(Fancy making a fool out of yourself in the mailbag? Send your questions in by email to SuperRugbyMailbag@gmail.com or you can find me on the Twitter as @el_nonpareil)
That little Northern Hemisphere revival was cute but real rugby is back at last and with it, your favourite rugby betting extravaganza! Oh, you were only here for the mailbag? Well I can absolutely promise that none of the questions are made up. Don’t you dare skip to it…
Anway, we’re back, and remember: the sun never sets on Super Rugby. Ever. Speaking of things that never change, the picks format is the same as always: my pick is in bold and the home team are in caps. As for things that do change, every week I’ll pick two or three best bets. Bet them individually for a chance to double your money or pair them up to try and quadruple it, it’s your money, your choice, and almost all your profit (I claim 10% of any returns).
REBELS +4.5 vs Blues **BEST BET**
The logic here was that while both teams were severely depleted by injury this week, last year the Rebels were bad while the Blues were the sneaky good team (wins against both the Brumbies and Waratahs towards the end of the season). On top of that, you have a rookie fly half for the Rebels, up against a team with genuine difference makers and a stronger set piece. Repeat after me: eee-zee muh-nee.
For you non-believers of my too-good-to-be-true picking skill (and general non-believers of my existence beyond AI):
Picking Blues -4 vs The Rebels today #SuperRugby
— Simba (@el_nonpareil) February 23, 2017
Tana Umaga and Reiko Ioane might have looked very much like Emperor Palpatine and pre-masking Darth Vader crushing the “Rebels” – guys seriously, if you’re gonna call yourselves that, you need to offer some resistance now and then otherwise you’re more The Melbourne Losers – this morning/afternoon/night depending on where in the world you’re reading this but let’s move slightly past the All Black wing-centres past and future for a minute.
Blues fans, you might actually have a good team this year, and as much as Reiko is the hero you want, Augustine Pulu is the hero you need. When other teams plan for the Blues now they’ll see the scrum half position as a big threat, and that’s what you need when you’ve got a flaky fly half: someone who can take the game out of his hands. Pulu did it all today, and there’s a legitimate argument that he is New Zealand’s most complete scrum half (he’s absolutely my favourite, although Aaron Smith is still clearly the best). Pulu can kick, pass, manipulate the defence, defend the fringes aggressively, and he can run. Boy, can he run – how many times have you seen a scrum half who can the ball 50m out, step a defender who has seen him coming all the way, and then gas the cover defence? No long range support run try, no sneaky snipe around the blindside while the flanker still has his head in the scrum, just a straight up winger off the line-out still score. I’m going to say not very often, and that’s why Pulu makes such a big difference: you can’t just rush up on Ihaia West anymore, and that’ll be crucial when Sonny Bill Williams comes into the team and West loses the Francis security blanket. With the extra time that Pulu gives him, West will be able to settle into a support role and let Pulu take the decisions – and let’s be clear, the decisions should definitely be his to take.
I heard a great comparison earlier, and I’m still filthy with jealousy that I didn’t come up with it myself. Augustine Pulu absolutely is Russell Westbrook: big for the position that he plays, but small for the sport as a whole, he still plays with as much physicality as anyone else, and he combines it with all the talent. Sure, every now and then he’ll have you screaming “AAAAARGH YOU GOTTA PASS IT THERE RUSS/GUS” but that could equally have had you shouting “OH MY GOD RUSS/GUS YOU BEAUTIFUL MAN” next time around. They don’t take any shit. They aren’t the best but they’ll never believe that they aren’t, they’re definitely at least a little crazy, and if they’re not one of your favourite players then there’s definitely something wrong with you.
Blues players: this is Augustine Pulu’s world, you just live in it.
HIGHLANDERS -4.5 vs Chiefs
**Scene: A quiet bar in Dunedin. Two men sit in the corner, wine glasses in hand, raging against the “fixture computer”**
Tony: The Canes get the Sunpuppies, the Blues get the Melbourne Losers, the Crusaders get what’s left of the Brumbies, and we get each other?! How’s that fair?!
Dave: Tell me about it pal, I’ve had enough. I’m getting out of here.
Tony: Me too. Why are we even doing this? Do we have to even play the game? We’ll just win. Again. We always beat you nowadays.
**Dave smashes his glass on the table and walks away. Scene**
I thought the Chiefs would pull it out last season but they couldn’t, and maybe the Highlanders just have their number. After all, you can’t counter attack if the other team is letting you have all the ball, and if the Chiefs couldn’t get it done with Charlie Ngatai and Sam Cane in the team, I don’t think they can without them. Then again, these are the Chiefs we’re talking about. Stop smiling over there, McKenzie.
REDS -5.5 vs Sharks
The Reds are back in a big way this year and Quade is SO up for it, and for anyone who has even the slightest doubt over how focussed and ready he is for this season, I’ve heard he’s been preparing to face off against Pat Lambie by beating up a similarly child faced man. You really make it hard to defend you sometimes Quade.
The Reds definitely are a more intriguing team than in the last few years though: out go the useless (Goromaru and the coach), and in come heroes of Australian rugby including Scott Higginbotham, who has been involved in one of the more bizarre off-season storylines (charged with assaulting a police officer but now it sounds like the assault didn’t actually happen – more to come on that one definitely) but a lot depends on the breakdown here. Last year, the Sharks would have ruthlessly dismissed the Reds without ever threatening to entertain us but this year, the Sharks look jaded in the wing positions, have lost their creative spark at full back, and face a revitalised Reds team who have probably spent their off-season drinking from George Smith’s fountain over everlasting youth. Factor in Quade being a huge improvement over last year’s dross, Kerevi picking up where he left off and an underrated pack, and this might actually end up being the game of the weekend (only kidding, that’s definitely the Test quality being offered in Dunedin).
SUNWOLVES +27.5 vs Hurricanes
Chris Boyd, why do you hate fantasy rugby so much? You’re not Bill Belichick. Just start Barrett next time, OK?! At least the Sunwolves get a modicum of respite until the super sub reprises his role: they’ve only got to contend with Jordie Barrett, Ardie Savea, and a hungry Julian Savea – hey, he has been on a diet you know!? On a serious note, look out for a big return to form from him. He looks in shape from pictures I’ve seen, and it can’t have been easy for him to see his brother go from strength to strength while he lost his own place to WES FUCKING GOOSEN and JASON FORMER MELBOURNE LOSER WOODWARD.
Don’t bet this game though – the spread is just far too high. Imagine if the Canes are feeling merciful (yep, me neither), or if they’re up by 34 points when the Sunwolves grab a consolation score under the posts in the last minute because no one wants to get injured making a pointless try saving tackle. DON’T do it to yourself. Other than that, next please – I can’t talk about a game we’re going to learn nothing from.
CRUSADERS -15.5 vs Brumbies
It’s a sign of the times and how far the Brumbies have fallen that I’m not backing them to cover a 3 score spread against a Crusaders outfit that has a debutant on either wing and question marks over at least a couple more spots but unless Hawera is significantly better than Garden-Bachop (and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest he is), this game could get very bad, very quickly. Kyle Godwin never impressed me as much as he did for others at the Force and unless the 10-12 partnership gels quickly in defence and in attack, they’ll have a hard time stopping the relentless black and red machine.
WARATAHS -12.5 vs Force
Another Australian team, another rookie fly half. The moustached one misses out this week with a head knock, and while they’ll still probably have too much for a Force side that might be in the dying embers of its existence there’s every chance that they can take advantage of a team that is missing so many of its playmakers from years gone by. It’d still be a big shock for the Force to win but no Foley, no party – stay away. PUT YOUR MONEY AWAY but I’m nothing if not an enabler: take the points if you must.
CHEETAHS +9.5 vs Lions **BEST BET**
Last year, the Stormers coach had one of the all-time great excuses for getting annihilated in a knock out game that pretty much boiled down to “we got our asses kicked because we hadn’t had our asses kicked earlier in the year.” If there’s any truth to his theory, the Lions have the gift and the curse this year with no games against any New Zealand teams but with one against the Sunwolves, two against the Kings… and one against the Cheetahs.
The Cheetahs were phenomenally fun last year but they’re also really bad. Defence is even more optionally for these guys than for the Rebels, and we all know how that turned out. Besides, when have you ever seen a Cheetah come out on top against a Lion?
As for the Lions, this is a rare opportunity for the Johannesburg “man dem” (if you know, you know), with a historically easy slate of games this season. No one plays an easier set of games this season than last year’s heroic runners up, and they shouldn’t even come up against the “do we want a home play-off run” scenario this year: their last four weeks in the completion are an impressive run of Kings-Sunwolves-Bye-Sharks. On top of that, they don’t play outside of South Africa after round 12, and this might be the last year that they get this kind of advantage while this group is still together.
Can Jantjies survive under heavy pressure this year? Will Kriel and Whiteley still be as effective around the park without Tacklingberg? Will Faf finally get yellow carded for knocking the ball 5m out from his own try line on or will he keep getting away with it because he does pull it off at some Cristiano Ronaldo taking free kicks level frequency? We won’t find out until the play offs. No pressure boys.
KINGS +12.5 vs Jaguares
The Jaguares were stupidly underwhelming last season but their players still managed to perform reasonably well for Argentina so not all hope is lost but it does make you wonder why they were so hopeless in 2016. The biggest reason is indiscipline: poor play exiting their 22, trying to force high-risk low-reward plays, and a general inability to not listen to the referee or abide by the laws of the game. On top of that, they’re missing their first choice 9 and 10… and I’m still picking them against the Kings. That’s how bad the Kings are, especially with them losing a few of their best performers from last year. Then again, the Jaguares are nothing if not surprising so don’t be shocked if we see another double red and double yellow card “performance”. I still can’t believe that happened.
STORMERS -4.5 vs Bulls
The Stormers have been shorn of a few key pieces in what was a superlative platoon of forwards last season, and they’re without the talented Zas for the season. Senatla, who I’m not convinced by just yet, hasn’t made it into the matchday squad and the Stormers have chosen the wrong fly half (du Plessis): you shouldn’t lose your job from injury! Not that picking du Preez would have me reversing my pick – Handre Pollard is back at last, and leads a Bulls team with more ambition with ball in hand than in years past. Throw in one of the few lock partnerships that can go toe to toe with the Stormers pair, and a back three featuring Jesse Kriel (no introduction required), Travis Ismaiel (pretty handy), and the exciting Jamba Ulengo (I’m a BIG fan and I’ve only seen him play a handful of times), and you’ve got the perfect recipe for an upset.
Is it going to happen this year? I mean we were good last year at the end, right? Tana just keeps on getting making the boys better and last year he was still learning. We’ll make it back to the playoffs this year. Right? – Danny, The Dark Side of the Moon (8am GMT).
Just for you Danny, I asked a few friends what they thought:
C’mon Aaron, that’s just cruel.
Can’t really tell if Mr Coles is confused, mystified, or if that’s just his RBF.
Jesus, show some respect. I think they genuinely believe it’s really their year. Someone take them seriously!
Yep, that’s right. Reiko Ioane is a fucking monster and he did unspeakable things to the Rebels today. Sonny Bill Williams comes back soon too and word on the street is he’s pretty handy (coming up soon from yours truly: why he is the most underrated big name in rugby), Nanai has picked up from where he left off, the Blues pack looks like it’s ready to make the leap this year, and Augustine Pulu putting on a Blues shirt might be enough to save Auckland from Ihaia West.
Still, it’s not like you’ve lost your best two wings from last year to pastures new and your third best might be out for the year. Oh wait. Well, there’s Digby. And at least you’ve got all the help in front of you.
It might be a lot more make or break for you than anyone thinks but chill Richie, it’s the Blues. They will fuck it up, probably.
R-E-I-K-O FUCKING IOAAAAAAAAAAAANE!!! We’re gonna go all the damn way. No one can stop us now!! Who are we gonna play in the Grand Final? – Danny, The Dark Side of the Moon (11.30am GMT).
For fucks sake Danny, I was going to say you had a chance this year too. The playoffs that is, I’m not insane…
A lot of people are saying the NH is catching up to the SH now. Would you agree? If so, what areas do you think SH still has an edge? – Alex, Englishman in exile.
HAHAHAHAHA I have the best readers!! Wait, I think this might have been at least semi-serious?!
I’m going to go with yes and no. What most people don’t realise is that at the elite level, the smallest differences can make a massive impact on the result so gaps between teams can be overemphasised (case in point, take Australia vs England matches in 2016 and remove some silly mistakes made by their halves and the scores are a lot closer, and maybe even flips one or two of the losses into a win). The other problem over the last few years is that the gap was first underestimated (pre-World Cup), and then overestimated (post-World Cup). And now, it’s coming back round to underestimated: Wales have been better than before but I still don’t believe in their ability to control and win close games. Ireland have been great, with caveats: South Africa were and are a mess, while New Zealand had a bad day with some bad coaching decisions made, and they have also had a poor performance against an improved but by no means great Scotland. Meanwhile, across the channel France might have signalled a hint of a return to competency and back closer to home, England have rebounded from the terrible underperformance at the World Cup and have depth, confidence, and still have that nagging sense that there’s still a little something missing.
South of the equator, Argentina are still searching for consistency and have a big issue with their squad getting old together and have decided to hamstring themselves by adopting a Kiwi style selection policy but without the benefit of multiple top level teams for their players to play in. South Africa really need to find a coach with the ability to you know, coach a team and find a way to retain more of their talent, and Australia are still coming to terms with being overrated after the World Cup. They still find ways to see a special ability in an incomplete player and totally fall in love with him. I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again time and time again: Foley is not an elite fly half and there’s a reason you’ll never hear me refer to him as a playmaker (clue: he isn’t one), Folau isn’t a full back and neither is he an outside centre (he’s a wing), and Phipps isn’t a top level scrum half (I don’t know what he is). Seriously Australia, identify shortcomings in players and sort them out! With all that said, New Zealand are still New Zealand.
Long story short: the gap has only narrowed if you believed it was bigger than it actually was.
Dear Triple “Baby Killer” Ess, long time listener, first time caller here. Just want to know why you’re so great? – Ed, Sydney.
You’re the real MVP Ed. Keep throwing me these set ups so I can tell these fools to scroll down and look at that record. Once again, I’M THE MOST PROFITABLE INVESTMENT VEHICLE IN THE WORLD!
Why is Luatua the one true God? – Anon, Bristol.
No Big Steve, please, can’t you stay?!! – Anon, Auckland.
Say it ain’t so Ex-Kiwi. – Steve H, Death Star.
Yep, this is where we’re at. And I’m pretty sure that last one isn’t actually a question Mr Hansen? Then again, neither was that. And fuck you Anon – I hope you enjoy watching the one true God in the Championship. See you next week!
Overall: 1-0 (100%)
Last Week: N/A
Best Bets: 1-0 (100%)
Last Week: N/A