Pablo Matera (Gallo Images)
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It had seemed almost inevitable for a couple of weeks anyway … but finally it’s in black and white that the Jaguares, odd ones out geographically, have won the SA conference in Super Rugby.
Considering that they end ordinary season with a home fixture against the wooden-spoon Sunwolves, the Argentinians may even boast an advantage of 10 points-plus over any strictly South African-based side on the final group table next weekend.
They are also heavily favoured now to clinch second spot overall to the Crusaders, meaning rights to a home semi-final if they don’t stumble in the quarters.
For the four SA-housed teams, there is now just a mighty scramble to earn wildcard tickets to the playoffs, and both derbies next Saturday (Stormers v Sharks, Cape Town, and Bulls v Lions, Pretoria) look more and more like straight eliminators, the respective losers at major risk of non-qualification.
But while there has never been a divine right for SA-based teams to boss the conference – the Lions won it last year, with the fast-emerging Jaguares already issuing a future message by claiming second – it will still come as a jolt to many enthusiasts in this country that the lone team from abroad has comfortably, deservedly outfoxed all of our “finest”.
It seems to say so much about the general climate of despondency about home-based rugby, considering the strengthening trend of domestic players in (or even well before) their primes abandoning professional contracts on these shores to pursue their career abroad: next year, post-World Cup, could be an especially traumatic one in mass-rebuild terms for the franchises countrywide.
By contrast, the Jaguares – never mind the debate that rumbles about them effectively being the national cause — are likely to only get better, as they seem much more comfortable now with the unique challenge that constantly faces them in Super Rugby through long-distance travel burden.
Just as crucially, they have admirably, in 2019, slashed their penchant for ill-discipline, which used to cost them dearly in many matches where they should have been well in contention for victories – that is what is making them especially dangerous foes now.
Pack hard men like once routinely hot-headed lock Tomas Lavanini (though he soon leaves for English Premiership club Leicester) and flank wrecking ball Pablo Matera have learnt to go about their aggressive ways much more within the bounds of the laws, while the Jaguares backline whips the ball through hands with pace and panache and is lethal in broken and turnover play.
In being unceremoniously thumped 34-7 in Buenos Aires on Saturday, for example, the Sharks, traditionally one of the SA-based sides with most enviable depth, were outscored 5-1 in tries and simply never looked like establishing discernible dominance for any concerted period.
That result (leaving the Durban-based outfit out of the playoffs zone in ninth place, on a tenuous 33 points) comes on top of the equally unedifying outcome when the sides met at Kings Park on April 13, and the Jaguares romped home 51-17.
So they have registered a combined, humiliating total of 12 tries to three against those foes this season, as sure a signal as any that their early days as relative easy-beats for several SA-based sides in the competition may be gone forever.
On the whole in 2019, the Jaguares have won their “head to head” tussle with the four SA-based conference sides (two against each) 5-3, including landmark away triumphs over the Bulls and Sharks.
Only the Lions emerge with a superior record over the course of the brace of clashes with the Jaguares, surprising them a little by a 25-16 margin in round one in Buenos Aires, and then repeating the treatment (47-39) in Johannesburg.
Not only might this be the start of a growing trend of Argentinean dominance over SA teams in Super Rugby, but it also serves as a sharp reminder of how tough the Springboks may find their lone date with the Pumas – in Salta – in the abbreviated 2019 Rugby Championship on August 10.
There is an additional Test, though outside the four-nation competition, between the teams at Loftus a week later.
The last few weeks (and it is not over yet) in the franchise-based competition have effectively seen Argentina’s national side fine-tune menacingly for the Championship … a luxury South Africa, New Zealand and Australia cannot yet boast at all.
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