Cape Town - The results ran according to the predicted script but what happened on the field in the semi-final round may have injected some much needed interest into the Super Rugby grand finale that will be played in Christchurch on Saturday.
Crusaders hosting the Jaguares was the anticipated final several weeks ago. The Chiefs, the last team to beat the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, pushed the Argentinians close in their quarter-final, but otherwise they’ve had a fairly smooth ride to their historic first ever appearance in a Super Rugby final.
But the big statement was made this past weekend with their easy win over a Brumbies side that had played impressive rugby in the last two months and who would have travelled to Argentina with some hope. Five tries to one was as emphatic as it gets. The Crusaders by contrast did what they have done on a few more occasions in 2019 than they did in the previous two seasons - they showed signs of being mortal.
Perhaps we should not read too much into their poor second half against the Hurricanes, for they gave the impression that they thought they had the game won with their impressive first half and then fell into the trap of releasing pressure, something you can’t afford to do against the Hurricanes. But nonetheless they did not look invincible. Although Jaguares and Pumas lock Guido Petti was talking before the New Zealand semi-final, few would disagree with his view that the final is a game that his team can conceivably win.
"Each year we have improved and now we are in the final. We are looking forward to playing the Crusaders or the Hurricanes,” he said.
"It would be wonderful to have the final here at our home ground in front of such passionate supporters, but we will not fear travelling to New Zealand."
The Jaguares have won three of their last four games on Kiwi soil, and seven of their last eight in Australasia. Indeed, they have a much better record that side of the world than they do in South Africa, with both the Lions and the Stormers still unbeaten when it comes to clashes with the Jaguares on their home grounds.
Their history of winning in New Zealand is what makes this final a more appetising prospect for a neutral than the two finals that the Lions contested in New Zealand in 2016 and 2018. The Johannesburg based team never boasted quite the same winning form in New Zealand that the Jaguares do ahead of their two trips to finals that side the world. And because they are a franchise team and not the quasi-international squad that the Jaguares are they also never boasted the depth and therefore the freshness that the Jaguares do.
Their ability to rotate selections played a big part in creating the second half surge that has propelled the Jaguares to where they are. Lest it be forgotten, they were pretty ordinary in the early weeks, which was understandable if you recall they elected to ease back in the pre-season in anticipation of the long road that lies ahead (most of the Jaguares players will be playing in the World Cup).
When they lost twice to the Lions and were comprehensively outplayed by the Stormers at Newlands, you wouldn’t have put a dime on them making the play-offs. It was in South Africa though that the turn-around came and they owe a lot to the Bulls’ laziness in the last quarter of a game at Loftus that the visitors were losing. The Bulls were emphatically better than them but the Jaguares somehow hung in before relying on their fitness and Bulls' indiscipline to get them home in the last 10 minutes.
Their first ever win on the Highveld provided a step up in confidence ahead of the match on that South African tour (they tour twice to South Africa during the season) that they had targeted - the one in Durban against the Sharks. The Sharks were lambasted by the critics for appearing to be in an apathetic mood that day, but nonetheless it isn’t often the Durban team conceded more than 50 points at Kings Park.
The Jaguares were up and running, and but for the narrow loss to the Highlanders at the start of their Australasian tour, they haven’t looked back. They recovered from the setback in emphatic fashion by easily beating the Hurricanes in Wellington and mention of that match brings up another reason why this final might be a bit more authentic than some of the recent deciders in this competition.
While the Lions did play good rugby in 2016 and 2017, last year it was questionable that they were the next best team to the Crusaders as they had been helped by the conference system that enabled them to qualify ahead of a Hurricanes side that had an infinitely superior record to theirs, and the Chiefs also accumulated more log points than they did. The Hurricanes did earn two more log points than the Jaguares this season, but the Jaguares beat them in the regular season - and on their home ground to boot. Anyone who saw that game would find it hard to argue the case that the Hurricanes are a better team than the Jaguares are. This year the final is being contested by the two best teams.
The competition has one more year to go with the current unpopular format before it reverts to a less confusing and some would say a more fair and authentic competition and it desperately needs the shot in the arm that might be brought by a good, exciting final.
The Jaguares have the resources, the confidence and the form to ensure that the Crusaders are pushed more than the New Zealand teams have tended to be when challenged in a play-off game by teams from other continents.
Or is all of that wishful thinking? It might well be for everyone is trying really hard to breathe some life into the competition, but for once ahead of a Super Rugby play-off match that is also a question we can’t answer. There’s just that slight element of unpredictability, which is helped by the fact these two sides haven’t played each other this year, and that is what makes it interesting.
Although the Crusaders did comfortably win the last meeting between the sides, that was 15 months ago. In other words before the Jaguares started to develop into the formidable squad they have become.
Read this story on SuperSport.com