinvigorated bunch. They had the week off last weekend and their previous outing saw them down the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. They will also welcome back Springbok centre Damian de Allende. The fleet-footed twelve had enjoyed a fantastic 2015 and if he can hit the ground running this term then he will bolster a Stormers backline that has been torn apart by injuries.
While the Stormers’ squad enjoyed a weekend of R’n’R, their opponents were involved in a battle of note with the Kings. The Japenese franchise gave it their all at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium but only managed to claim a losing bonus point for all their endeavour. Last week’s loss has left the Sunwolves as the only side yet to win a game this season. This trend is likely to continue as they are coming up against a Stormers side who, while affected by injury, are still a quality outfit.
As I mentioned earlier, the Stormers are now scraping the bottom of the bucket for fit flyhavles. Coleman’s place in the starting line-up will be filled by young gun Jean-Luc du Plessis. The Stormers will actually field an entirely new halfback combination with scrumhalf Louis Schreuder coming in for the injured Nic Groom. The Blue and Whites will also be without talismanic lock Eben Ethzebeth due to injury. The big man’s place in the second row will be taken by JD Schickerling. It’s not all doom and gloom for Robbie Fleck, however, as both Damian de Allende and flanker Rynart Elstadt will make their returns, albeit from the bench.
Verdict: Stormers (-24.5) 9/10
It’ a large margin, and yes the Stormers have been dealt some injury blows, but I still fancy the South Africans to clear it. The Sunwolves look like they are starting to feel the effects of Super Rugby and I can see them shipping a plethora of points in the second half.
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