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Super Rugby final arrives early

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Has the Super Rugby final come a week early in Christchurch?

And then there were four.

The Crusaders, Hurricanes, Jaguares and Brumbies have fought tooth and nail to find themselves only two matches away from being crowned Super Rugby champions.

These four sides have, without question, been the best performers in the competition in 2019 and have all fairly earned their spots in the semi-finals.

The Crusaders topped the log and were bested only twice this year. They’re also the top points scorers and the best defensive side in Super Rugby.

Fellow New Zealand-side the Hurricanes won the most games of any team this season, notching up twelve in total.

The Jaguares, who are playing in their first Super Rugby semi-final, started the season slowly but have now won nine out of their last ten matches.

Australia conference winners the Brumbies dropped just one game at home in 2019 and have won their past six games in a row, giving them the best winning streak of any Super Rugby side this year.

All four teams have shown creativity on attack and strong resolve on defence, but two will find themselves looking back on Monday thinking about the season that could have been.

Both semi-finals will take place on Saturday (local time), with the Jaguares first hosting the Brumbies in Buenos Aires before the Hurricanes travel to Christchurch to take on last year’s champion Crusaders.

Semi-Final 1: Jaguares v Brumbies

The Jaguares have been the feel-good story of the season. They’ve topped the South African conference (despite, obviously, not being South African) and despite a few growing pains in their first couple of seasons, are now clearly one of the most fearsome sides in Super Rugby.

In 2018 the Jaguares made the quarter-finals for the first time but were knocked out by eventual finalists the Lions. 2019 has seen them go one step further, securing their first home finals match as well as making the top four for the first time.

The Brumbies, in contrast, have made the finals of Super Rugby more seasons than not and are historically the best performing team in Australia. Some of their squad members, including the recently returned Christian Leali’ifano, actually played in the 2013 final against the Chiefs – who the Jaguares knocked out last weekend.

2018 was an unusually poor year for the Brumbies but they’ve bounced back remarkably in 2019 and will travel to Buenos Aires with high confidence that they can knock over the favourites.

Whilst these two sides have only played each other three times, the Jaguares do have an exceptionally successful record against Australia opposition. In the 12 games that that Jaguares have played against Australia teams, the Jaguares have come out trumps nine times. Curiously, all three of their losses have been in Buenos Aires. Only once have the Jaguares lost at home this year – against the Chiefs early in the season – and they rectified that loss last weekend.

Christian Lealiifano will be the key man for the Brumbies. His performance over the year could well see him reinstated as the first-choice Wallabies flyhalf. A solid game in Argentina could certainly sway Michael Cheika to that way of thinking.

Hooker Agustin Creevy is always a key figure for the Jaguares, but perhaps halfback Tomas Cubelli will be the most important player on the field. Cubelli, with almost 70 international caps to his name, spent two seasons with the Brumbies and will have an intimate understanding of how the side from Canberra run their operations. His insight could prove exceptionally useful for the Jaguares.

Recent results:

2019: JAG 20 – 15 BRU (Buenos Aires)
2018: JAG 25 – 20 BRU (Canberra)
2017: BRU 39 – 15 JAG (Buenos Aires)

Squads:

Jaguares: Emiliano Boffelli, Sabastian Cancelliere, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo de la Fuente (c), Matias Moroni, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Tomas Cubelli, Javier Ortega Desio, Marcos Kremer, Pablo Matera, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Santiago Medrano, Agustin Creevy, Mayco Vivas. Reserves: Julian Montoya, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Enrique Pieretto, Tomas Lezana, Francisco Gorrissen, Felipe Ezcurra, Domingo Miotti, Santiago Carreras.

Brumbies: Tom Banks, Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Irae Simone, Toni Pulu, Christian Lealiifano (c), Joe Powell, Lachlan McCaffrey, Tom Cusack, Rob Valetini, Sam Carter, Rory Arnold, Allan Alaalatoa, Folau Fainga’a, Scott Sio. Reserves: Connal McInerney, James Slipper, Les Makin, Darcy Swain, Murray Douglas, Jahrome Brown, Matt Lucas, Tom Wright.

Semi-Final 2: Crusaders v Hurricanes

New Zealand’s top two teams for 2019 were once again the best performing teams of the year but will be forced to face off in a semi-final due to Super Rugby’s finals structure.

Perhaps calling this match the ‘real final’ does a huge disservice to the Jaguares and the Brumbies. There’s good reason, however, to expect that the winner of Saturday evening’s match will go on to win the crown for 2019.

The Crusaders looked unbeatable early in the season and there were expectations that the Canterbury side would run away with the competition. While the red-and-blacks did seal top spot before the final week of the round-robin kicked off, the team did stutter a bit as the season went on. Draws against the Stormers and the Sharks were followed by poor performances against the Blues and Chiefs – though they did bounce back to crush the Rebels in their final regular season fixture before getting the business done against the Highlanders last weekend.

The Hurricanes certainly looked more assured in the latter half of the year with their home loss against the Jaguares their sole defeat in the second half of Super Rugby 2019. The Hurricanes’ other two defeats of the year, however, both came at the hands of the Crusaders – and they were both comfortable victories for the Cantabrians.

Much will depend on how well the 9-10-12 axis of TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett and Ngani Laumape perform tomorrow night. Laumape, in particular, was underwhelming in the Hurricane’s close-shave win over the Bulls in Wellington last week. If the midfield wrecking-ball can get the Hurricanes some momentum then Perenara and Barrett will have plenty more time to pull the strings.

The Crusaders will likely try to strange the Hurricanes in the forwards. Per usual, the Hurricanes tight-five is somewhat lacking – especially when lined up next to the Crusaders. The Hurricanes backs won’t be able to create much if their team can’t garner any possession.

It’s been eight years since the Hurricanes last failed to record a win against the Crusaders in any given calendar year. Of course, the Crusaders are still yet to lose a home finals match. One of those streaks is going to be broken tomorrow night.

Recent results:

2019: CRU 32 – 8 HUR (Wellington)
2019: CRU 38 – 22 HUR (Christchurch)
2018: CRU 30 – 12 HUR (Christchurch)
2018: CRU 23 – 13 HUR (Christchurch)
2018: HUR 29 – 19 CRU (Wellington)
2017: HUR 31 – 22 CRU (Wellington)
2017: CRU 20 – 12 HUR (Christchurch)

Squads:

Crusaders: David Havili, Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Bryn Hall, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Samuel Whitelock (c), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Andrew Makalio, George Bower, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Jordan Taufua, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Braydon Ennor.

Hurricanes: Jordie Barrett, Salesi Rayasi, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Ngani Laumape, Ben Lam, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Gareth Evans, Ardie Savea, Reed Prinsep, Isaia Walker-Leawere, James Blackwell, Jeff To’omaga Allen, Dane Coles (c), Toby Smith. Reserves: Asafo Aumua, Xavier Numia, Ben May, Kane Le’aupepe, Vaea Fifita, Richard Judd, James Marshall, Jonah Lowe.

See what Ngani Laumape can do on a good day:

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Has the Super Rugby final come a week early in Christchurch?