Super Rugby 2017: Round 1 Preview (Friday)


We preview Friday’s two Super Rugby games which see the Highlanders take on the Chiefs and the Sharks play the Reds.

Super Rugby is back with a bang, and rugby fans the world over could not be happier with months of European domestic rugby having taken their toll on even the most seasoned of rugby punters' wallets. While we’ll already be a game deep into the tournament by the time Friday rolls around, Friday’s double-bill looks a whole lot tastier than Thursday's light snack with the Highlanders and Chiefs squaring off and the Sharks taking on a much improved Reds side.

Highlanders v Chiefs | Friday 24 February | Forsyth Barr | 08:35

To Win (80 Mins)
Highlanders 6/10 | Draw 22/1 | Chiefs 14/10 
Highlanders (-3.5) 9/10 | Chiefs (+3.5) 9/10
The Chiefs will look to inflict a spot of revenge when they travel south to take on the Highlanders. The visitors were soundly beaten in the round robin phase last year going down 25-15. That was the sixth successive defeat the chiefs have had inflicted upon them by the Highlanders, with four of those losses coming in Dunedin.

This will be Chiefs' head coach Dave Rennie’s final season in charge before he takes over the head coaching role at the Glasgow Warriors. Rennie has overseen the Chiefs' most successful period in Super Rugby and you can bet your bottom dollar that the big man will be going all out to secure his third Super Rugby title.

His quest will be slightly hindered by the absence of Sam Kane though, with the talismanic co-captain set to miss the opening round due to an ankle injury. The All Black stalwart is replaced in the starting XV by fellow Bay of Plenty representative, Mitch Karpik, who is one of the three Chiefs Super Rugby debutants in run on XV, with centre Johnny Faauli and former Crusaders prop Nepo Lalua also marking their Chiefs debuts

The 2015 champions saw their title defence come to an end at Ellis Park by a red-hot Lions side. There’s no disgrace in being knocked out of the tournament at the semi-final stage, however, and the men from Dunedin will have learnt a hell of a lot from their last campaign. They have a new head coach in the form Tony Brown, and the former fly-half will be looking to get his tenure off to a winning start.

Brown was known as a bit of a maverick during his playing career and he’s shown no sign of kerbing that mannerism by naming off-season recruit Tevita Li in the starting XV. The former Blues utility back was in sensational form last season and will pose a massive attacking threat from the wing.

Verdict: Highlanders 6/10
Both sides are missing a few of their stalwarts which slightly dilutes this affair. It should still prove to be a decent game to watch but I’d be a bit worried about having a huge strike on it as the absence of the seniors could see some rash decisions made by both teams. I’m going to be cautious here with my stake and throw R30 on a straight Highlanders win as I believe there are more secure bets on offer this weekend.

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Reds v Sharks | Friday 24 February | Suncorp Stadium | 11:00

To Win (80 Mins)
Reds 11/20 | Draw 20/1 | Sharks 16/10
Reds (-4.5) 9/10 | Sharks (+4.5) 9/10
The Reds were probably the most proactive of all the teams in the tournament when it came to off-season recruitment. Coach Nick Styles brought in a whole host of players including Wallaby veteran George Smith, Reds legend Quade Cooper and Wallaby skipper Steven Moore. Cooper wasn’t the only player to rejoin the Reds with Scott Higginbotham also making a return to Brisbane.

Stiles has had no hesitation in naming all four of the aforementioned players in his run on XV. While there’s a heap of experience in the Reds run on side, their bench has a much more youthful look to it with three debutants set to sit on the pine this Friday.

Like their counterparts, the Sharks have seen their stock fall in recent years. Newly installed head coach Robert du Preez has been the man tasked with reviving the Natalians fortunes in the competition. The former Springbok nine has been hard at work getting his troops ready for the campaign and has promised to implement a more aesthetic style of play this term.

While I fully appreciate Du Preez bold words about implementing a more expansive game plan, his actual team selection doesn’t complement his promise. Whether it’s lip service – every South African Super Rugby coach talks about playing a more attacking brand of rugby leading up to the tournament– or he’s simply exercising caution in the opening round is up for debate. One thing that is for sure, though, a midfield combination of Lukhanyo Am and Andries Esterhuizen will not set the competition alight with ball in hand. I’ve got nothing against the two centres as they are both fine players but I think a midfield pairing of Jeremy Ward and Cobus van Wyk would be exponentially more threatening.

Verdict: Reds (-4.5) 9/10
I really hope I’m proved wrong but I think Du Preez has missed a trick here fielding Esterhuizen and Am in the centres. Samu Kerevi is a class act and both he and Chris Kuridrani, who gets a start on the right wing for the Reds, will look to target Am’s channel. While Esterhuizen is a solid tackler, his over exuberance often compromises a backline's defensive structure. I can see the Reds capitalising on the Sharks midfield errors and going on to take this one by between 5 and 10 points.

Written by Darry Worthington for!

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