WE reach the penultimate week of the 2016 Super Rugby season and there are only four teams remaining.
And none of them, of course, is Australian (in truth, the Brumbies were very good last weekend, but quite simply none of the Aussie teams is worthy of a spot in the top four teams this season).
Instead, it is the Lions from South Africa left to withhold the Kiwi onslaught, as they try to keep the trophy from returning to the Land of the Long White Cloud in the hands of the Hurricanes, Highlanders or Chiefs.
To help you fund a winner this weekend, we preview both semi-finals:
HURRICANES V CHIEFS
Saturday 30 July, 5:30pm AEST, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
The first of the 2016 Super Rugby finalists will be decided in windy Wellington, where the Hurricanes (paying $1.59 to win) go in as favorites against the Chiefs (at $2.35). The line is currently 4.5 points, in favour of the visitors.
What can you say about the Hurricanes last weekend? They were fantastic, denying the terrible conditions to put on six sublime tries in beating the Sharks 41-0 at this ground. That was the ‘Canes sixth win in a row, having previously taken care of the Reds (H), Highlanders (H), Blues (H), Waratahs (A) and Crusaders (A). They’ve been building a head of steam for a while, and each of those wins is more impressive than the one before. Mind you, the Sharks did themselves no favours, kicking away far too much ball and missing 21 tackles. They spent much of the game struggling to keep up with the speed and intensity of the ‘Canes.
It’s not all brilliant news for the Hurricanes, however, with an injury cloud hanging over hooker and captain Dane Coles. Back up hooker Motu Matu’u is already out injured, so Coles will likely be given as long as possible to prove his fitness (he has been named, but bracketed with the fabulously named Ricky Riccitelli).
Their opponents in this game, the Chiefs, spent the week ducking over to beautiful Cape Town just long enough to smack the Stormers to the tune of 60-21, scoring eight tries in the process. It’s difficult to know what to take out of that performance – the score line is impressive, but this was the first time the Stormers had faced Kiwi opposition all season, and they had absolutely no answer (as we suspected – the Chiefs were one of our specials in betting last week).
The Chiefs have changed three from last weekend – all in the backs, and all significant returns. Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden return in the halves, while the explosive Seta Tamanivalu is back in the centres.
These teams have already met once this season, with the Chiefs winning 28-27 at this ground back in Round Nine, but the Hurricanes have shown marked improvement since then.
TIP: Hurricanes 1-12
SUGGESTED BET: It sounds like a cop out, but it would not surprise to see either side win this game, and it should be an absolutely cracking contest. The Hurricanes are probably peaking at the right time, but Coles would be a big loss for them. The Chiefs were great last weekend, but have had a brutal travel schedule. Stick with the ‘Canes in a close one. Happy to back them at around $1.60, or to win 1-12 at $2.63. But, whatever you do, make sure you are in front of a TV for this game – it should be brilliant.
LIONS V HIGHLANDERS
Saturday 30 July, 11:00pm AEST, Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg
And so to Johannesburg, where the Lions (at $1.77 to win) go in as favorites against the reigning Super Rugby champions, the Highlanders (who are $2.05). The line in this game is 1.5 points, to the Kiwis.
Depending on the result in the earlier game, we could be looking at a repeat of last year’s final (where the Highlanders beat the Hurricanes in Wellington) or the Lions might be playing for the chance to host this year’s final.
But whatever happens, the Lions have been magnificent this season. They fully deserved the honour of hosting a final last weekend, and they should be feeling very confident this week after finally beating the Crusaders for the first time in eight attempts. They won that game 42-25, and were very impressive in doing so, leading from the first minute and never really appearing in danger. They have been pretty good against the Kiwi teams this season beating the Chiefs (A) and Blues (H), losing to the Highlanders (A) and Hurricanes (H), and splitting their games against the Crusaders (losing in the result season, and winning in the finals, both times at home). That’s the best record of any foreign team against the New Zealanders this year, and indicates they have the game to match it with the Kiwis.
The Lions have named an extended squad, but scrum half Ross Cronje faces a fitness test.
The Highlanders are absolutely racking up the frequent flyer points this season. Incredibly, they haven’t played in the same country in consecutive weeks since Round 14! Since then they have been to South Africa (beating the Kings), Argentina (beating Los Jaguares), New Zealand (beating the Chiefs) and Australia (beating the Brumbies). Now they have to fly to South Africa to play the Lions in a semi-final and, even if they win, they will be on a plane back to New Zealand to play the final… The players claim they enjoy the travel, but it has to catch up with them at some point.
Last weekend, the Highlanders hung on to beat the Brumbies in atrocious conditions in Canberra, but they needed a bit of assistance from the TMO, with the Brumbies being denied a late winning try in controversial circumstances. They defended well, but the Brumbies matched them up-front, where the Lions will again be strong.
TIP: Lions 1-12
SUGGESTED BET: Another great game. I think the travel is starting to catch up with the Highlanders, so am tipping the Lions to top off a dream season by playing in the Final. Back them at $1.77, and roll them into the Hurricanes at $2.82 for the double.
I am also going to back the Hurricanes to win the competition at the $2.75. If they can win this weekend, I think they will start heavy favorites against the winner of the other semi-final and I want to be on them now.