After a horrific start with the referee conspiring to screw my Highlanders v Blues pick and then the Hurricanes not bothering to show up wishing they’d not bothered to show up, I was 0-2 and staring down the barrel. Since then, this particular oracle is 6-1 to leave me 6-3 at the end of week one: at this rate, my picks are the most profitable investment vehicle IN THE WORLD. Can the Crusaders make Umaga’s rotation look foolish? Is this the week a South African team will beat a Kiwi side in New Zealand? Will Reece Hodge kick a ball out of the ground in Pretoria? Will I go 8-0 or 0-8? Probably 0-8. Definitely 0-8.
As always, the home team is in CAPS and my pick is in bold; please direct any abuse to @el_nonpareil on the Twitter or nero080215 on Reddit.
Blues +5.5 vs CRUSADERS
This line started off at somewhere around -2 Crusaders and has steadily crept up to over 5 points because Tana Umaga has made half a dozen changes like, you know, replacing Joe Edwards with Jerome Kaino. The change in the 9-10 pairing is admittedly more questionable but both Guyton and McGahan performed well in pre-season while Ihaia West and Bryn Hall can provide backup from the bench if needed. What about Tana’s other changes that have spun Auckland into a confused rage? You mean rotating his hookers, starting a fullback who’s great at taking the high ball and running it back (against the team that kicked the most in round 1), and starting Rene Ranger at 13? Speaking of Ranger, don’t forget Moala, Kaino, Luatua, Gibson, and Tuipolotu (there’s always big Charlie Faumuina and Akira Ioane on the bench for good measure too). Those big ball carriers will punish the Crusaders unchanged lineup in contact and without the experience of players like Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty, and Matt Todd I’m not sure the Crusaders will even win, let alone cover the spread.
Waratahs +8.5 vs BRUMBIES
So the Brumbies eh? After a fantastic start (and before you kill me for last week’s pick, don’t forget who tipped the Brumbies to be minor champions this year…), they’re odds on favourites to take control of the Australian group by beating their only real challengers in week 2. They should, and probably will, win on Friday morning but were they that good against the Hurricanes last week or were the Hurricanes just that bad? Phil Kearns laid into the Hurricanes and called them fat after the match last week but Julian Savea aside, they didn’t look all that out of shape to me. In fact, the Canes managed to run for more metres, make more carries, and beat more defenders while taking a 40 point beating. 45 combined handling errors and turnovers killed the Hurricanes but the spread here has moved from Brumbies -5.5 to -8.5 on the back of that win. The Waratahs slowed down considerably after half time against a rubbish Reds first half but don’t expect them to be as charitable as last week’s rusty Hurricanes team and in Will Skelton, they have one of the best maul defenders in the game.
CHIEFS -15.5 vs Lions
Everything about this line just makes me feel slightly jumpy: 15.5 is a lot of points to cover but after the Lions made the Sunwolves look just about competitive last week and then a long trip down to the other side of the world, they’re going to rock up against a genuinely strong contender for the Championship. With Damian McKenzie kicking long range penalties and the way that the Chiefs picked up the pace once they bought on Diet Aaron Smith/Brad Weber, the Chiefs will score points regularly and pile on the misery late on. The Lions might keep it close if they can get an advantage in the tight five but their own best forwards play in the back row, and they might not manage to do too much damage in defence if Aaron Cruden continues his upward curve on return from injury. Look out for him to turn on the style when he steps out from first receiver and lines up against Lionel Mapoe.
HIGHLANDERS -4.0 vs Hurricanes
Last year’s finalists didn’t get off to the best of starts this time round but that’s where the similarities end. With the Blues holding onto possession for long periods of time through their endless big ball carriers, it was difficult for the Highlanders to play their preferred type of counterattacking, punch-for-punch game but they still came close to winning, and might well have done so if the referee hadn’t missed a high shot on Fekitoa 30 seconds before sending Patty Osborne to the bin with 10 minutes to go. As for the Hurricanes, they aren’t as bad as you might think after last week and the underlying stats show a mixed bag from week one but it turned out that they did miss an experienced partnership that played so well last year after all. Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith? Nope, more like Jeremy Thrush and James Broadhurst. With Thrush enjoying pastures European this year and Broadhurst still suffering the aftereffects of a nasty head knock from last year, the Hurricanes forward pack was pushed around last week. Dane Coles was missing then and will be missing now too, and the Highlanders forward pack will look to take advantage. The Highlanders pack were actually outplaying their powerful Blues counterparts last week until they lost Liam Squire, who’s starting from the bench this time, and if the Hurricanes fall behind early this could turn nasty again.
REDS -6.5 vs Western Force
The Western Force delivered on their promise to play a more attacking brand of rugby but still couldn’t manage to overcome a Rebels side that lost their first and second choice fly-halves before 20 minutes were on the clock and ended up having debutant winger turned emergency turned crisis cover fly half Reece Hodge directing play. Admittedly, Hodge played very well and looked like he could kick penalties from his own 22, but if the Force couldn’t get it done at home to the Rebels, they won’t get it done away against the Reds either. This Reds team isn’t up to much though and they looked pretty pathetic in their first half against the Waratahs last week – they looked better in the second half but the game was gone by then. Karmichael Hunt is moving to inside centre this week as he looks to push for the Wallabies 12 shirt and might just give the Reds the spark in attack they’ll need. The Force will help by being open defensively themselves but what’ll really hurt them is their lack of a lineout – and the Reds have a pretty handy one to match up against them with.
BULLS -6.5 vs Rebels
Jack Debreczeni is back, and after Reece Hodge’s superlative performance last week, the Rebels have more than an outside chance of causing an upset, especially with a 10 and 15 who can kick the ball miles in the thin Pretoria air but when all’s said and done, they’re still the Rebels playing in South Africa and until they show that they can win outside of Australia, I’m not picking them in this match no matter who disjointed the Bulls looked without Handre Pollard. Rudy Paige will have to put the Bulls on his back if they’re going to cover this spread and if he ever wants a shot at making the Springbok 9 shirt his, then a dominant performance in Saturday’s game will be a good starting point. Even if he doesn’t perform to that level, the Bulls forward pack still might bring it home against an underrated Rebels pack that’ll be tired after last week’s exertions and a long trip in midweek.
Stormers -6.5 vs CHEETAHS
The Stormers were pretty good in their opening matchup and expect from a fun opening stanza, the Cheetahs really weren’t. They might have come close to upsetting the Jaguares (and saved me from going 0-3) but that game was only close because Landajo and Nicola Sanchez had simultaneous out of body experiences. As soon as they were back to their full complement of 15 and realised that Super Rugby is you know, actually competitive, the Jaguares walked all over their mismatched opponents. The Stormers won’t be as generous and will find points easy to come when the Cheetahs open style leaves holes in their defence.
Jaguares +4.5 vs SHARKS
Anyone think that the Jaguares had a rude awakening last week? After hearing all the talk about how they’re basically a test side, they coughed out all the smoke people were blowing up their… noses… when the Cheetahs gut-punched them again and again in the opening 20 minutes last week. Now that they know this competition is going to be a real challenge that they can’t just skate through until the internationals come round, expect them to be sharp and disciplined from the start. The Sharks had a relatively easy time against the Southern Kings but had a slow start to the game and fell behind early. It’s one thing to come back to win against (probably) the weakest team in the competition but entirely another to do it against a team as strong as the Jaguares. The Sharks will struggle to raise their intensity after what was really warmup game last week and the Jaguares don’t have the traditional travel disadvantage this week either – expect the Jaguares to push hard from the beginning and come out with back to back wins after two weeks.
2016 Record: 6-3 (66.67%); Last Week: 6-3