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'Really sad': Pablo Matera opens up on Jaguares' axing from Super Rugby

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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Two years after nearly leading the Jaguares to a breakthrough Super Rugby title, Pablo Matera is thankful to be back in the southern hemisphere’s leading club competition.

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Only this time, he will be suiting up for the team that denied his Argentine compatriots what would have been their maiden – and only – piece of Super Rugby silverware in 2019.

Few would have envisaged Matera, then the inspirational Jaguares skipper, jumping ship to join the Crusaders after captaining the Buenos Aires side to a runner-up finish as the hosts clinched their third straight title with a 19-3 final victory in Christchurch.

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Then again, not many would have foreseen the imminent downfall of the Jaguares in the wake of Covid-19 early last year.

Not only did the global pandemic spell the demise of Argentina’s sole professional rugby team, it also brought an end to the Sunwolves out of Japan, and Super Rugby as we knew it at that point in time.

Off went the South African franchises to Europe’s rebranded United Rugby Championship, and into Super Rugby oblivion went the Jaguares and Sunwolves.

Those omissions from the competition has paved a new path for Super Rugby, now known as Super Rugby Pacific, a 12-team competition comprised of Kiwi and Australian teams, as well as the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika.

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Excitement is understandably brimming at the prospect of the league’s new chapter – which will finally see Pacific Island involvement after more than a quarter of a century of neglect – following two seasons of makeshift domestic campaigns.

However, Super Rugby’s abrupt loss of the Jaguares still hurts Matera, especially as they were discarded from the competition when they were seemingly beginning to reach the peak of their powers.

The 2019 final in Christchurch proved to be Matera’s final game for the Jaguares as he subsequently joined Top 14 club Stade Francais, but he couldn’t have anticipated that that match would also be the franchise’s seventh-last in existence at Super Rugby level.

Just six games into their 2020 campaign, Super Rugby was brought to a halt, with their March 14 home fixture against the Highlanders cancelled on the eve of kick-off amid growing concerns about the virus.

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The Jaguares never took to the field again, something of which Matera, who watched his former side reduced from title contenders to an afterthought of the competition in the space of eight months, said made for upsetting viewing.

“It was really sad, to be honest,” the 28-year-old Los Pumas star told reporters in Christchurch on Tuesday.

“In Argentina, being part of Super Rugby was massive, really, really big, and it helped us a lot in our rugby as well. We were all training together, playing together, a lot of young guys being able to play really good rugby in Argentina.

“From one day to another, the game was cancelled because of Covid. We were playing against the Highlanders at home, and we never, ever played again. Everyone had to start looking for clubs and went to Europe, so the team [disappeared].”

Fortunately, Matera’s international teammates have rebounded by landing playing gigs all over the globe, some of whom even returned to Super Rugby for the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels this year.

Matera will be joined by just one other Argentine in Super Rugby Pacific next year in the form of Western Force prop Santiago Medrano, but he is just pleased that all those involved in the Jaguares have landed themselves contracts following their messy exit from the competition.

“From one day to another, it was quite hard. It is what it is now. Looking forward, I’m really happy everyone found a club and is playing good rugby, so I’m sure, in the future, it’s going to be another new opportunity and the team is going to be fine.”

Matera’s pride in the Jaguares is still evident in the way in which he speaks about the club and how they were just one win away from making history by breaking the Crusaders’ dynasty and earning a Super Rugby title for Argentina.

“It was unbelievable. We played for each other. We struggled at the beginning, and being able to, in our last year, play the Crusaders here in the final against the best team, it was quite awesome,” the 80-test veteran said of the 2019 Super Rugby final.

“We also maybe lost the biggest opportunity of our lives to really be champions, so it was hard as well, so I hope I have another opportunity.”

Given the Crusaders’ dominance in recent times – they have won five championships in as many years since 2017 – Matera is well-positioned for another title tilt.

That excites head coach Scott Robertson, who revealed his realisation of how good a player Matera was came when he produced a scintillating piece of play during the 2019 final.

“Remember that grubber? You put that little kick in down the sideline. That was beautiful. That’s when I thought, ‘Jeez, he can really play’,” Robertson said on Tuesday.

“It’s until someone’s played your own team, you don’t realise how good they are. There were a few nods in the coaching box and it was just full respect to him.”

Robertson added that the arrival of an international star of Matera’s calibre has created a buzz at the Crusaders, adding an extra spring in their step as they target a sixth consecutive title.

“I think that’s the great thing about rugby and footy, that we can do it, that Super teams in New Zealand are allowed to have foreign players come in,” Robertson said.

“It just adds to the diversity and excitement. There’s more cameras here than most media sessions, so it just shows how important it is and it just sort of transcends not just your own country, but the sport itself.

“Everyone’s excited, ‘Is Pablo here?’, and, ‘How tall is he?’, and, ‘How big is he?’, and, ‘How’s his English?’. Good English, isn’t he? That’s important as well, but it’s just great for a team. It keeps us fresh.”

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