We preview Saturday’s five Super Rugby clashes, including the headline game between the Lions and Sharks.Rugby fans are in for a treat this Saturday with five Super Rugby fixtures as well as two European Rugby Champions Cup games set to take place. The pick of the Saturday’s action sees the Lions and Sharks square off in what should be a captivating local derby. Elsewhere, the Bulls will be looking to pull off a shock result when they take on the Chiefs, while the Stormers and Cheetahs renew their long-running rivalry when they lock horns at Newlands in Saturday's penultimate fixture.
Blues v Force | Saturday 1 April | Eden Park | 06:15
To Win (80 Mins)
Blues 1/25 | Draw 33/1 | Force 9/1
Blues (-22.5) 9/10 | Force (+22.5) 9/10
Our first port of call this Saturday is Eden Park, where the Blues will be looking to claim back-to-back wins over foreign opposition. The hosts come into this one off the back of an impressive second-half display where they ran in five tries to beat the Bulls 38-14.
The Force make the short trip from Canterbury to Auckland having been hammered by the Crusaders 45-17 last Friday. They will once again be without the mercurial Dane Haylett-Petty but the return of Bill Meakes has given their back division a bit more threat. Meakes will be joined in the run on XV by fellow returnee, Matt Hodgson. The flanker has been a mainstay for the Force and his ability to make an absolute nuisance of himself at the breakdown could help stem the Blue attacking tide that is likely to roll in during the second half.
The hosts have also made a few changes with former New Zealand under 20 representative TJ Faiane set to don the 12 jersey. His elevation to the starting XV sees George Moala shift to outside centre and Rieko Ioane move to the bench.
Verdict: Blues (-22.5) 9/10
It’s another big handicap which I think will be cleared. The Blues have a high-quality bench to call upon later in the game and I fully expect to see a late show from Umaga's men.
Chiefs v Bulls | Saturday 1 April | FMG Stadium | 08:35
To Win (80 Mins)
Chiefs 1/33 | Draw 33/1 | Bulls 17/2
Chiefs (-21.5) 9/10 | Bulls (+21.5) 9/10
The Bulls are in for a long night in Waikato if they play like they did against the Blues. Rookie mistakes, lack of creativity on attack and what seems to be some form of identity crisis have hampered the men from Pretoria this term. While coach, Nollis Marais has preached an attacking game plan for the better part of two-and-a-half-years now, his charges seem unable or perhaps too afraid to have a real go with ball in hand. It’s actually rather mind-boggling as they have shown attacking ability in the last two Currie Cup seasons.
While the Bulls are a timid lot when it comes to running the ball, their opponents for this weekend love nothing more than having a go from deep inside their own territory. They come into this one fresh off the back of a bye, which means they’ll be even more eager to have a crack from the outset than they usually are.
Both coaches have opted to make changes for this one with Marais bringing Arnold Botha, Burger Odendaal, Rudy Paige, RG Snyman and Pierre Schoeman while Jesse Kriel moves to fullback with Warrick Gelant dropping to the bench. On the Chiefs side of the coin, Aaron Cruden makes a return at 10 with Johnny Faauli com into the centres to partner All Black, Anton Leinart-Brown.
Verdict: Chiefs (-21.5)
I can’t see the Bulls turning things around at this juncture. They have a quality side on paper but are yet to click. My money is on the Chiefs heaping on the misery this Friday.
Reds v Hurricanes | Saturday 1 April | Suncorp Stadium | 10:45
To Win (80 Mins)
Reds 13/2 | Draw 33/1 | Hurricanes 1/14
Reds (+15.5) 9/10 | Hurricanes (-15.5) 9/10
It was rather strange to have a weekend pass without either the Chiefs or Hurricanes kicking a ball in anger. Both sides are effectively the poster boys for the Super Rugby brand with their run at all costs mantras capturing the imaginations of rugby fans the world over. We are likely to be reminded of just how spectacular the Hurricanes can be with ball in hand as they are taking on what will be a travel weary Reds outfit.
The hosts for Saturday’s encounter have just returned home from a tour from hell which saw them fly from South Africa to Buenos Aires and finally back to Australia. Their reward for making this heralding journey; a suspended fly-half and zero additional log points.
Verdict: Hurricanes (-15.5) 9/10
The Reds have managed to claim a few big New Zealand scalps at Suncorp. And they did run the Crusaders close before they departed for South African shores. But can you honestly see this Reds side claiming a point from Saturday’s clash with the red-hot ‘Canes? I certainly can’t. Get on the away side to clear the -15.5 handicap with confidence.
Stormers v Cheetahs | Saturday 1 April | DHL Newlands | 15:05
To Win (80 Mins)
Stormers 2/11 | Draw 28/1 | Cheetahs 7/2
Stormers (-15.5) 9/10 | Cheetahs (+12.5) 9/10
The first of Saturday’s two South African derbies see the high-flying Stormers take on the beleaguered Cheetahs down in Cape Town. The hosts have just come back from a short trip across to Singapore where they managed to beat a spirited Sunwolves side 31-44, while the visitors make the trip down to the Cape having lost a see-saw battle to the Sharks.
Both sides are facing injury crises in the centre department with the Cheetahs still missing Willam Smal-Smit and Clinton Swart, while the Stormers are without Juan de Jongh, Huw Jones and Damian de Allende with the trio facing long-term layoffs.
Speaking of injuries, Francois Venter has been declared fit to play after being touch and go for the majority of the week. The Cheetahs skipper will be partnered in the centres by Niel Marais, with Marais, who generally plays as a fly-half, coming in for Nico Lee. While the Stormers will start with 'Baby Bok' Cobus Wiese in their pack.
Verdict: Cheetahs (+12.5) 9/10
It’s got to turn for the Cheetahs at some point. They aren’t a bad side and they showed some positive signs against the Sharks. If they can get their exit plays right, and 'Lady Luck' shows a bit of love, then they may just get an unexpected win this Saturday. My advice, though, is to have a moderate strike on the Cheetahs plus and then have a small go on the straight win.
Lions v Sharks | Saturday 1 April | Emirates Airline Park | 17:05
To Win (80 Mins)
Lions 2/9 | Draw 25/1 | Sharks 31/10
Lions (-9.5) 9/10 | Sharks (+9.5) 9/10
The powers that be have certainly saved the best for last this Saturday with the Lions and Sharks set to put on an epic show in day’s final fixture. Both teams come into this one off the back of victories with the Sharks seeing off the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and the Lions beating a gutsy Kings outfit down in Port Elizabeth.
The Lions have an extremely impressive record against local opposition and they managed a double over the Sharks last term. The Natalians have come on in leaps and bounds over the past 12 months or so and should offer a much tougher test this time around, however.
In terms of team news, Lions mentor, Johan Ackermann, has named an unchanged matchday 23, although, Lionel Mapoe has been bracketed with Harold Vorster. Unlike Ackermann, Sharks head coach, Robert du Preez has been forced to make a few changes with Thomas du Toit coming in for Beast Mtawarira, who misses out due to a family bereavement. Other changes to the Sharks run-on XV see Garth April come in at fullback and Tera Mtembu occupying the openside flank berth.
Verdict: Lions (-9.5) 9/10
The first half is likely to be a rather cagey affair and I don’t think much will separate the sides when they head into the break. I do think the Lions experience will come to the fore in the second half, however, which should see them clear the cap.