Preview of Super Rugby Round 6 matches (all times AEDT).
FRIDAY, March 30
Highlanders v Melbourne Rebels at Rugby Park, Invercargill 5.35pm
Head to Head: Played 1 Highlanders 1 Rebels 0
Last clash: Round 9 2011 – Highlanders 40 bt Rebels 18 at AAMI Park
The Rebels are coming off their first win of the season and have rock-stars James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale back on the field but they’ll find the going tough in wild and windy Invercargill. The Highlanders will relish the chilly conditions after a surprise loss to the Brumbies ended their unbeaten start. While O’Connor will take over from the injured Danny Cipriani at five-eighth, Chris Noakes is lining up for just his second Super Rugby match, taking charge of an in-form backline. The home side have lost All Black hooker Andrew Hore but is boosted by the return of dominant back-rower Adam Thomson.
Tab Sportsbet: Highlanders $1.38 Rebels $2.90
Tip: Highlanders by 10 points
SATURDAY, March 31
Hurricanes v Cheetahs at Westpac Stadium, Wellington 3.30pm
Head to Head: Played 7 Hurricanes 5 Cheetahs 2
In Wellington: Played 2 Hurricanes 2 Cheetahs 0
Last clash: Round 9 2011 – Hurricanes 50 bt Cheetahs 47 at Vodacom Park
Wellington is buzzing, and not because the Phoenix are hosting an A-League finals. The Hurricanes beat the Blues in fantastic style in Auckland last weekend, with captain Conrad Smith capping a comeback win with a try on full-time. The Canes don’t have the best forward pack among the Kiwi teams but their skilful backline has a knack of making the most of their opportunities with Andre Taylor, Julian Savea and Beauden Barrett in sparkling form. Flanker Karl Lowe makes a long-awaited return from knee surgery for the home side. The Cheetahs pushed the Crusaders last week and will like their chances of troubling the Canes’ struggling scrum.
Tab Sportsbet: Hurricanes $1.30 Cheetahs $3.30
Tip: Hurricanes by 9 points
Chiefs v NSW Waratahs at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton 5.35pm
Head to Head: Played 16 Chiefs 10 Waratahs 6
In Hamilton: Played 7 Chiefs 4 Waratahs 3
Last clash: Round 7 2011 – Waratahs 23 bt Chiefs 16 at Allianz Stadium
The Tahs have a spring back in their step following their stirring win over the Sharks but they’ll have to be better again to toss the in-form Chiefs in Hamilton. Sonny Bill Williams and fellow All Black Richard Kahui form an ominous midfield combination outside the skilful Aaron Cruden. The key for NSW will be preventing the Chiefs from getting over the advantage line and recycling quick ball. The Chiefs have ball-runners all over the park, including try-scoring prop Sona Taumalolo. Brendan McKibbin has kept his spot at halfback ahead of Sarel Pretorius and will again have the goalkicking duties.
Tab Sportsbet: Chiefs $1.50 Waratahs $2.50
Tip: Chiefs by 5 points
Brumbies v Sharks at Canberra Stadium, Canberra 7.40pm
Head to Head: Played 17 Brumbies 9 Sharks 8
In Canberra: Played 9 Brumbies 8 Sharks 1
Last clash: Round 12 2011 – Sharks 34 bt Brumbies 16 at ABSA Stadium
Joe Tomane was a two-try match-winner for the Brumbies last week against the Highlanders but he’s back on the bench after a backline reshuffle. Five-eighth Matt Toomua returns from injury, meaning Christian Lealiifano moves to No.12 and Pat McCabe back on to the wing. The Brumbies will miss tough prop Dan Palmer against a strong Sharks scrum. The visitors have suffered a massive blow with classy playmaker Pat Lambie out and veteran Frenchman Frederic Michalak taking his place. The Sharks will be hungry after letting a big chance slip against the Waratahs.
Tab Sportsbet: Brumbies $2.05 Sharks $1.70
Tip: Sharks by 6 points
Western Force v Queensland Reds at nib Stadium, Perth 9.40pm
Head to Head: Played 8 Force 2 Reds 6
In Perth: Played 3 Force 2 Reds 1
Last clash: Round 2 2012 – Reds 35 bt Force 20 at Suncorp Stadium
This match couldn’t come soon enough for the injury-hit Reds after their 53-point humiliation by the Bulls in Pretoria. It was so bad that coach Ewen McKenzie made them review the tape only two hours after the game. With injuries mainly restricted to their backline, expect Queensland to take the strong Force pack on up front. Young flanker Liam Gill gets another chance to test himself by going head to head with David Pocock and an all-Wallabies back row at the breakdown. The Force, pipped by the Rebels last week, have lost lock Sam Wykes to injury and moved Nick Cummins off the wing and into the centres with Sam Wara back.
Tab Sportsbet: Force $2.00 Reds $1.75
Tip: Reds by 2 points
SUNDAY, April 1
Lions v Crusaders at Ellis Park, Johannesburg 2.05am
Head to Head: Played 15 Lions 11 Crusaders 4
In Johannesburg: Played 6 Lions 3 Crusaders 3
Last clash: Round 6 2010 – Crusaders 46 bt Lions 19 at AMI Stadium
All Black maestro Dan Carter is back in the No.10 jersey for the first time this season after overcoming his groin injury. The Crusaders have also recalled Wyatt Crockett and George Whitelock to their starting pack against the beefed-up Lions who were highly physical in their loss to the Stormers. The Lions will miss hard-working centre Doppies la Grange who has had elbow surgery but they’re expected to have flyhalf Elton Jantjies back on board. The Crusaders have struggled first up on trips to Africa in recent years and know it won’t be a walk in Ellis Park.
Tab Sportsbet: Lions $3.30 Crusaders $1.30
Tip: Crusaders by 7 points
Stormers v Bulls at Newlands Rugby Stadium, Cape Town 3.10am
Head to Head: Played 17 Stormers 8 Bulls 8 drawn 1
In Cape Town: Played 9 Stormers 4 Bulls 4 drawn 1
Last clash: Round 17 2011 – Bulls 19 bt Stormers 16 at Newlands Rugby Stadium
As the stats above testify, there’s nothing much between the top two South African sides. The pace-setting Stormers have yet to lose in 2012 but this is easily their toughest match to date. They have prepared for a tough battle up front by starting big flanker Rynhardt Elstadt in the back row instead of free-running Nick Koster. The Bulls have stuck by the same team which demolished Queensland 61-8 and produced seven second-half tries. The trick for the visitors will be unlocking the Stormers brick-wall defence.
Tab Sportsbet: Stormers $1.57 Bulls $2.30
Tip: Stormers by 3 points