Written by @QuintenLetcher for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!
This year’s Super Rugby action kicked into full swing in Round 2 with the Australian and New Zealand sides making a fervent entrance over the weekend, and, thanks to a few interesting results, we’ve been left with more questions than answers regarding where the real danger lies this season. Round 3 promises to provide us with a slightly better idea of how the teams are going to fare in 2014, with all the sides, bar the Rebels, having now had the chance to shake off the rust that accumulated over the off-season. As far as match-ups go, I think it is pretty safe to say that this week’s fixture list is one of the tamest possible in this brutal competition, but, then again, that roughly equates to a round packed with potential upsets. It is rounds like this one where the brave punters make the money.
Blues vs Crusaders | Friday 28 February | Eden Park | 08:35
There’s nothing better than a good old fashioned Kiwi derby to kick off your Friday morning, and with both sides still looking for that first taste of victory, I expect it’ll be a fierce affair.
To Win (80mins)
Blues (+4.5) 9/10
Crusaders (-4.5) 9/10
The Blues suffered a shock defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin last week and so will now be desperate for a home victory over the Crusaders to put them in good stead ahead of their trip over to South Africa in Round 4. Battling to find the perfect playmaker, Sir John Kirwan has backed uncapped Simon Hickey at flyhalf this week, leaving Benji Marshall on the bench. Tevita Li makes his starting XV debut on the left wing, taking over from George Moala, who shifts inside to centre for the injured Francis Saili. The side welcomes back two All Black veterans as Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock are named on the bench.
The Crusaders suffered a 10-18 loss to the Chiefs in their opening game of the season, prompting coach Todd Blackadder to make some controversial changes ahead of this weekend’s clash with the Blues. Israel Dagg, Johnny McNicholl and Tyler Bleyendaal have all been dropped following last week’s poor performance. Colin Slade will start at the back while Tom Taylor will pull on the number ten jersey following Bleyendaal’s poor showing with the boot last weekend. Captain Kieran Read returns to the starting lineup to join Richie McCaw and George Whitlock at the back of the scrum.
VERDICT: Crusaders (-4.5) 9/10
The Crusaders have a more settled side running out this week and as a result, should clear the handicap easily. Crusaders by seven.
Rebels vs Cheetahs | Friday 28 February | AAMI Park | 10:40
The Cheetahs take to the road for the next four weeks, hoping to secure similar results to those from their impressive 2013 Australasian-leg.
To Win (80mins)
Rebels (+3.5) 9/10
Cheetahs (-3.5) 9/10
The Rebels kick off their Super Rugby season at AAMI park on Friday, with several players making their first appearances for the mediocre Australian club. Youngster Sean McMahon has been named to start blindside flanker, while upfront former Chiefs prop Toby Smith will join Pat Leafa and Laurie Weeks in the Rebels’ front row, and so will suffer the misfortune of having to scrum against a hardened Cheetahs pack this weekend.
Feeling satisfied with his team’s performance last week that secured their first ever Super Rugby victory over the Bulls, Naka Drotske has named an unchanged side for the third time in as many weeks for their upcoming clash with the Rebels. But I suppose with Willie le Roux, Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen, Raymond Rhule and Johan Goosen in your starting XV, naming an unchanged side week after week seems like the only logical thing to do.
VERDICT: Cheetahs (-3.5) 9/10
The Cheetahs have proved they travel well, so an average Rebels side is not going to pose too much of a challenge. We haven’t really seen the Cheetahs at their best yet. But with the powerful side they are running out with at the moment I pity the team that meets them when they start hitting the levels of last season. The Cheetahs by seven.
Stormers vs Hurricanes | Friday 28 February | Newlands | 19:10
Having both suffered telling defeats in the second round, a loss in Cape Town this Friday is not really an option for either side.
To Win (80mins)
Stormers (-6.5) 9/10
Hurricanes (+6.5) 9/10
The Stormers suffered a humiliating 34-10 loss to the Lions at Ellis Park last week, but despite the side’s dismal performance in Johannesburg, coach Allister Coetzee has decided to keep his run on side relatively untouched. Michael van der Spuy is the only player axed from the starting XV, making way for the return of Jaco Taute. Taute will start at fullback against the Hurricanes, with Gio Aplon shifting to the wing. Damian de Allende moves into centre to team up with Springbok Jean de Villiers.
The Hurricanes had the misfortune of running into a well-oiled Sharks side in Durban last Saturday, but will fancy their chances of bouncing back against the Stormers in Cape Town after seeing how ineffective they were against returning Super Rugby side the Lions. Only two changes to the side this week, both in the forwards, as All Black prop John Schwalger takes over from Jeffery Toomaga-Allen at tighthead and Mark Reddish takes over at lock from Mark Abbott.
VERDICT: Stormers (-6.5) 9/10
The Stormers have always been near invincible at home. It would be unwise to judge them based on their first clash of the season. They will have addressed most of the issues that cost them last week, and won’t want to tarnish their beloved home record. The Stormers by ten.
Chiefs vs Highlanders | Saturday 01 March | Waikato Stadium | 08:35
The Chiefs host the high-flying Highlanders this week in what looks set to be the weekend’s most explosive showpiece.
To Win (80mins)
Chiefs (-7.5) 9/10
Highlanders (+7.5) 9/10
The defending champions opened up the season with an impressive victory over the Crusaders, but they are now feeling the cost of that hard fought win in Christchurch. Having lost Ben Afeaki, Brodie Retalick, Kane Thompson, and Tevita Koloamatangi during the match, they could find their depth in several positions being tested this week considering the lengthy injury list they already had going into last week’s clash.
The Highlanders currently lead the New Zealand conference, having brushed aside the Blues in Dunedin thanks to a mesmerizing first half performance that saw Jamie Joseph’s charges surge to an impressive 21-0 lead at the break. Holding off a relentless Blues’ fightback in the second half, the Highlanders managed to slide across the whitewash one more time to collect the useful bonus point, getting their campaign off to the best possible start.
VERDICT: Chiefs (-7.5) 9/10
The Chiefs are looking strong, despite their growing injury list. The Highlanders did pull off a convincing win, but the Blues are far from their best at the moment, yet still had the Highlanders looking desperate in the second half. The Chiefs by ten.
Waratahs vs Reds | Saturday 01 March | ANZ Stadium | 10:40
Judging by the phenomenal performances from these two sides last weekend, Saturday’s showdown in New South Wales will be far from the mediocre Aussie derby we’ve become accustomed to over the years.
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-5.5) 9/10
Reds (+5.5) 9/10
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika has named 21-year-old Jacques Potgieter to start at lock against the Reds, with Will Skelton dropping to the bench in the only change to the side that picked up an invaluable bonus point victory against the Force last week. Nick Phipps, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley will continue in their menacing offensive antics this week, while captain Dave Dennis will continue on the flank despite carrying a minor knee injury at the moment.
Reds coach Richard Graham has retained the side that took down last year’s losing finalists in Canberra. Will Genia and Quade Cooper will feed a lethal backline made up of Dom Shipperley, Mike Harris, Ben Tapuai, Lachie Turner and Aidan Toua, while up front, captain James Horwill has the likes of Rob Simmons, Eddie Quirk and Liam Gill to ensure the Waratahs don’t have too much say at the breakdowns and set pieces.
VERDICT: Reds (+5.5) 9/10
This will be a close one, but the Reds are looking like the pick of the Aussies thus far. The Reds at 18/10 is looking quite appetising, but with a +5.5 handicap at 9/10 to help insure against an off day for Cooper and Co, I’ll throw my money on the conservative bet. The Reds by three.
Force vs Brumbies | Saturday 1 March| NIB Stadium | 13:00
Following their loss to the Reds, last year’s losing finalists will be aiming to get their 2014 campaign back on track when they run out against a feeble looking Force outfit.
To Win (80mins)
Force (+6.5) 9/10
Brumbies (-6.5) 9/10
The Force have some serious work to do on their almost non-existent defence, that allowed a worrying six tries through against the Waratahs, if they want to avoid another humiliating defeat against a powerful Brumbies side this Saturday. Holding back on their team announcements, it would seem some changes are on the way, but considering their failure in defence last week was a full team effort it is difficult to guess where coach Michael Foley would even begin.
Not only will the Brumbies be looking to bounce back from their opening round defeat to the Reds, but they’ll be looking to exact revenge for last year’s final round shock defeat to the Force that put the Brumbies on the back foot for the knockout stages of the competition. And with the Waratahs having already softened the Force up for the side from Canberra, they’ll surely fancy their chances.
VERDICT: Brumbies (-6.5) 9/10
The Brumbies will be looking for a bonus point victory, so I don’t see them battling with the handicap in this game. The Brumbies by twelve.
Bulls v Lions | Saturday 01 March | Loftus Versfeld | 17:05
The South African conference in general has been unpredictable so far this season. So when an inexplicably prosperous Lions side heads into Pretoria to have a crack at the underperforming Bulls, all bets are off.
To Win (80mins)
Bulls (-6.5) 9/10
Lions (+6.5) 9/10
Following their rocky start to the competition, the once revered Bulls have pulled veteran Springbok Victor Matfield into the starting lineup in one of four changes to the side that suffered their first Super Rugby defeat to the Cheetahs. Jacques-Louis Potgieter earns his first start at flyhalf since 2010, with the other two changes taking place in the forwards with Grant Hattingh taking over at eight and Frik Kirsten starting at tighthead.
The Lions have made their return to Super Rugby a well known one, having already picked up two impressive wins. They set off for Pretoria looking to make it three from three, and judging by recent form they have every reason to believe they can pull it off. Vice-captain Derick Minnie picked up a fractured cheekbone in the side’s only casualty from their impressive 34-10 victory over the Stormers last week, so I don’t imagine we’ll see many changes to the run on side.
VERDICT: Lions 19/10
Considering what they have pulled off so far this season it seems that missing up on this 19/10 offer would be inexcusable. The Bulls have to bounce back eventually, and the Lions will eventually run out of luck, but I’m hoping it can wait another week. The Lions by five.