Qualifiers – Super Rugby 2014

This season has seen a 71% home win rate in Super Rugby, higher than the 63% average rate between 1996-2010 and the 59% in the 3 seasons since the conference system was used.

Looking at the away games this year against non-conference teams – New Zealand sides won 7/20 games, Australian teams 5/20 and South African teams 3/20. Of those 15 combined wins, only 4 were against teams ranked higher on the table – Sharks at Crusaders, Highlanders at Sharks, Blues at Force and Force at Highlanders. That fits in with the 4 away upset wins last season and 3 in 2012.

The changes to the competition in 2011 saw a round of qualifying matches introduced before the traditional semi-final stage and the hosts have won 5/6 of them so far, by an average score of 27-14.

That 1 home qualifier loss saw the Sharks beat the Reds, however it is also true that while the South African side were placed in 6th and Reds in 3rd – they actually picked up 1 more competition point. Conference rules meant the Reds, as top ranked Australian side were put above the Crusaders, Bulls and Sharks that year.

Over a longer period it will be interesting to see what effect the conferences and this extra play-off round has the on semi-finals. Between 1996-2010, the home side won 26/30 semi-finals by an average score of 31-20 and 16 in a row from 2003 by an average score of 31-16. Since 2011, it has been 3/6 wins by 20-22.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brumbies vs Chiefs

The Brumbies improved from 13th in 2011, to 7th in 2012 (missing out on the AUS conference and playoffs due to a final round home loss) to 3rd and losing finalists last season. However, unusually for a side on the up and with players committing their futures, there has been plenty of change at the top of the organisation.

Jake White departed for the Sharks, CEO Andrew Fagan resigned and ended up in the ARU, captain Ben Mowen announced he would be leaving for Montpellier and most recently Laurie Fisher’s move to Gloucester was confirmed.

They won 10 and drew 2 games last season, scoring 430 points and conceding 295. This year it has been 10 wins, with 412 scored and 378 allowed. The round 1 home loss against the Reds and round 6 defeat at Rebels (after leading 6-17 after 47 mins) will probably be looked back as games that cost them a chance at the conference, but even they had been won them – it may not have been enough to catch the high-scoring Tahs.

Brumbies have won 7/8 home games this season by an average score of 30-17 and kept opponents to 6 points or less 1st half in the last 5 games there. Of relevance for this match is that also have kept Chiefs to 6,9,9 and 3 points in the 1st half in last 4 meetings.

A strong start has been pretty common in Brumbies games in recent years and they have only trailed at halftime in 1/17 home matches since 2013. The HT/FT has landed in 9 of their last 10 home games.

A tactic of getting in front early and then squeezing out an opponent has proved successful for teams and is certainly a useful ability to have when going into knockout games. The Brumbies have taken some criticism in the past for kicking too much, but they have looked to attack more often this season and as Mowen pointed out after the Force win, they do have a skilful backline. They may also feel that due to injuries, they now have better bench options as squad players have seen more game-time this season than may have been expected.

They have won 7/8 previous home knockout games, with the exception being a point loss against Crusaders in 2000 final. They were big favourites going into the match against the Cheetahs last season at this stage, but were outscored 2 tries to 0 and ended up a missed conversion away from being taken into extra time.

Brumbies have won 8/11 home games against the Chiefs by an average score of 35-23. They have led at HT in 4 of the previous 5 games at all venues against this opposition (exception was a draw at HT) but been outscored 2nd half in 3/5 matches. Chiefs have scored 17 or more points 2nd half against the Brumbies in the last 4 meetings.

The hosts were outscored 2nd half in 10/19 matches last season and in 9/16 so far this campaign. That perhaps is to be expected with teams that are capable of building early leads and then defending.

The Brumbies have conceded 19/35 tries in the final quarter of matches, while the Chiefs have scored 18/44 in the last 20 minutes.

Chiefs Brumbies

In last year’s final, Chiefs scored against Brumbies in the 63rd and 67th minute, in 2012 in the 68th and 78th minute and in 2011 the tries came in the 51st, 56th and 80th minute. This season, the Chiefs tries came in the 73rd and 78th minute.

One of the considerations for this match is how much emphasis should be put on the 41-23 result from April. That game was the first opportunity for the Brumbies to gain some revenge for losing the final in 2013, they were fresh – having been on the bye the week before and there was also Anzac Day to motivate the players. They wore a one-off shirt for the match and had an inspirational talk from former soldier Curtis McGrath, who is now training for the Rio Paralympics.

While Mowen has said that last year’s final remains a motivation, there may have been an emotional shift and now it’s the Chiefs looking for some payback. The visitors were also without Cruden and Latimer in that game, so will be putting out a better team this time.

Chiefs finished top in 2013, winning 12 game and scoring 458 points, conceding 364. This year it has been 8 wins,2 draws with 384 points scored and 378 allowed (same as Brumbies). Retaining a title for a 3rd year will have needed a different mental challenge to the other campaigns but the biggest factor this season has probably been injuries.

The visitors averaged 5 changes to the starting line up each round and a lack of continuity in the backline might explain the drop in points scored. There were 10 different centre pairing used in the 16 games, with the most used being Aki and Horrell 3 times. At halfback there were 4 different combos, with Kerr-Barlow & Cruden appearing most often with 7 appearances, while the back3 was changed 14 times.

The last few rounds have seen some much needed stability in selection and with Cruden back, it might be that for the first time this season the coaches are close to naming their strongest available side. As with other big games though, Rennie and the coaching staff are also happy to make a change and adapt to their opponent. In this case it is Sweeney at 15. He started at fullback in 7 of his 52 Chiefs games – but all of those were in 2007. Since then he has made 13 starts on the left wing, 12 at inside centre, 10 at outside centre and 9 on the right wing. Rennie has praised his communication, influence and ability to counterattack from the expected Brumbies kicks.

There have been some wobbles at the set piece and that will have been noted by the hosts, who can call upon a more reliable lineout (88% success compared to 81%). The absence of Moore does reduce that difference though and its also true the Brumbies scrum has the lowest success rate in the competition.

Having won 6 away matches in 2012 and 5 in 2013, there was a drop this season with just the 2 Chiefs away victories (at Crusaders and Blues) and 2 draws in South Africa. In the last couple of years they have only won 2/8 away games outside of New Zealand – against the Kings and Rebels. They have scored 9 points or less 1st half in 5/8 away matches this season.

In the Waikato Times, Dave Rennie was quoted this week saying: ”There is no doubt our guys, when they play the Kiwi sides, get up big time. They’ve got a lot of mates in the teams, there’s a lot of history and that sort of thing and while we certainly don’t disrespect the Aussie sides maybe we haven’t always had the same sort of physical edge

Having identified that drop in intensity against Australian teams, would be a surprise for it to be a problem again – even if the visitors will need to switch mindset slightly, having played 3 New Zealand teams in the last 3 matches.

The Chiefs have showed an ability to step up an already mean defence in the finals and had a tackle success rate of 93%, 94%, 90% and 92% in the last 4 knockout matches.

There has been a card shown in 6/8 Brumbies home games and 6/8 Chiefs away games. Only 1 card has been given in the last 18 Super Rugby knock out games though, going back to 2010.

Referee Joubert showed cards in 5/13 matches this season, and in 4/9 Chiefs games & 3/9 Brumbies matches over the last few years. His 13 games average 21 penalties this season– with a low of 15 and high of 29. The last few rounds have seen 25, 29, 19 and 23 penalties.

That recent trend of awarding lots of penalties but no cards does have to be considered. If unchecked, the Chiefs will be more than happy to take out players beyond the ruck or hold on– something the Stormers asked Joubert to be wary of before they visited Hamilton in round 3. If the Brumbies have built a lead, they have proved willing to kill the ball until the referee starts carding them (Tahs at home would be a good example).

Chiefs have been officiated by Joubert 3 times this season – the 36-20 home win over Stormers and the 34-34 and 43-43 draws at the Bulls and Cheetahs. Without wanting to read too much into just 3 games, the Chiefs scored 5,5 and 6 tries, averaged 627m with the ball and conceded an average of 12 penalties. Brumbies have been refereed twice by Joubert this year – the 21-29 win at the Canes and the 44-23 defeat at the Bulls. The Australian conference winners conceded 10 and 13 penalties in those games and had Toomua, Mann-Rea carded against the Bulls.

 

Based on trends in the fixture and how both teams have performed this season, do like the basic strategy of backing Brumbies 1st half and then Chiefs 2nd half. Am going with the idea that Brumbies could lead early and then the Chiefs will have a decent period maybe around the 60 min mark, with the likes of Anscombe and Marshall being introduced.

With that in mind, the following are worth considering:

-Brumbies halftime at 1.73 (Landed in their last 7 home games, for opposition in 5/8 Chiefs away games and 4/5 matches between teams)

-Chiefs under 10.5 points in 1st half at 1.91 (occurred in last 4 games in fixture, 6/8 Chiefs away games and in 7/8 Brumbies home matches)

-Time of 1st Chiefs try = 2nd half or no try at 2.1 (last 4 meetings, time of 1st Chiefs try has been 73, 63, 68 and 51st minute)

Will also have a play on Brumbies HT / Chiefs FT at 9.0 and look to back Chiefs points and tries during halftime (unless they are leading).

Toomua scored a brace against Chiefs earlier in season and has scored 2,2 and 3 tries in home matches this season so buying his try minutes at 11 or just backing at 4.0 anytime scorer is worth some thought.

Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Leon Power, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Ruaidhri Murphy, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Allan Alaalatoa, 19 Fotu Auelua, 20 Tom McVerry, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Joe Tomane, 23 Pat McCabe

Chiefs: 15 Dwayne Sweeney, 14 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mike Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahroni Schwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Nick Barrett, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Tom Marshall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sharks vs Highlanders

The Sharks reached the 2012 final but after winning away at the Reds and Stormers to reach that game, it was probably a match too far and they were well beaten 37-6 at the Chiefs. They followed that season with an 8th place finish and while they did score 40 tries, 20 of them came in 2 matches against the Rebels and Kings. A high injury count played a part in the disappointing season, as did a run of 5 losses mid-season.

The performance in the away tour and even when it occurs in the campaign can prove decisive for the SA teams. In 2013, after a heavy loss at the Chiefs, the Cheetahs picked up 3 away wins early – which set up the rest of their season. In contrast the Sharks made a good start from their run of home games but then lost 3 of their 4 trips.

There were also off the field issues rumbling in the background, that may have impacted on the Sharks’ 2013 season, with John Smit eventually announced as new CEO in July, Plumtree’s contract not renewed, Venter brought in as Director of Rugby and then later Jake White brought in from the Brumbies.

While White took over a Brumbies side in 2012 that had won just 4 games the season before, there wasn’t the same rebuilding job required at the Sharks. Bar Michalak and Ludik it is basically the same squad that reached the 2012 final but with greater experience now and arguably superior strength in depth.

There has been mention that the Sharks have peaked this year and that a 3rd place finish should be seen as a failure, however the nature of their fixtures meant that a drop off was expected at the end of the campaign, given they only had 1 home game in the last 7 matches. The case can be made that could have pushed for more bonus points in their early home matches, but on the other hand were it not for that Taute drop goal in round 14, they’d have finished 2nd. White’s plan to play Lambie 10 and Steyn 12 also only lasted 4 matches due to injury.

Sharks won 6/8 home matches this year by an average score of 27-18, which is pretty close to their 2013 average of 26-15. They have led at the break in 6/8 home matches and outscored teams 2nd half in 4/8.

Their biggest loss was against the Highlanders in round 9, when the visitors became only the 2nd team to score over 30 points at the Sharks since 2005. That result meant Highlanders had won 2 in a row in the fixture, having lost the previous 6 from 2006-2012.

As with the Brumbies vs Chiefs game, some thought has to be given to the fact that the teams met earlier in the season and there was a large margin win. That April match did come in the middle of the Highlanders best run of the season, when they won 5/6 matches including 3 of 4 against South African sides.

Fekitoa and Ben Smith both carried for over 100m and Sopoaga was 100% with his kicks at goal. The hosts were without Bismarck and Deysel who were late withdrawals for the match and had Swiel at 10 (off after 54 mins) so are a stronger outfit this time. That isn’t to detract from what was a great performance from the Highlanders though, more to point out there are plenty of factors that will need to go their way again for a repeat result.

This is the Highlanders first top 6 finish since 2006 and their post-season match since 2002 (the reached the semi-finals in 4/5 seasons from 1998-2002). Looking at their seasons under Jamie Joseph, there has seemed to be a trend of them tailing off around round 10.

In 2011, they won 7/9 matches and then 1/7. In 2012, it was 7/9 and then 2/7. 2013 was the horror campaign which stands apart from the rest – with losses in the first 8 games and then 3 wins in the 2nd half of the season. This year the slump occurred a bit later, with 7/11 wins and then 1/5 from round 12.

If you were to just take the last 3 games of those 4 seasons, it would be 2/12 wins by an average score of 20-34 and 6/12 having defeats by 17 or more points. Of those 12 games, 8 were away and significantly 6 were away to top 5 teams. That does add some context, as having consecutive trips to top teams at the end of the season is tough, especially if the away side may be out of the playoff race at that stage. However on the other hand, it might be that losing games at the end of the season (and by substantial margins) has become a habit.

This year the Highlanders have won 2/8 away matches by an average score of 29-21, with the wins being at the Sharks and 16-18 at the Canes in round 11. They have trailed at HT in 6 of the away games and been outscored 2nd half by at least 10 points ,in 4/8. Their final 2 matches were a 44-16 loss at the top placed Tahs and 34-8 at the Crusaders last weekend.

If they were to win the final, it would mean then that in 5 weeks they would have travelled to Tahs (1st), Crusaders (2nd), Sharks (3rd), Tahs (1st) and then finalist (Crusaders 2nd, Brumbies 4th or Chiefs 5th) – which is a ridiculous schedule. The 67.0 for them to win the final looks big, but based on those fixtures it is understandable.

Jake White has said he is looking for a repeat of the Stormers game this week -  “I just think we need to copy and paste, it sounds obvious but it is there. We played and strangled them and when we got a turnover we scored from 60 yards out.

Think there may be a slight ‘halo effect’ with the Highlanders this season and the opposite with the Sharks. Given the choice of backing a team that scores tries from deep or one that is happy to “strangle” a team – the neutral is going to opt for the former.

Will back Sharks -13 on the handicap, -31 at 9.0  (with the view that Highlanders are coming off 28 and 26 point losses) and the  2nd half handicap of -7.

The home side has won 10/12 games with Walsh in charge this season and he has handed out cards in 7/12 of those matches. Walsh has given a card in his last 7 matches and there has been a pretty consistent number of penalties a game, all season (average of 19). There has been 7 cards in the last 5 matches between the teams, with at least 1 shown in 7/8 Sharks home games this season and 3/8 Highlanders away matches.

He was in charge of 2 Highlanders away defeats this season – 44-16 at the Tahs and 30-12 at the Blues and over a longer period, they have lost 9/10 matches with Walsh, by an average score of 34-19. It is worth noting that 8 of those games were away and 9 involved them playing a side higher on the table than them. They also include the 25-22 home win over the Sharks from last year.

There have been 2 or more cards in 5/10 of those Highlanders matches. The Sharks have won 3/6 matches when officiated by Walsh, with the only home game being the 28-16 win over the Highlanders in 2012. Will back a Highlanders cards at 2.5 and 2 at 7.0

Sharks may well look to both target what has looked a shaky Highlanders lineout in recent weeks and attack from their own. Bismarck does find himself at the back of plenty of those Sharks lineout drives, but will go greedy and opt for Coetzee anytime scorer at 8.0 and 2 or more at 81.0

Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 S’bura Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Francois Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (capt), 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Tonderai Chavhanga.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman , 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Tom Franklin, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Gareth Evans

Round 19 – Super Rugby 2014

Final Table

How teams on equal points are separated:
1 – Wins
2 – Points difference
3 – Most Tries
4 – Difference between Tries scored and conceded
5 – Coin Toss.

Tahs – Won AUS conference, are guaranteed 1st place and a home semi-final

Crusaders – Need 1 point against Highlanders to secure NZ conference. Have the same number of win as Sharks so will be looking to increase their superior points difference over them (currently 8) to obtain 2nd place and a home semi-final

Sharks – Won SA conference. Play the Stormers after Crusaders game is over – so will know match points / point difference required to finish 2nd.

Highlanders – As they have 2 less wins than the Crusaders, they need to score 4 tries + win by more than 7 points to win the NZ conference. Their game is after both the Blues vs Chiefs and Brumbies vs Force matches, so they will know how many points those teams have picked up. Should finish in the top 6 – unless they pick up 0 points against Crusaders and Chiefs win and both Brumbies & Force manage to pick up 2 points from their game (draw or losing team scores 4 tries and finishes within 7 points).

Hurricanes – On a bye this round so will be hoping Chiefs pick up 1 match point or less and that loser of Brumbies vs Force game fails to pick up a bonus point.

Brumbies – Will know how many points the Chiefs have gained vs Blues in the match before they play. If Chiefs have lost and collected 1 or less match points, Brumbies would need just need a losing bonus point to finish above them and the Canes.

Chiefs – The obvious point is that they will be looking for the win, but 2 match points may be enough.

Force – Will be looking for the win – but like Brumbies will have the ability to react to the Chiefs result and may end up requiring just 1 match point.

Think it will end up as Sharks vs Highlanders and Brumbies vs Chiefs in the qualifiers.

There has been a noticeable shortening of the grand final winner prices for the Brumbies  and Chiefs since the weekend.

 

 

 

 

 

Blues vs Chiefs

With JK saying the Blues will be playing for pride in this game, it does seem that the hosts have accepted that they won’t be in the play-offs. (If they score 4 tries in a 39+ point win, they would overtake the Hurricanes – but would also need either the Force or Brumbies to pick up 0 match points in the next game).

Using the current table, this will be the 12th game against a top 8 opponent for the hosts – compared to just 6 matches for the Force and 5 for the Sharks against top 8 sides.

Since round 3, the Blues results have seen a pattern of 2 wins, followed by 2 losses and due to their away form they have found consistency an issue. Playing the majority of their games against top half teams does have to be factored into any criticism of the Blues though.

They have won 6/7 home games and as the loss against the Sharks was in North Harbour are actually 6/6 at Eden Park this year, by an average score of 35-20. The Chiefs only away win was in round 1 against the Crusaders, since then it has been 4 losses and 2 draws by an average score of 31-23.

The Chiefs have won the previous 6 games against the Blues though and were the last team to beat them at Eden Park – in round 16 last season.

The visitors have been outscored 2nd half in the last 4 matches and 6/7 away games while the Blues have ‘won’ the 2nd half in 6/7 home games. However, the Chiefs have outscored the Blues after the break in the previous 4 meetings.

There has been a card shown in 5/7 Blues home games and 5/7 Chiefs away matches. The Chiefs last couple of trips to the Blues have produced 2 and 3 cards, while referee Jackson has shown a card in 6/9 matches. He has only given 2 cards in 9 previous NZ derbies though.

Am backing the Chiefs to make it 7 wins in a row against the Blues at 2.0. The likely poor conditions mean that if the Blues do chase the 4 tries / big score then they are going to be in danger of conceding turnovers and they are without Woodcock and skipper Braid in the pack. The visitors have named 14 of last week’s starters which makes for a rare piece of continuity this season and there were signs of that familiar aggression and defence in the win over the Canes.

The visitors scored tries through Mackintosh and Retallick last week and it was noticeable that they did use the maul a fair bit. Tameifuna has 5 tries in his last 3 matches against the Blues and it is 9.0 anytime for that scoring trend to continue and 101.0 for a brace. There is possibly a case for a buy of Chiefs front 5 try minutes too.

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Lolagi Visinia/George Moala, 13 Francis Saili, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Brendon O’Connor, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Jackson Willison, 23 George Moala/Albert Nikoro.

Chiefs: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mike Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Nick Barrett, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Dwayne Sweeney.

 

 

 

 

Brumbies vs Force

The Brumbies have lost in the final round in the last 6 years. In 2012 despite only requiring 1 match point to win the conference, they were upset 16-30 at home against the 12th placed Blues – a result which ended up denying them even a play-off place. Last season an away loss at the 13th placed Force proved the difference between 2nd and 3rd place and home advantage at the semi-final stage.

So while it can be said this Brumbies group do have move experience in the knock out stages, it is also true that they are used to losing the final match of the regular campaign and recently when they have been big favourites going into the game.

Brumbies won 7 games from rounds 1-9 and then just 2 in the last 6 rounds. Those previous 6 games have involved 4 away trips (2 in South Africa, Crusaders and Tahs), so 2 wins is about par rather than signs of any slump.

They’ve won 6/7 home matches by an average score of 27-17 and since 2012 have won 9/11 home derbies by an average score of 28-13. In the same period, Force have won 3/11 away AUS conference matches by 28-20.

Brumbies have led at the break by 22 or more points in 3 of the last 4 games against the Force and have only trailed at home at HT once against all opponents in the last 2 seasons.

Force had a run of games in the middle of the season that were decided by close margins however their matches from rounds 1-3 and then 11-15 have seen winning margins of at least 10 points and over 20 in 4/8 games.

There has been a card shown in 5/7 Brumbies home matches and in 6 of their last 7 matches at all venues. At least 1 card has been shown in 12/15 Force matches and their last 12 away games. Referee Walsh has shown at least 1 card in 9/10 AUS derbies.

The hosts have conceded a third of their tries against the backrow so Hodgson at 5.25 or Stander at 9.5 may appeal. Fardy (6.5) has scored in the last 2 games against the Force, while Mogg has scored in 4/5 matches against this opponent and is 2.88.

It may be worth waiting to see what has happened in the Blues vs Chiefs game, but think a rested Brumbies side, with key players returning should cover the -8 handicap and will have a look at the -4 HT handicap as well.

Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Clyde Rathbone, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (c), 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Leon Power, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Ruaidhri Murphy, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 JP Smith, 19 Fotu Auelua, 20 Tom McVerry, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Joe Tomane, 23 Pat McCabe.

Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Solomoni Rasolea, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Zack Holmes, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (capt), 6 Brynard Stander, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Oliver Hoskins, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Chris Alcock, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 Luke Burton, 23 Dillyn Leyds/Sias Ebersohn.

 

 

 

 

 

Bulls vs Rebels

The Bulls were kept scoreless for only the 4th time last week, with poor tactical kicking and an imbalanced backrow just a few of the problems. They are out of the play-off race, but do have a good record at home – with 6 wins and a draw there this season by an average score of 31-21. There will also be motivation to make up for that defeat at the Stormers.

They have only led at HT in 3/7 home games so the work has been done after the break – when the Bulls average a score of 16-9.

The Brumbies are the only AUS side to win away at the Bulls since 2007.

Rebels have lost 7/7 away games in SA by an average score of 40-18 and trailed at halftime each time. This year they have been behind at HT in 12/15 games and 6/7 away.

The visitors have lost 4 games in a row by at least 16 points and conceded 41,37,36 and 34 points. They have conceded 41 and 47 in the previous 2 matches with the Bulls.

The Bulls are available at -18 on the handicap and a 51+ point win is 17.0. Would usually be tempted with the price of 11.0 for a side taking on that Bulls outfit that played last week – but they do have a tradition of putting away lower-table sides at home, while it is difficult to have too much faith in the Rebels away in SA at end of season. The visitors are also missing their captain and Woodward was a late injury drop out.

There has been a card shown in 10 of the last 12 Rebels matches and 5/7 away games.Only 3/7 Bulls matches have seen a card though.

Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Bjorn Basson, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Jono Ross, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 Morné Mellett.
Replacements: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Werner Kruger, 18 Dean Greyling, 19 Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, 20 Marvin Orie, 21 Jesse Kriel, 22 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 23 William-Small Smith.

Melbourne Rebels: 15 Telusa Veainu, 14 Alex Rokobaro, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Colby Fainga’a, 7 Scott Fuglistaller (capt), 6 Luke Jones, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Paul Alo-Emile, 19 Lopeti Timani, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 Sam Jeffries

 

 

 

 

Crusaders vs Highlanders

The hosts took some stick in the NZ media for that lateral style of play again last weekend, but bar a length of the field Blues intercept try and missed penalties, they would have been well ahead by halftime.

There has been a big emphasis on getting the ball to Nadolo, but that is understandable given his try scoring record this season and he did carry for 140m & beat 10 defenders when playing the Highlanders in May.

Since a poor start to the season of 2 losses against other NZ teams, the hosts have won 9/13 games by an average score of 30-21. Crusaders have also won the last 4 games against the Highlanders and 10/13 at home by 33-22.

Highlanders have lost 5/7 away matches this season by 28-23 and trailed at HT in 5 of those games. Their run-in has been tough, with 4 of the last 6 matches against teams currently in the top 5 and ending with consecutive trips to the Tahs in 1st and Crusaders in 2nd.

The game between the teams earlier in the season ended with a possible Osborne try and match winner ruled out by the TMO and the visitors may feel there were a few decisions that went against them that match. There has been a card shown in the last 4 games between these teams and usually expect a South Island derby to have a few flashpoints. However referee Joubert has only showed a card in 4/14 games and despite a high penalty count of 29 last week, didn’t ever really threaten to hand out any yellow cards.

The Highlanders last 12 away games have been high scoring, with an average points total of 56 and 8/12 matches having 50 or more. Their trips to the Crusaders averaged 62 points between 1996-2006, but that has dropped to 47 in the 5 games since – with only 2012 seeing over 50 points.

Key backs Ben Smith and Sopoaga are missing for the Highlanders and while they do have a chance of winning the conference, it would require a try bonus point win and ensuring the hosts finish with 0 match points. Coming off that big loss at the Tahs and perhaps with a lack of intensity now they are guaranteed a place in the top 6, it would take a huge effort to knock over the Crusaders away.

Highlanders were outscored 2nd half by 26 points last week and by 11 and 10 in earlier trips to the Chiefs and Blues. Crusaders have outscored teams 2nd half in 9 of the last 10 matches and limited their last 3 opponents to 0,5 and 7 points after the break. There is also a chance that Carter may shift to 10 in the 2nd half.

Crusaders 2nd half handicap is -6.

He may not play the full match, but 5.5 anytime scorer for Read is worth some thought

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl.

Highlanders: 15 Trent Renata, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Phil Burleigh

 

 

 

 

 

Reds vs Waratahs

The Tahs went 9 games without a win against the Reds from 1996-2004, won 7 in a row between 2005-2011and then lost the next 5. That recent losing streak was snapped with a 32-5 win in round 2 that gave some notice that the hosts may be title contenders this year and in contrast, that the Reds may struggle.

While the 2 tries from Folau took the headlines in that game, it was an aggressive defence led by the likes of new recruit Potgieter that battered the Reds and set up the win. The AUS Daily Telegraph had an article this week highlighting the Tahs mantra of “Defend for them” and the point that they are the only side not to have conceded a 4 try bonus point yet. They have managed to combine that defence with a fast paced attack and only the Canes are close to their 51 tries scored.

Fixtures, managing injuries etc are all important factors in how successful a team is but there is also an increasing focus on the culture. Cheika clearly has got that right at the Tahs, as has McKenzie with the Wallabies (and before that at the Reds) and Foley with the Force. Losing Cooper and Genia hasn’t helped the Reds but even allowing for that – the passes going into touch, holes in the defence etc will be cause for concern and it wasn’t a surprise to see talk of reviews from Richard Graham.

The visitors have won their last 6 matches by an average score of 40-17 and beat the Reds by 27 points in round 2. The hosts have already lost 4/7 home games and are missing plenty of key players, so it is understandable that the Tahs are favourites, but 1.4 isn’t that appealing.

The Reds players will be motivated to end the season with a win at home and a derby with NSW should avoid them switching off.  Ben Daley said this week in the Brisbane Courier Mail – “You build yourself up to a frenzy. These games against NSW are always quite brutal and with some niggle and I don’t see this one as any different….See a blue jersey and you literally see red and want to put it over the sideline or into the grandstand.”

It is also true that the  Tahs scored 3 tries in the 3 games with Folau missing, compared to 48 in the 12 with him.

Don’t have much faith in the Reds, but will have a play on the +8 and 4.33 for 1-10 winning margin -  just based on the price in a derby match, with the Tahs already secure in top spot.

The last 7 Reds games have seen 50 or more total points while the Tahs have score over 30 points in 9 games. However only 1 of the previous 14 games between the teams have gone over 48 points.

The home side has won 7/7 with Mike Fraser in charge and 12/14 over a longer period.

Reds: 15 Mike Harris, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Lachie Turner, 10 Ben Lucas, 9 Scott Gale, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Curtis Browning, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 James Hanson, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga’a, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Albert Anae, 19 Dave McDuling, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Sam Johnson, 22 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi, 23 Chris Kuridrani.

Waratahs: 15 Cam Crawford, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Stephen Hoiles , 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements (one to be omitted): 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Michael Ala’alatoa, 19 Jacques Potgieter, 20 Mitchell Chapman, 21 Pat McCutcheon , 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Jono Lance, 24 Taqele Naiyaravoro

 

 

 

 

Lions vs Cheetahs

Last week the Lions coaches made it clear that they were targeting 2 home wins to finish the season and while they were rusty against the Rebels, they did show plenty of attacking intent.

They’ve won 5/7 home matches by an average score of 26-22, with the 2 losses coming against the 2nd place Crusaders and 3rd place Sharks.

The Cheetahs did go on a run of 5 away wins from 6 matches in the middle of the 2013 season, but since then have lost 9 consecutive trips by an average score of 33-17.

They have conceded over 30 points in 5 away games this year, been outscored by at least 9 points at HT in 5 games and outscored by at least 11 points 2nd half in their 3 away matches against SA teams. It is noticeable that bar the trip to the Sharks, the other away games were all against teams ranked 9th or lower on the table.

Brussow was pinged 3 times by this referee in the Cheetahs defeat against the Bulls in rd 11 and was carded by him against the Brumbies, so his absence may be mitigated by that as well as Mohoje’s good form.

The general view was that this may be a high scoring match and would just about favour the Lions at 1.73, given home advantage and the visitors poor away form.

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Lionel Mapoe, 13 Stokkies Hanekom, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Franco Mostert, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Willie Britz, 20 Derick Minnie, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Courtnall Skosan

Cheetahs: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Ryno Benjamin, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Teboho Mohoje, 6 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lood de Jager, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Trevor Nyakane
Replacements: 16 Caylib Oosthuizen, 17 Luan de Bruin, 18 Carl Wegner, 19 Jean Cook, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Hennie Daniller.

 

 

 

 

Stormers vs Sharks

Nick Mallett said last week that the Sharks had peaked, however give the extreme nature of their fixture list there was always a good chance their latter season results would be worse than those at the start.

They had 7 home games between rounds 1-9 and then a run of 6 away trips in the final 7 games. Injuries and fatigue of the International players have also been factors but they will probably look back at that last minute Taute drop goal and an inability to rack up bonus points when dominating early home games as reasons they missed out on top spot.

Jake White said in the SA media this week – “We’ve decided this week that it doesn’t matter what happens on Friday or Saturday in the other games, we must just get a win on the weekend… We want to win again. We haven’t won in a while”.

Regaining some momentum will be important but they are facing a Stormers team that has won 4 in a row and 6/7 at home by an average score of 21-11. They have kept the Bulls and Cheetahs scoreless at home this year and the Lions only managed 3 points.

Their fixtures can be contrasted with the Sharks – as 5 away games in their opening 6 games meant they were always likely to be catching up on rivals. It isn’t a huge shock that a run of home matches has seen their results improve and the changes to their style of play are also beginning to work.

Sharks have been outscored 2nd half in 6 of their last 7 games, with the exception being that 14 man effort against the Crusaders.

The last 6 games between the teams have been decided by 7 points or less

1st half has been highest scoring in 10 of the last 11 Stormers games and 6/8 matches between the teams.

Jaco Peyper showed 2 cards in this fixture in rd 14 and cards in 11/12 games this season, with 2 or more in 5/12. There have been 2 or more cards in 4 of the last 6 Stormers matches and in 3 of the last 4 Sharks games.

Am happy enough with the Stormers at 1.91 here.

Stormers: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 12 Juan de Jongh, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger (c), 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Michael Rhodes, 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Alistair Vermaak.
Replacements: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 Sti Sithole, 18 Martin Dreyer, 19 Manuel Carizza, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Peter Grant, 23 Seabelo Senatla.

Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 S’bura Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frans Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Fred Zeilinga, 23 Tonderai Chavhanga

Round 18 – Super Rugby 2014

Chiefs vs Hurricanes

It is just 3 wins in 11 games for the Chiefs and despite the changes made to their training and structure during the International break, the problems that have plagued them all season were again evident against the Highlanders.

Dave Rennie had pointed out last week that a failure to finish chances was the main concern and was proved correct. In many ways the Highlanders actually looked more like what we have come to expect of the Chiefs– very gritty at the breakdown and counter-attacking ruthlessly, while the Chiefs resembled last year’s Highlanders – plenty of ball but turned over frequently in the opposition 22.

There are changes to the backline again this week , with the 10th different centre pairing in 15 games picked and 14th different back 3 combo. The Chiefs have rotated players often over the past few seasons, but even by their standards there has been very little continuity (injuries a factor this year too).

There is still a small chance they can make the top 6, but the fact they currently only have 6 wins is going to count against them if teams are level on points. It means they may need 9 or 10 points to make it, but it also isn’t unrealistic to think the Crusaders win at home vs Blues, Tahs beat Highlanders and Reds win at Force this weekend – which would all benefit them.

They have the won the last 2 home games quite convincingly against the Canes by 33-14 and 34-22 and 10/12 home derbies against NZ sides (2 losses were both against Crusaders). Chiefs have won 5/7 home games this season by an average score of 26-19, with the losses coming against the Crusaders and Tahs (in New Plymouth as opposed to Hamilton).

Canes have won 2/7 away matches this season by an average score of 28-24. They scored 9 at the Sharks and 18 at the Stormers, but since then have managed at least 24 points a match. Going back to 2010, they have trailed at HT in 13/17 conference away matches – while the Chiefs have led at HT in 12 of their previous 17 conference home matches.

The visitors have underperformed in the last few seasons with finishes of 8th,9th, 8th and 11th. Criticism has been aimed at the pack’s inability to provide a decent platform for a backline- who have been as good on paper as any in the competition. However, as was seen last week against the Crusaders (and earlier for Wellington in the ITM Cup), the Canes forwards are now an impressive unit.

Consistency has also been an issue, which is similar to the Blues and there is a sense that if either of those teams can sort out the mental side – be it belief, game management, preparation for away games etc – then they would be right up there as final contenders.

When the Chiefs lost 45-8 against the Canes in round 12, Rennie stated that his team had finished ‘a distant third’ in the match. The Canes have put in similar performances in recent seasons against the Cheetahs, Rebels etc at home but doing it against the current champions was obviously a step up. Replicating that type of effort will take some doing though, especially away.

Given the form of the respective teams, am expecting the Hurricanes to be quite a popular bet this weekend – either to win at 2.5 or on the +4 handicap. If they had a full strength team that would be appealing – but no Smith, Leiua, Vito and concerns over the fitness of the hookers does weaken the foundation of the side.

That 45-8 result is also going to act as a big motivator for this game aside from any desires the Chiefs will have to retain their title. It will also be a final home game for Latimer, Tikoirotuma and Aki before they go abroad. The Chiefs problems likely won’t have been resolved in a week, but home advantage has been a big factor in the competition this season and they will also be able to use the emotion of the occasion.

At the risk of stubbornly sticking with a team until the bitter end – will be on the Chiefs HT / FT at 2.25 or better, 1-12 margin at 2.88 and have topped up on their outright price of 41.0

Referee Briant has shown a card in 6/8 matches. His matches have mainly been high scoring with 6/8 going over 51 points and the 2 Force games having 39 and 41 (which is to be expected with them involved).

Chiefs: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mike Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Nick Barrett, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Agustine Pulu, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Bundee Aki.

Hurricanes: 15 Matt Proctor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Jack Lam, 5 Blade Thomson, 4 Jeremy Thrush (c), 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 James Broadhurst, 20 Adam Hill, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Cardiff Vaega, 23 James Marshall.

 

 

 

 

 

Lions vs Rebels

Rebels have lost all 14 away games outside of Australia by an average score of 40-20 and while their last 4 trips to New Zealand have seen low margin defeats of between 3-6 points, the visits to South Africa have remained a problem. Last season, they conceded 64 points at the Sharks, 34 at the Cheetahs and had 2 players sent home.

The visitors have conceded 114 points in their last 3 matches and an average of 27 points over the season. Their motivation on this tour may relate to avoiding bottom place but as Cory Jane pointed out a few weeks ago, there is always a danger that teams have one eye on the break at the end of a season.

The opening round win over the Cheetahs was the only time the Rebels have led at HT this season and they have failed to score a 1st half try in 9/14 games.

Lions have won 4/6 home matches by an average score of 25-23 with the 2 losses coming against the 2nd placed Sharks and 3rd placed Crusaders. Like their opponents they don’t often score 1st half tries, with only 1 in the last 9 games, so time of 1st try = after 16 minutes may be worth a look.

Hosts have attempted at least 1 drop goal in every home game and scored one in 3/6 games there. It is only 1.57 for a drop goal here though.

Ackermann and Whiteley have both highlighted the importance of this match to the team, with the skipper saying “We are not taking this game lightly. It is important and pretty much determines the success of our season”.

The visitors don’t have much in the way of form going into this match (3 heavy defeats in a row) and are coughing up plenty of penalties – a problem here given Boshoff’s accuracy. Think the Lions could win by a decent margin here and will back the -5 handicap, HT/FT at 2.0, with a small play on 13+ at 3.75

There has been a card shown in 7/9 Lions home matches against Australian opposition and 16/19 at all venues. This season 10/14 matches for both teams have seen at least 1 card shown. Jaco Peyper has shown a card in 10/11 games, with 2 or more in 6/11 (including 2 Lions games). The majority of his cards (14/16) have come in the 2nd half so there may be the chance for a cheap buy on the spreads at halftime.

Lions: 15 Coenie van Wyk, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Stokkies Hanekom, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Franco Mostert, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Jacques van Rooyen/Corne Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Willie Britz, 20 Derick Minnie, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Lionel Mapoe.

Rebels: 15 Jack Debreczeni. 14 Tom Kingston, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Colby Fainga’a, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Paul Alo-Emile, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Jason Woodward, 23 Telusa Veainu.

 

 

 

 

Crusaders vs Blues

Having lost 2 early home games , the Crusaders were written off by round 5 and then talked up as champions when they won 7 of the next 8 matches (5 wins by 20+ points). The loss away at Hurricanes last weekend has seen a return of the criticism in the NZ media and a highlighting of their last championship being back in 2008.

The kicking game they have used this season has looked limited compared to some of their rivals, however it is worth noting that they do also have to cope without a number of their key players every campaign due to International duty (and sabbaticals etc). It may also be the case that Blackadder has highlighted games where he thinks the side can win without his stars and been proved wrong.

In what has proved to be a very close season, they are still in a very good position and have 2 home matches remaining. Crusaders have won the last 6 at home against the Blues by an average score of 34-14 but the counterpoint would be that they have already lost 3/6 home games this season (against Chiefs, Hurricanes, Sharks).

Blues stopped a run of 13 straight away losses with an impressive win in Perth last weekend and it can be seen that when they do win this season – it is by a decent margin (at least 8 and an average of 17). Having beaten the teams currently in 5th and 7th in the last 2 matches, they have kept their playoff chances alive but may well need their first away win in this fixture since 2004 to make the top 6.

Over the past few seasons, the visitors have struggled against teams like the Bulls, Brumbies that have a strong kicking game and that won’t have gone unnoticed by the Crusaders. However, if the hosts get that wrong then they are going to be feeding a very dangerous backline, that looks full of confidence.

The hosts have Dagg, Carter, Nadolo, Read and Franks all back in the starting line-up and Carter at 12 certainly should see the kicking from hand accuracy improve. With wet conditions predicted, the hosts having kicking options of Slade and Carter at 10/12 and power in Nadolo and Fonotia to shut down any threat from the Blues out wide.

Crusaders have led at halftime in 7 of the last 8 games against the Blues and the HT/FT is 1.73 here.

Glen Jackson has shown a card in 6/8 matches and the home side has won 4/8 matches this season with him in charge. Crusaders have won 7/7 games with Jackson officiating since 2012, while for the Blues it is 2/5.

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sam Prattley, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Francis Saili, 23 George Moala

 

 

 

 

Force vs Reds

Were this match being played a few rounds ago, it is likely the Force would have been big favourites. They won 8/10 games between rounds 3-12 while the visitors lost 8/9 games between rounds 4-12. However 20+ point defeats against the Crusaders & Blues for the hosts and a couple of wins for the Reds does change the thinking.

Making a strong start has been key for the Force and it is noticeable that when that hasn’t happened they have usually lost ,as the following HT scores show: 11-22 vs Tahs, 0-24 vs Brumbies, 6-6 vs Rebels (the exception), 3-17 vs Stormers, 0-16 vs Crusaders and 0-26 vs Blues last weekend.

The hosts have also relied on a mean defence that absorbs pressure and scoring off turnover ball. They have lost 6 of the 8 matches when they have conceded 20 or more points this season and all 10 last year, so aren’t really a side you’d back to chase if they do fall behind.

Bar the away games against Blues and Tahs, the Reds have scored at least 20 points every game. While the Force did win a high scoring 29-32 match between the teams in April, they don’t often succeed in those type of high scoring shoot-outs.

The Reds had a point to prove last week against the Rebels, after they felt they were on the wrong end of an injustice in the previous meeting. If that was the main motivation for the win then it can sometimes be difficult to back up the next week – as the same intensity / emotion may not be there. On the other hand the win will have built momentum and there are players who are looking to catch the eye of Wallabies selectors.

Reds coach Richard Graham has suggested there will be plenty of mental pressure on the hosts as they are in the unusual position of seeking a play-off place this season. Despite what is said in the build-up, the fact that he is a former Force coach and the manner of his departure (announced he would be joining the Reds the next season, then stood down after a Force player vote) will act as motivation for both sides.

The hosts have a former Brumbies halfback pairing of Prior / Holmes starting. They actually only started the 1 game there together – a 25-37 win at the Hurricanes in 2012.This season Holmes has started 1 game – the 14-27 home loss against the Brumbies, when the side went 0-24 down by halftime.

Force have 3 wins and a draw from the last 4 games against the Reds and have outscored them 2nd half in 4/5 matches. The visitors have been outscored 2nd half in the last 6 games and 5/7 away this season and looking at their bench, opposing them on the 2nd half hcap may be an idea.

Despite their record in recent games against this opponent and on paper having less to play for, do want to back the Reds +4 in this match.

There has been a card shown in 11/14 Force matches and 9/14 Reds games – with 2 or more in 4 of the last 5. There has also been a card in 7 of the previous 8 Reds derby matches with AUS teams. Angus Gardner has handed out cards in 5/7 matches – the 2 games without any shown were both Force games.

Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Marcel Brache, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Zack Holmes, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson, 6 Hugh McMenamin, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Oliver Hoskins, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Justin Turner, 22 Dillyn Leyds, 23 Solomoni Rasolea

Reds: 15 Mike Harris, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Lachie Turner, 10 Ben Lucas, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Curtis Browning, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 James Hanson, 1 Ben Daley
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga’a, 17 Albert Anae, 18 Sef Faagase, 19 Dave McDuling, 20 Tim Buchanan, 21 Scott Gale, 22 Sam Johnson, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi

 

 

 

 

 

Stormers vs Bulls

Since returning from that early tough tour, the Stormers have won 5/8 matches by an average score of 21-18. They have won 5/6 home games by 22-13 this season and since 2012 it is 20/22 regular season home wins by 24-16.

As might be expected their home games have tended to be low scoring with 10 of the last 12 going under 38 total points.

The Bulls have lost all 7 away matches by an average score of 23-15, trailed at HT in 6/7 matches and been outscored 2nd half in 5/7. Have backed the Stormers HT/FT at 2.25

Since 2008, there has been an average of 37 points scored in this fixture with 11/11 games going under 49 points. The line is 39.5 here.

It is worth noting that the hosts have changed their style slightly this season and are looking to attack more. When they met the Bulls in May, they did outscore them 2 tries to 1 and carry for 511m but were 2nd best in the physical exchanges. They didn’t score a point after the 18th minute while Pollard had a 100% goal kicking rate.

Referee Joubert has shown a card in just 5/11 games and has been in charge of 2 draws and 2 single point victories this season. Going back to 2009, he has shown a card in 12/17 Bulls games and 6/15 for the Stormers. He was in charge of this fixture in 2013 and 2012 – with the Stormers winning 30-13 and 20-17.

His matches have been quite high scoring, with 8/11 having 50 or more points – however the 3 low scoring games were all SA derbies including Bulls vs Stormers which had 40 scored.

Stormers:15 Jaco Taute, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 12 Juan de Jongh, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger (c), 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Michael Rhodes, 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 Deon Fourie, 1 Alistair Vermaak.
Replacements: 16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Sti Sithole, 18 Martin Dreyer, 19 Manuel Carizza, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Peter Grant, 23 Seabelo Senatla.

Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Grant Hattingh, 7 Jacques Engelbrecht, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Victor Matfield (capt), 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Marcel van der Merwe, 18 Morné Mellett, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Roelof Smit, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 23 William Small-Smith.

 

 

 

Cheetahs vs Sharks

A disappointing season sees the Cheetahs in bottom place and with Goosen, van der Walt, Daniller, Landman, Strauss all announced as leaving – the 2013 side that reached the play-offs has really been split up now.

Cheetahs have won 3/7 home matches so far by an average score of 27-27. That includes wins over the Bulls, Stormers and a 1 point loss against the Lions (in a game where they wasted plenty of chances), so they have been competitive against their SA rivals there.

Sharks have already secured their conference top spot so the remaining games provide an opportunity for home advantage in the knock out stages. They have used this game as a chance to rest a few of their Internationals, which is a sensible call. Coaches are often criticised for either resting players or throwing them straight back into the team after International windows, depending on the result – but it is clear here that the likes of Jannie du Plessis do need a break.

The visitors have only conceded 1st half tries in 2/14 games with 9 or less points scored against them in the other 12 games. The Cheetahs have scored 0,9, and 6 points 1st half in the last 3 games and 3 points when they met the Sharks in round 9. In the matches last season, the hosts scored 7 and 5 points 1st half against the Sharks. On that basis under 10.5 1st half Cheetahs points is worth a look.

Sharks have won 6 of the previous 7 matches in this fixture but a best price of 1.44 to win away isn’t that attractive so would prefer the 3.4 or +8 for the hosts on the outright markets.

Cheetahs: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Ryno Benjamin, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Teboho Mohoje, 6 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lood de Jager, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Caylib Oosthuizen, 17 Luan de Bruin, 18 Carl Wegner, 19 Jean Cook, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Hennie Daniller

Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 S’bura Sithole, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Tim Swiel, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Jean Deysel (c), 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Stephan Lewies, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick
Replacements: 16 Thomas du Toit, 17 Bismarck du Plessis, 18 Jannie du Plessis, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Odwa Ndungane, 23 Tonderai Chavhanga

 

 

 

 

Waratahs vs Highlanders

Tahs have won their last 5 games and 7/7 at home by an average score of 35-14. As highlighted in last week’s preview, they are doing a great job of limiting opponents 2nd half at home and have only conceded a total of 15 points after the break in the last 6 matches there.

They are scoring plenty of points, with an average of 39 in the last 5 games and know that a win would guarantee them 1st place.

Last season these teams were top for avg carries (both approx 125 a game) and metres made (approx. 495m). Given the Chiefs won the title and had the lowest average of time in possession there was a view that the sides able to absorb pressure and score on the counter were doing better than those having plenty of ball but perhaps not scoring as ruthlessly.

This season the Tahs are averaging 135 carries a game for 520m so have increased, while the Highlanders have dropped- with making 98 for 402m.

The explanation for the difference this season may be that the Highlanders have gone back to a style and culture that suits them better. Would usually associate the team with being very combative at the breakdown but last season coach Joseph mentioned they would be tinkering with the number of players committed to the rucks etc. It is also true that the unsuccessful experiment of drafting in high profile All Blacks has been replaced with using the likes of Buckman – not a big name but someone who has clearly bought into the team.

There has been a card shown in 8 of the previous 9 Tahs home matches. Walsh has shown a card in 5/10 games this season and in 4/5 Tahs home matches going back to start of 2013. The Highlanders have lost 8/9 games with him in charge and there have been cards shown in 7 of those games (2 or more in 5/9 matches).

Both teams have received 4 cards this season though, which is near the bottom of the league and it seems their opponents tend to receive cards more often than they do.

Walsh has shown in recent matches that he will (rightly) hammer a team that are cynically slowing down ball and that may be a problem for the visitors who perhaps benefitted from some lenient officiating last week against the Chiefs.

Having secured a play-off place, there can be a danger that teams may switch off next match or unintentionally lower the intensity. It looks like the Tahs targeted a top 2 finish as a season goal, so there may be less chance of that happening here and also coach Cheika has spoken about having to move forward and not “just hang in there”. The loss of Dennis has to be factored in – he has fulfilled a similar role to Clarke for the Chiefs in their 2 successful seasons.

Like the look of over 47.5 points here and perhaps a similar high scoring match to the Tahs vs Hurricanes game in round 10 that was also officiated by Walsh.

Ben Smith is 3.5 anytime and Foley 4.0

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (capt), 6 Stephen Hoiles, 5 Kane Dougles, 4 Jacques Potgieter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Mitch Chapman, 21 Pat McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Jono Lance, 24 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 25 Cam Crawford (two to be omitted).

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ma’afu Fia, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Lee Allan, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.

Round 17 – Super Rugby 2014

Highlanders vs Chiefs

Super Rugby sides are used to dealing with the bye week, but it is still the case that a break can either derail momentum or be a required chance to regroup. The International window adds an extra factor in that the players may be disappointed by non-selection, how they performed, find it tough to adjust back to a different system etc.

It is a very small sample of data but over the last 2 seasons – Highlanders have lost the first game back in late June and the Chiefs have won twice.

Under Jamie Joseph there has been a trend of the hosts falling away at the end of seasons – in 2011 Highlanders lost 6 of the last 7 games and in both 2012 and 2013 it was 5/7 losses. They went into the June window on a run of 2 losses but have been strong at home this year, with wins in 5/7 games by an average score of 29-27.

The majority of their matches have seen close margins – with 10/13 games decided by 1-7 points.

Since 2001, Highlanders have lost 14/17 games against the Chiefs by an average score of 20-27 and 6/7 matches at home by 24-28.

Chiefs have won just 3 of the last 10 games and had heavy defeats against the Canes (37 points) and Tahs (16 points) before the break. It has also been 5 away games without a win for the current champs.

Dave Rennie has talked about using the break to collect feedback from players and also make some tweaks to both training and coaching : “If you look at our game we’ve lacked finish. We’ve created a lot of opportunities but just haven’t been clinical enough so we’ve done a lot of work in that area.”

There has been little continuity in selection throughout the campaign due to injuries, but being able to name Cruden at 10 and Anscombe at 15 for only the 4th time is a positive and a returning Fruean could play a key role in those adjustments made by the visitors. His inclusion changes the balance of a midfield which has been relatively lightweight this season and Rennie has pointed out that it should benefit Aki. The coaches have also highlighted the psychological boost of having a player work hard to return to the side and in this case overcome serious health issues.

It is a bit of a surprise to see Nanai-Williams on the bench for Sweeney – in the last 3 games against the Highlanders he has 1 try & 13 carries for 95m, 1 try & 9 carries for 86m, 2 tries & 6 runs for 137m.

Have backed the Chiefs to win this match and also the Super Rugby final at 19.0. There are teams both better placed on the table and in better form before the break, but this side know what it takes to win a title and have experience as a group of how to win knockout games. They are also now chasing rather than the team being targeted, which does remove some of the pressure. Looking at their record in the remaining fixtures – they’ve won 6/7 away at Highlanders, 5/7 home vs Canes and 4/7 away at Blues.

There has been at least 1 card shown in 5/6 Chiefs away games this season and in 4/5 conference games.

Referee Williamson’s games have seen 76,61 (twice),50 and 35 total points – with the 35 coming in a Chiefs vs Crusaders match which does tend to be low scoring. Highlanders home matches have averaged 56 total points this season with 4/7 games seeing 60 or more and the contest with the Chiefs last year had 68. Like the look of over 53.5 total points.

Chiefs have won 7/8 games with Williamson in charge and Highlanders 2/5.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ma’afu Fia, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Lee Allan, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.

Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Dwayne Sweeney, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Tom Marshall, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 James Lowe

 

 

 

 

Rebels vs Reds

Rebels will be one of the teams that welcomed a break in the season, as they lost in round 12 by 22 points and 27 points in round 13. They end the season with an away trip to South Africa so this is their last appearance in front of their home crowd.

They have lost the previous 3 home matches, though it is worth noting those defeats were against teams  in 1st,2nd and 6th place on the table.

The 7 point win over the Highlanders at the end of May ended a run of 6 defeats for the Reds and they too may have been happy for some respite. They have won only 2 of their last 11 away games and conceded an average of 35 points on the last 5 trips.

Reds have been outscored 2nd half in the last 5 matches and by over 10 points after the break in 4/6 away matches. Before that run of home defeats against top 6 sides, the Rebels had been pretty strong 2nd half on their own patch – outscoring teams in 8/9 games there. It is also true that the visitors have only led at halftime in 1 of the previous 5 meetings with the Rebels.

There was a late red card at the end of the May match between the teams and the Rebels scored the winning points from the penalty given. That was the Rebels first win over the Reds and afterwards skipper Horwill was fined for saying his team had been ‘robbed by a stupid refereeing decision’. The player involved the suspected contact with eyes incident – O’Donoghue was found to have no case to answer.

Would think that loss will serve as motivation for the visitors and there will also be personal duels relating to Wallaby selection. There has been a card shown in 8 of the last 10 Rebels games and in 4/6 matches refereed by Gardner. A sending off at 26.0 is perhaps worth covering.

There is no Genia or Cooper in the Reds starting lineup for the first time since March 2008 and you have to go back to May 2006 for both missing from a match squad. In the past, a price of 2.62 for them to beat the Rebels would have been max bet territory, however their form this season means even the +4 point handicap isn’t that appealing. Instead will back Rebels -2 on 2nd half handicap, based on both teams trends.

1st half has been highest scoring in the last 6 games between the teams.

Home side has won all 6 games this season with this referee in charge and 10/12 over a longer period.

Rebels: 15 Jack Debreczeni, 14 Jason Woodward, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Luke Burgess, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Cadeyrn Neville, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Paul Alo-Emile, 19 Hugh Pyle, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Telusa Veainu, 23 Tom Kingston.

Reds: 15 Mike Harris, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Anthony Fainga’a, 11 Dom Shipperley, 10 Ben Lucas, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Curtis Browning, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 James Hanson, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Saia Fainga’a, 17 Albert Anae, 18 Ben Daley, 19 Dave McDuling, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Samuela Kerevi, 22 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi, 23 Lachie Turner.

 

 

 

 

Hurricanes vs Crusaders

Canes have won 3 of the last 4 games against the Crusaders and there has been a trend of late scores in the fixture. Their March 26-29 win saw a 73rd minute Leiua try, while the same player also scored in the 72nd minute in March 2013 for a 29-28 victory. In July 2013, the Crusaders won with a 78th minute Marshall try and in June 2012 a 73rd minute Barrett penalty prove decisive

Canes have won 5/7 games at home this season– which works out as 5 wins over teams currently in 15th,12th,10th,9th and 8th places and losses against teams in 6th and 4th.

After an early loss at the Blues, Crusaders have won 6 consecutive away matches (against opponents ranked 15th, 14th, 13th, 12th,8th and 5th).

The hosts are without Smith, Taylor and Levave from the side that won in Christchurch earlier in the season while the Crusaders are missing McCaw, Dagg and perhaps crucially Nadolo. In the last couple of games before the June window, the Fijian made a combined 27 runs for 266m and beat 16 defenders. The visitors do have Read and Carter on the bench though .

Might be a bit obvious, but would think Canes will want to play a fast paced game given their backline looks more dangerous and Crusaders might be happier relying on their pack. Will go for the hosts +2 on the handicap

Savea has scored in the last 3 games against Crusaders so the 2.62 anytime may appeal, along with 4.5 for Leiua. Todd is 7.0.

The home side has won all 6 games with Fraser in charge this season and 11/13 over a longer period. The 3 NZ derbies he has refereed since 2013 had 52,59 and 93 points and a card shown in each. There has been a card in the last 6 Crusaders games, but none in the last 7 in this fixture.

Hurricanes: 15 Matt Proctor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Alapati Leiua, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Blade Thomson, 4 Jeremy Thursh (c), 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu’u/Reggie Goodes, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggie Goodes/Brendon Edmonds, 19 James Broadhurst, 20 Jack Lam, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Hadleigh Parkes, 23 James Marshall.

Crusaders: 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty (c), 11 Nafi Tuitavake, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Kieran Read, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Dan Carter, 23 Rob Thompson.

 

 

 

Waratahs vs Brumbies

The Tahs are favourites with most firms to win the Final this year and with a game in hand over the Sharks have the chance to take 1st place and home advantage. They have won their 6 home games by an average score of 34-15 and 12 of the last 14 by 29-19, so with 2 remaining there, should be confident of taking top spot.

Looking at those 6 home games – they kept Reds,Rebels and Lions to 0 points 2nd half, Bulls and Canes to 6 and Force in round 1 to 10 points. In their last 9 home games, they have only conceded the 1 try after the break and average just 5 points scored against them.

Splitting up the Tahs season – they won 3 of their opening 4 games by an average score of 33-16, then 2/5 in a run of predominantly away games by 16-21, then won 4/4 by 39-20.

They have won 10/12 home matches against the Brumbies by 28-19 and lost 9/11 away by 31-14 so it has been a fixture that is usually won by the home side.

Tahs have trailed at HT in the last 5 meetings which would tie in with the idea that the visitors are a decent 1st half side. Brumbies have led at the break in 11/14 matches this season and 15/19 last year. It is also true that are worth opposing 2nd half, especially away, having been outscored 2nd half in 6/7 away games this season and 7/10 last year.

Brumbies have lost 4/7 away games this season and have Moore, Carter, Toomua and McCabe out. Injuries to Siliva and Mann-Rea means that prop Murphy will be starting his first match at hooker, with Holmes covering on the bench. The Brumbies have relied on a strong lineout for the past few seasons (approx. 90% success so far this campaign), so having an inexperienced thrower could remove one of the foundations of their game.

The Tahs were 25-9 down in Canberra after 53 minutes, but came back to 25-23 with 6 minutes remaining. The Brumbies received 2 yellow cards in the final quarter but still ‘won’ 2 key scrum penalties during that time. Tahs coach Cheika expressed disappointment after the game at inconsistencies in officiating the scrum /timewasting and there was also evidence of dissatisfaction with a cracked glass door in the coaching box.

Brumbies have scored 20 or more points in their last 9 away games, however they have also conceded an average of 28 – with 32 at the Rebels, 40 at the Crusaders and 44 at the Bulls.

In the March game, the Brumbies worked very hard to shut down the Tahs at source and used an aggressive rush defence. After building a lead, they also were happy to flood the breakdown and slow down ball when required. There have been 6 cards shown in the last 3 games between the teams and in 5/7 Brumbies away games.

Walsh has given cards in 4 of his 9 games this season but did hand out 3 in the recent Test between South Africa and Wales and showed he was happy to punish cynical play near the tryline. The Brumbies have received the most yellow cards this season and a repeat of that 2nd half against the Tahs again would likely see players binned. A Brumbies card is 2.25 and 2 away cards is 7.0

Based on the Tahs 2nd half record at home and the Brumbies away form and players missing, will take the -5 2nd half handicap.

Ashley-Cooper is 5.5 anytime scorer, while Hooper is 6.0

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis (c), 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Jacques Potgieter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Stephen Hoiles, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Jono Lance, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 24 Cam Crawford.

Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Andrew Smith, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (c), 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Jordan Smiler, 5 Leon Power, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Ruaidhri Murphy, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Luke Holmes, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 JP Smith, 19 Fotu Auelua, 20 Jack Whetton, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Clyde Rathbone, 23 Lionel Cronje.

 

 

 

 

Force vs Blues

Blues have lost their last 13 away games and 22 of 25 trips going back to 2011. Their away matches this season have been high scoring, with 5/6 games seeing 50 or more points and they are conceding an average of 34 points on the road.

Force have won 5 consecutive home matches by an average score of 24-13 and 11/12 games there would have gone under the 44.5 total points available, as would 5 of the last 6 in the fixture.

They have only won 1/7 matches against the Blues and suffered 20+ point losses in 4 of the games, however this is a much improved side that have already knocked over the Chiefs, Tahs, Bulls etc.

As usual with the Blues, their squad looks very good on paper and a price of 2.25 should appeal. Their form on the road can’t be ignored though and am happy enough with 1.8 for the hosts, who have shown themselves capable of frustrating opponents and then counterattacking.

Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Marcel Brache, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Hugh McMeniman, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Oliver Hoskins, 19 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Solomoni Rasolea.

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 George Moala, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Charlie Faumuina/ Angus Ta’avao, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Angus Ta’avao/ Tom McCartney, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Piri Weepu, 22 Francis Saili, 23 Tevita Li.

New Zealand v England – 3rd Test

Putting England results in context hasn’t always been an easy task. Using the World Cup cycles, a period of strength between 2000-2003 (42/47 wins) was followed by underperforming in 2004-2007 (21/47 wins) and again in 2008-2011 (24/45 wins). The side that Stuart Lancaster took over in 2012 was in need of plenty of repair but it is also true that expectation levels were low due to what happened in the 2011 World Cup.

That isn’t the case now, as shown by the disappointment at losing margins of 5 and 1 points away in New Zealand. The closer it gets to 2015, the more frequent the comparisons to 2003 will also become.

The foundations are now in place with a settled coaching staff and team culture established. The attack looks far more threatening than the version in early 2012 that seemed to rely on charge-downs, while an aggressive defence and ability to fight back in games are now common traits. The fact that players out of form at their clubs – Morgan, Kvesic etc are playing well in this environment bodes well and there is a sense that the current U20 players and younger have a pathway into the side.

One of the biggest challenges ahead may be that of selection. Having 12 Premiership clubs (and a strong Championship below) means there are plenty of players to consider but the time to experiment before 2015 is limited. Having that strength in depth is of course a big positive and having so many options would be envied by the likes of Cotter who has a much smaller pool to choose form, but knowing a preferred XV or at least being close is also crucial.

In the forwards and taking lock as an example, the selection has been pretty consistent.

ENG locks

 

While the Launchbury / Lawes combo worked very well in the recent 6Nations, Parling had started 15 games before missing games due to the Lions tour / then injury and has impressed this tour.

The plan for this match was a first start for Lawes and Parling together and given it is a pairing that needs to be looked at some point, it made sense to do it now. There was also a suggestion from Lancaster that Launchbury was struggling to recover between games this tour too.

Of the 3 players, it would seem that Parling is the most suited to starting rather than being asked to make an impact from the bench so it will be interesting to see how all 3 fit into future squads.

A late injury to the Leicester lock means that instead the Launchbury / Lawes combo has been picked again with Attwood (who played 67 minutes in the week) on the bench. That will likely be a cause of frustration for the coaches, as it removes the chance to look at a different unit and also means their opposite numbers are fresher.

Form and injury will play a part, but if a tournament was starting tomorrow and all forwards were available then it is probably fair to say the coaches would mostly be making selection decisions on known quantities. In the backs that may not be the case yet. Looking at wing selections since 2012, it can almost be split into a conservative period at the start and then younger players brought in and more experimenting from the Argentina tour onwards.

ENG wings

The scheduling issues have not helped this tour, but this weekend will see the 3rd different wing combination in 3 games. If that means that each option has now been assessed, then it can be seen as a positive- but a decision will surely need to be made soon.

Ashton’s return to form after being dropped will be seen as a big plus. He missed the Fiji match through suspension and was rested for Argentina but before the most recent 6Nations was a consistent pick in the team, with 19 starts. Looking back, the coaches may wish they had experimented with different options more in that middle period – as there was a run of 7 games where they played Brown out of position and a struggling Ashton. On the other hand, they may deem the defensive options were necessary at the time and New Zealand certainly have favoured the selection of multiple fullbacks.

Here is a look at the different midfield pairings since 2012 and few of their basic stats from ESPN Scrum match data.

ENG centres

 

Allowing for the usual points like they don’t measure quality of action, strength of opposition, where the action took place on pitch / importance to game etc –there are still some interesting factors.

Barritt and Tuilagi were the preferred option up until the Argentina tour and possibly would have started all 17 games in that run were it not for respective injuries. It was a combo that was frequently criticised for a lack of distribution and that in turn saw Goode brought in at fullback (from the Fiji match to Wales loss in 6Nations) to act as a creative presence. Picking Goode at 15 was also likely a factor in Brown appearing on the wing which shows how selection choices can effect multiples positions / balance of side.

That Barritt / Tuilagi pairing put in one of the stand-out performances on that graphic in the 2012 win over New Zealand and it isn’t a surprise to see the latter involved in the majority of games that feature high numbers of clean breaks and defenders beaten. Injuries to both saw a new combination of Twelvetrees / Tomkins picked for the 2013 Autumn Internationals (with Trinder, Eastmond,Burrell all considered in the build-up). With 0 clean breaks in 3 matches and a few key tackles missed it won’t have been deemed a successful experiment, but it was given a chance.

Twelvetrees was retained for the 6Nations and with Tuilagi injured and Barritt just returning, he was used with Burrell throughout the tournament. The Gloucester centre does have experience at fly-half too and the kicking option and ability to act as a playmaker would be reasons for his inclusion. His selection also removed some of the decision making pressure from Farrell, who for all his strengths may not be in the same natural creative ilk as Burns, Ford etc. Having worked well in the 6Nations, it is understandable that Lancaster wanted to see how this unit performed in New Zealand however it did mean breaking up the duo he had thrown together in the 1st Test.

It was only Eastmond’s 2nd start and the fact that he and Tuilagi caused an established world class midfield of Smith and Nonu so many problems, in Eden Park, has probably not received the credit it deserved. Looking at metres carried, clean breaks and defenders beaten it is right up there with the best performances since Lancaster took over (and against much tougher opposition than Argentina B etc). If one of the aims of this tour is discovering which players can cope under intense pressure then this pairing certainly delivered on their 1st outing.

It would be easy to harshly state that the Twelvetrees / Burrell duo failed that test last week, but with the former just coming back from injury and the latter joining the camp late and having to switch from 12 at club to 13 at International, they did go into that game handicapped.

That much has since been acknowledged by Lancaster – “it was a big step for Billy Twelvetrees to come back after being out for so long. He hadn’t played since the May 3. For Luther, too, it was a big step to play at that level.

There was a desire to trial Tuilagi on the wing last week, but the coaches would arguably have learnt more by retaining him and Eastmond in the centres. The Twelvetrees / Tomkins option were at least given 3 games in a row and while it is true that there is a huge squad to keep happy out in New Zealand, the difficult nature of the scheduling etc, he did leave Webber and Parling in the side for the 2nd Test at the expense of Hartley and Lawes.

Looking at the match stats for last week – the England 9/10/12/13 conceded 10 combined turnovers and missed 13 of 37 attempted tackles. Each of those players was either just back from an injury or short of match practice. Discovering that those players may not be at their best at the end of a long season , away at New Zealand in those circumstances may well be deemed useful of course but perhaps it didn’t need a Test match to prove it.

With Farrell and Care out this week, this 3rd Test will see the same backline as that in the 1st with the exception of Ashton for May (who has seemingly been dropped completely out of contention).

While the margin of defeat was closer in the 2nd Test, the superior performance occurred 2 weeks ago. For players such as Burns, Eastmond it is an extra opportunity they may not have expected and a real chance to jump up the pecking order. There is also the point that how players have performed in training and in the environment will have been closely monitored.

New Zealand welcome back Read at number 8 and the injury to C Smith sees exciting prospect Fekitoa given a chance. In contrast to England, Hansen’s selections have been more settled. He was starting from a far better position after 2011 than his counterpart and his concerns will relate more to whether some of the senior players can go onto 2015 and watching potential back up players head abroad to the Top 14 / Japan etc. Beauden Barrett, like Ben Smith before him is having to wait his turn for a start despite being in excellent form.

The hosts have won 10/11 games in Hamilton by an average score of 50-12, with 50+ point margins in 6 of those games (against Argentina, Italy, Wales, Canada, Japan and Ireland). There can sometimes be a worry that a touring team will switch off in the final game of a lost series but that shouldn’t be an issue here and England did come back to draw the 3rd Test in South Africa in 2012. On the other hand, New Zealand have proved to be more ruthless than SA in these circumstances and beat Ireland (by 60 in Hamilton) and France (by 15 in New Plymouth) in the final match of recent tours.

Hansen has pointed out that after being accused of slowing down the pace in the 1st Test, England then “took us on in Dunedin playing a game of real pace and worked out they couldn’t”. He has picked up on Lancaster’s comments about making the right decisions about where to play and has suggested the visitors may kick more this week. Going back to the selection issues, it might be also the case that England maintain that quick game plan, but this time with players in form and see what happens.

Looking at recent match results, New Zealand’s winning margins over England have been decreasing – from 32 in 2008 down to 26, 13, 10, 8, 5, 1. The All Blacks have only led at halftime in 1 of their last 5 games against all opposition but have outscored opponents 2nd half in 15/16 matches and England by 5,5 and 4 points in the last 3 meetings. Those 3 matches are also the only times that England have been outscored 2nd half since summer 2013.

While the visitors will be very keen to sign off the tour with a win – it is the end of a long season and again different combinations are being asked to perform. In contrast, the All Blacks are building to their Rugby Championship season and after a rusty start to the series, did look very dangerous last week. England may be looking for a 80 minute performance, but the same is true of the hosts. This might be that old cliche of a match too far for England. Will back All Blacks 1-12 margin at 2.75 with an eye on taking a bigger margin in-play if they threaten to cut loose.

There has been a card in 12 of the previous 14 matches between the teams and would be happy enough backing at least 1 with Garces involved. An England card is 2.2

Read anytime scorer is usually a decent option and he has scored in his last 3 games against England. The concern would be that it is his first game back from injury and the coach has said “..Liam is going to be on because Reado won’t play the whole game”.

New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Liam Messam, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Ryan Crotty.

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (capt), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Rob Webber, 17 Matt Mullan, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Ben Morgan, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Luther Burrell.

New Zealand v England – 2nd Test

England have won 8 of their previous 43 away games in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand with a run of 4 consecutive wins occurring 2000-2003. Since then they have won 1 of 15 matches on tour to the ‘Big 3’, which puts a 3 match series in New Zealand in context.

This coaching group will have experience of a 3 game tour, having led England in South Africa in June 2012, though it is worth noting Andy Farrell had returned to Saracens and didn’t re-join the coaching staff until July.

Since Lancaster took over, England have won 18/28 matches by an average score of 24-16. Against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand it is 2 wins and a draw from 9 games by an average score of 20-21. They haven’t lost by more than 9 points in those games against the SH sides.

The obvious challenges this week would have been analysing the 1st Test and reintegrating the players from Saracens / Northampton. The number of handling errors from front 5 players did disrupt the visitors attack and the coaches may look at the way the All Blacks scored immediately after England in both the 24th and 66th minute. As with the 2012 game against this opponent, Tuilagi ended up the top carrier in the match and along with Morgan will be on the hosts radar as a player that can cause damage.

There was a sense that New Zealand identified space behind the England wingers early on but didn’t always find a way to exploit that. Credit also has to go to the visitors for putting them under plenty of pressure but they could be punished with similar situations occur. Conrad Smith said in the NZ media this week:

There wouldn’t have been many times we went past two or three phases..but it felt like if we were to, we would have been asking some big questions of them. That’s their style of play. They’re very good at set piece and very good at first, second, third phase, but I think we can challenge them after that. I think we can build more pressure if we work hard to use the width in our game. That will create opportunities rather than going from set piece to set piece.”

No Read and Savea robbed the team of some of their usual width and power respectively and there was perhaps some rust given it was their first hit out of the season. They only led for a combined 6 minutes which was an improvement on the Ireland game, when they first took the lead in the 81st minute. Bar a big win over Japan, their previous 5 matches have seen relative low margin wins (8 points or less) which has led to the view that the team may be in decline or at least peaked. While there are certainly question marks over certain positions (hooker, prop), an alternative opinion is that they are still winning matches in this run.

If the hosts do wish to increase the tempo this week then the venue may assist them. This is only their 3rd match at the stadium, with the previous games seeing a 21-11 win over South Africa and 41-33 over Australia last year. (England played 3 matches there in 2011 too). Highlanders games played at the stadium have tended to be high scoring, with an average score of 52 total points since 2012. Savea is back and he has a very good record against England, having scored 4 tries in his 2 matches, while Ben Smith makes his first INT start at 15.

England have opted to retain the majority of last week’s pack, with the exception being Wood coming in for Haskell. Given the success at the lineout / scrum last week that isn’t a huge surprise and it does also mean the likes of Hartley, Lawes and Vunipola will be coming on with a point to prove.

In the backs, the 6Nations halfback and centre combos have been brought back and Tuilagi shifted to the wing. He did play youth level on the wing but has only the 2 starts there for Leicester. The fact that the move was suggested all week also means the All Blacks will have factored it in to their training. It does appear to be an experiment that the coaching staff are keen to look at and it is better to be doing it now than in the middle of a tournament.

Twelvetrees adds a kicking option that was absent last week (though there is the thought that it is a risk for both he and Cruden to be playing in this series given they are just back from injury) and that ability to field two play-makers both causes the AB defence a different challenge and seems to suit Farrell (works well at Saracens with Goode in the other role).

It is quite an unusual situation in that continuity of selection, loyalty to the 6Nations players, rewarding good form last week, keeping a large touring squad happy and a desire to look at different combos outside of a tournament environment all have to be balanced. The view on the changes made this will week differ if looking at the short-term or long-term implications and there is also the point that performances in training are mentioned a lot by Lancaster in interviews.

Steve Hansen highlighted a lack of preparation time and intensity as issues, so with an extra week together would expect an improvement this match. It is more common that the team that lost the opening game in a series would have a point to prove in the next match, but in this case it seems to be New Zealand. Much like with Edna Krabappel, you may only get one chance with the All Blacks.  However, based on last week’s performance backing the hosts at 1.14 isn’t appealing.

Looking at their last 5 wins over England, the winning margin has dropped each time since 2008 – 26,13,10,8 and 5 points (there was also the 17 point defeat in that run). England would have been ok with a handicap of +14 points in 27/28 games under Lancaster and indeed +10 too.

The hosts have 2 draws, a 4 point lead and 15 point deficit at HT in their last 4 games and England +7 on the HT handicap would have covered in all 3 games between the teams since 2012.

Referee Peyper has given at least 1 card in 10/11 Super Rugby games this season and 2 or more cards in 6/11. That is up on his previous seasons and there has been a card in 10 of the previous 11 matches between the teams. A yellow card is 1.67 while 2 or more cards is 3.2, but a preferable tactic may be just backing an England card at 2.25. 13 of Peyper’s 15 cards have been shown in the 2nd half – so waiting until halftime and then getting involved with bookings points is also an option.

Give his record against the visitors, Savea would be an obvious place to start for try scoring options but 8.0 1st,  2.3 anytime and even the 5.5 for 2 or more tries may look a bit short. Will be on Care at 7.0 and Tuilagi at 5.0 though and possibly Ben Smith at 3.25 (or better).

New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Victor Vito, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Manu Tuilagi, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Danny Care, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Rob Webber, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Matt Mullan, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Billy Vunipola, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Chris Ashton

New Zealand v England – 1st Test

New Zealand have a 84% win rate at home, with the last defeat coming in 2009 and have won the last 14 games at all venues. Taking them on in a 3 Test series at the end of a long season is already a formidable challenge but to do so with the handicap of key players arriving late is a ridiculous situation.

In theory this series is an opportunity for England to measure their progress against the best, however to begin with it may instead prove a ruthless audition for some of the fringe players.

In the 7 tour games in New Zealand from 1998, England have given debuts to 13 players. Of those – Beim, Sims, Baxendall, Fidler, Titterall, Ojo and Hobson ended up with less than 5 career caps, while the successes would be Lewsey with 58, Care 47 and Stevens 48. In home games, players such as Allen and Hodgson are examples of a perceived poor performance against the All Blacks leading to the idea that they aren’t suited for International rugby. (Not helped of course if Rob Andrew is one of the people putting the boot in). There may not be many more opportunities for some of the players selected in the 1st Test to impress again which does provide motivation but also pressure.

Lancaster has proved loyal to players from previous squads and the team selected does include 10/15 starters from the 2nd Test in Argentina in June 2013. The inclusion of Parling over Attwood and Gray (bench) over Ward perhaps points to desire to have the lineout as accurate as possible – at the expense of the workrate Ward brings and power of the Bath lock. While the majority of the All Blacks have been playing Super Rugby recently, some of the visitors squad are only just back from injury or like Eastmond haven’t played a competitive game for weeks which provides an additional challenge for the coaches.

The hosts have won 31 games in a row at Eden Park since 1995 by an average score of 34-14 and 10/12 home matches against England by a similar average score of 31-13.

They go into this match without IRB player of the year Read, the 12th Test he has missed since his debut. New Zealand have won 10/11 of those games by an average score of 44-11 with McCaw, Messam, Thomson, So’oialo and Vito filling in at number 8 in his absence. It will be Kaino this time and while he has started the last 4 games in that position for the Blues, it was back in 2008 that he wore the shirt for the All Blacks (including the 37-20 win over England in Auckland).

Read has scored in his last 3 matches against England while the also absent Savea picked up a brace in both 2012 and 2013. That means the last time one of the starting New Zealand team scored against England was Nonu in 2008.

With Barrett in great form and Cruden only just returning from injury (and looking a little rusty last weekend), it was thought that the former may get a chance to start this Test, but Hansen has kept his faith in the incumbent. The coach also pointed out they believe there is more benefit in starting with Cruden and having Barrett making an impact from the bench, than the other way round.

With Read and Savea unavailable there may be a few tweaks to the attack England saw last November. Kaino isn’t likely to bring the same width that Read does, though that isn’t always necessary if you are capable of bulldozing defenders. Hansen has compared Savea (“beast”) and Jane (“whippet”) and it is true that this backline with the exception of Nonu may be more elusive than direct. There has been mention of how Smith / Cruden will run it this week but while they do offer that threat, wouldn’t expect to see the high number of kicks from hand suddenly diminish.

England go into this match as underdogs, with a huge price of 17.0 available for the upset win. There can be instances when the hosts are caught unprepared in the 1st Test of a series but not sure that will happen here. Hansen has credited the visitors as the most improved side over the last 18 months and the performances of Tuilagi (2012), Brown (2013) will not have been forgotten.

Being the underdogs and written off in the media usually provides inspiration for a team, but there is also the unusual situation of certain players knowing they have been picked due to circumstance (their team not being in the Prem final) instead of merit. If they play well will they keep a returning 6Nations starter out of the side next Test? There is also the issue of integrating the incoming players and while it is always denied in the press – there could also be some hostility between players involved in the knockout games at the end of the season.

A handicap of +23 at 2.0 does look big for England but is understandable given the circumstances. For those that think the visitors will keep it closer than expected there are plenty of options available with +11 at 5.0 as an example. All Blacks backers may prefer the 2nd half handicap of -11 given the inexperience of the English frontrow options there and chance that Barrett, Fekitoa etc may cause damage when they are brought on.

I ended up going for the greedy choices of NZ to win by 51+ at 20.0 and England 1-5 at 34.0

Since 1998, England have played 7 matches in New Zealand and received at least 1 card in 5 of them, with a breakdown of 2 reds and 5 yellows. At all venues there has been a card in 10 of the last 12 games between teams. An England card is 2.1

There are some big prices available for England players to score, with Youngs at 11.0 and Morgan at 13.0 standing out.

New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Cory Jane, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Victor Vito, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Marland Yarde, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Jonny May, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Rob Webber, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Matt Mullan, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Tom Johnson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Chris Pennell