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The Highlanders have recruited well - bringing in Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu and I'm a fan of the 7.0 for them to top their conference. The past two years they have started strongly, winning 7/9 matches but then faded. With six home fixtures in the first nine games and four matches against conference rivals, they have the chance to build up momentum. Looking at their non-conference ties, they have an average success rate of 77% against that opposition in the specific fixtures (compared to 63% for the Crusaders and 54% for the Chiefs). They are unlikely to move too far away from their abrasive, grinding style but there has been talk of perhaps approaching the breakdown with a bit more subtlety and reducing the number of penalties conceded there. If they get off to their usual quick start then the price appeals and there is the option of opposing them after their Round 10 game against the Kings if you think they are going to slump late on, as in the last two seasons.
The Brumbies capitalised on both the Reds injury issues and general shambles at the Waratahs last season, but just fell short of a play-off spot. Critics may point at those factors and that their wins came against sides ranked eighth or below as reasons to oppose, but I am taking the 3.3 price for a conference win. The Lions tour is going to have an effect on the Australian group and the Brumbies may end up being less hit than their rivals. They only had three players represented in the last Australian squad compared to thirteen Waratahs and eight from the Reds. They weren't beaten by more than seven points by a top six side in 2012 and an already resilient team has been improved by David Pocock and some South African grunt. Unlike the other contenders they don't have a new coach settling in, or the distractions that Quade Cooper / Israel Folau may bring so they are our picks in Australia.
South Africa Conference
If you like the Bulls, I'd back them after their away tour, so from Round 7. They've only won 3/36 away games against their non-conference opposition in Rounds 3-6 so their price should increase before their run of home games. Unlike last season, the Sharks start with 4/6 home games and I can see them being popular with punters, but I'm breaking a habit of avoiding the favourite and backing the Stormers at 2.5. They finished seven points clear last season, despite only collecting two bonus points (the average was eight in 2012 with the Sharks, Bulls both picked up eleven) and it may be that their new signings and lessons learnt from a successful Western Province Currie Cup campaign brings a more attacking intent. A run-in that sees them play the Kings twice should build plenty of momentum.
Grand Final Winner
The pattern for league success of winning your home games, picking up points on the road and collecting bonus points is pretty well established now in most competitions. Super Rugby has the added intricacies of the conference system and how friendly the fixture compiler is. There is yet to be a Final winner that finished lower than second and while over a period of time the extended play-off system may change that, I'd still be happier backing a team that is more likely to secure a home semi-final than an outsider. The Stormers have finished in the top two in the last three seasons so have the pedigree. If you look at their matches against the other bookies favourites - they play the Chiefs, Crusaders, Brumbies and Reds at home and swerve the Highlanders completely so the price of 8.0 suits.