Few would question that the two teams who will play-off in the Super Rugby final on Saturday evening are this year’s two premier squads.
Some thought must be given to the Hurricanes – who narrowly lost out to the Crusaders last weekend with a few contentious decisions not falling their way.
Outside of the men from Wellington, however, no side has produced as consistent performances throughout the season as the Crusaders and the Jaguares.
The Crusaders naturally topped the log and only twice suffered losses in 2019. The Jaguares, who won the South Africa conference, made a slower start but have now won 11 of their last 12 matches.
The two conference champions have scored the most points throughout the season and are ranked first and third for points conceded.
The Super Rugby structure is obviously not ideal, but the cream has certainly risen to the top in 2019.
And yet, somehow there still seems a sense of inevitability that no matter how well the Jaguares play this weekend, the Crusaders will march on to their third consecutive title.
Dynasty of success
The Crusaders have now hosted 23 knockout matches in Super Rugby’s 23-year history. They’ve won all 23 of those fixtures. Saturday night will mark the sixth time that the Crusaders have hosted a grand final – and they’ve obviously won the previous five.
In the head-to-heads, the Crusaders also come up trumps – though there’s far less data there for making any actual predictions. The two finalists have clashed twice before, first in Christchurch and last year in Buenos Aires. The Crusaders earned bonus point wins in both games.
No fear in travelling
In recent years, the two finalists have typically come from different countries. 2015 was the last year when two sides from the same nation fought out a final, with the Highlanders besting the Hurricanes in Wellington. Prior to that, you have to go back to 2010 when the Bulls triumphed over the Stormers. Travel has now become an inevitable hurdle to overcome if you want to win a Super Rugby trophy and you don’t finish top of the regular season.
The Jaguares, who have one of the toughest schedules in the competition due to their isolation from the rest of the competition, have become rather adept at earning wins on the road – particularly in New Zealand and Australia.
In 2018, the Jaguares became the first foreign Super Rugby team to go undefeated in Australia and New Zealand – something the South African sides hadn’t achieved in over 20 years of trying. This year, the Jaguares reasserted their strength by winning three of their four tour matches – and they benched a number of their top players for the game against the Highlanders which they lost by only five points.
The Jaguares have now booked wins in Australasia against the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Waratahs, Rebels, Brumbies and Reds.
After losing their first seven matches to Kiwi opposition, the Jaguares have now won five of their last seven, so there certainly doesn’t appear to be any hoodoo attached to travelling to or playing against the New Zealand teams.
The bottom line
The above, however, overlooks the key factor that could sway the result in the Jaguares favour – they simply may just be the better team.
Before the season even kicked off, the Crusaders were instilled as comfortable favourites. They won the competition in the two previous years, had little player turnover and have an excellent coach guiding them. Have the expectations that the Crusaders will do well caused some to overrate their actual abilities?
The Crusaders have turned on some impressive performances in 2019 – particularly in Christchurch, but there have also been a number of blips. The first-round win against the Blues was decided on the Blues’ poor goal-kicking, whilst there were also some very poor losses to the Waratahs and Chiefs. Factor in draws against the Sharks and Stormers and the lucky escape against the Hurricanes and you’ll see that the Crusaders have struggled to put away teams that have remained within striking distance (or actually been ahead) in the final quarter.
That’s not to say that the Jaguares won’t be up against it. The stats are certainly all in the Crusaders’ favour and the Cantabrians will be buoyed on by their home crowd. Perhaps the Jaguares have a greater chance at toppling the Crusaders juggernaut than many expect, however. If the Argentinians can remain in touch with 20 minutes to go, then don’t be surprised if the Jaguares become the first-ever team to win a playoff match in Christchurch.
The Crusaders will be without two of their experienced campaigners this weekend, how will they cope?
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