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The Wrap: And then there were two — an epic Super Rugby final awaits

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30th June, 2019
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In 1978 English rock group Genesis released their ninth album, ‘And Then There Were Three’, signifying the departure in 1975 of singer Peter Gabriel, and in 1977, guitarist Steve Hackett.

This album marked a clear change in musical direction from the band’s progressive rock roots and Gabriel’s highly theatrical live performances, introducing shorter songs and a first, tentative step into ‘hit single’ territory, with the song ‘Follow You, Follow Me’.

Integral was drummer and vocalist Phil Collins, originating from working-class, cockney roots, in stark contrast to the private school background of his band-mates.

The rest, as they say, is history. The band achieved star status via #1 albums such as 1981’s ‘Abacab’, and 1986’s ‘Invisible Touch’, with guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford spotted last week in the members pavilion at Lord’s, resplendent in garish yellow and red tie, sipping on a Pimms while taking in cricket’s World Cup.

Not exactly rock and roll as many of us might remember it.

And what can one say about Collins? Adored by fans all around the world, but derided by many of the original Genesis fan-base, who would have been much happier had that ninth album been called ‘And Then There Were Two’.

Which is exactly where the 2019 Super rugby season has got to, a week out from a mouth-watering final between reigning champion, the Crusaders, and new kid on the block, the Jaguares.

If it is a truism that past performance is a predictor of the future, the Jaguares have little hope. After their dramatic 30-26 semi-final win against the Hurricanes, the Crusaders are now 23-0 in home playoff games, about to face a Jaguares side in their first away playoff match.

Rugby, however, is played with the heart, mind and body, not a stats sheet. And this is a Jaguares side full of heart, mind and body.

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Let us dispense quickly with the whinge about the one and two ranked sides being forced to meet in a semi-final. What we have left is two sides chock-full of international players, containing scoring threats from 1-23 and who aren’t afraid to use all of them.

The Jaguares were simply a class above what has proven to be a good Brumbies outfit. One that on the night, had no answer to the Jaguares’ competence, intensity and discipline – their single biggest area of improvement.

Those of us who expected the Brumbies to dominate the set-piece were left grasping at thin air – just like the Brumbies line-out jumpers – as the Jaguares first challenged them, then bullied the confidence out of Folau Fainga’a, his targets and lifters.

Not allowed to play the game on their terms, the Brumbies’ timing was off all night. Wrap around and second man backline plays were forced and awkward, with too many passes behind the inside shoulder of the receiver.

There were bad signs early when a ball runner like Lachie McCaffrey, usually keen to dent the defence at any opportunity, resorted to an aimless grubber kick. One, like many others, that was easily mopped up at the back.

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But it was the 46th minute that typified the Brumbies night. An attacking lineout where the timing of the Sam Carter jump was off, which in train meant that the peel by Tom Cusack and the transfer to the charging Rob Valetini were also out of sync – the ball spilling forward off Valetini’s shoulder.

Seconds later, another grubber from Christian Lealiifano was blocked, and Matias Orlando streaked away for a try that – even at that early stage – everyone watching knew was the ticket to the final for the home side.

For a side that has been so efficient and composed over the last two months, it was strange to see the Brumbies so mentally weak. A factor which also fed into their defence. But one poor match doesn’t make them a poor side, particularly against such a capable opponent.

As so many have done against Australian sides in recent years, the Jaguares employed a vastly superior kicking game, flyhalf Joaquin Diaz Bonilla superb in the way he controlled field position, pushing Tom Banks into dark corners from where he had few options other than to seek the safety of the touchline.

While the Jaguares have been a work-in-progress since their introduction in 2016, the key ingredient added this year has been coach Gonzalo Quesada.

Whether due to bad body odour, or by design, it is highly unusual to see a coach at this level isolated in the coaching booth on his own, during a match. But whatever the operational merits, and the division of duties on the training track, it also serves as an irrefutable reminder that this is Quesada’s team, and that he is a clever tactician, who has the players fully united in their quest to become Super Rugby champions.

Matias Moroni tackled by Tom Banks.

(Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Let us not underestimate also the importance of this win for the game in Argentina. Participation in Super Rugby does not have universal support in the rugby community (and you thought Australian rugby politics was bad!), but over 30,000 fans yelling themselves hoarse throughout such a convincing performance was a sight to behold.

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About the only thing that went wrong for the Jaguares on the weekend was the Hurricanes coming up four points short in Christchurch, in a thrilling match that was a superb advertisement for the sport.

It is difficult to list highlights – there were so many. The sheer competitiveness and drive of TJ Perenara, the audacious skill of Ngani Laumape to deliberately chest a ball forward before gathering to score, Dane Coles going the full 80 minutes as if he was a frisky, up and coming 22-year-old and Beauden Barrett rediscovering his silky run and pass game in the second half.

For the Crusaders, the brilliant finishing of Sevu Reece proved crucial, George Bridge owned the air and Richie Mo’unga matched Barrett for daring running, and ultimately won the night via perfect kicking from the tee.

Watching on, the All Blacks’ brains trust must have been delighted. Of the many squad contenders, only Ryan Crotty suffered a (seemingly minor) knock, with the majority hitting it out of the park, and even Keiran Read, on a carefully managed build-up to the World Cup, more effectively involved, particularly in the first half.

In the end, the match swung on three key aspects, firstly the Hurricanes employing a deliberate strategy in the first half to kick away possession and back their defensive line and pilfering ability of Ardie Savea to wear the Crusaders into submission.

It’s a tactic that is popular among modern coaches – the Rebels’ Dave Wessels employed the same approach (also unsuccessfully) against the Stormers and Bulls recently, where he was keen to avoid a grind against a bigger side with a superior set-piece and to try to engineer opportunities from turnover and broken play.

The Crusaders were having none of it, however, and it is to the Hurricanes’ credit that they changed tack in the second half, and looked far more dangerous as a result.

Seemingly with all the momentum, the Hurricanes also snuffed out a clever move by the Crusaders in the 59th minute – a set-up of a fake midfield chip kick from a line-out, and sudden switch to the blind side, a re-work of the brilliant tries scored last year by Rieko Ioane against the Wallabies in Japan and Jacob Stockdale for Ireland against the All Blacks.

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It was brilliantly read and defended by the Hurricanes, yet the Crusaders were still good enough to swing play back to the open side, where superb support running and pass execution created the crucial try for Sevu Reece. Exhilarating stuff.

Disappointingly for referee Nic Berry, the third defining moment came in the 79th minute, with the Hurricanes pressing for the win, where he adjudged that Perenara had knocked the ball on, instead of ruling that it was knocked out of his hands – illegally – by Crusaders’ captain Sam Whitelock.

The incident highlighted the importance of Mo’unga’s 71st-minute penalty goal, which provided a four-point cushion, and allowed Whitelock to take a risk at the breakdown knowing that he couldn’t lose the game on a penalty, and could win it if he got away with a sneaky one.

And in that context, as miffed as Hurricanes’ fans are entitled to feel, it is important to note that this decision did not cost them the match, merely the opportunity to keep trying to win it.

Beauden Barrett

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

With only one match remaining, it is opportune to reflect on a Super Rugby season that – notwithstanding the late capitulations of the Rebels, Waratahs and Brumbies – has delivered improved performances from Australian sides, a South African conference where the sides were separated by a margin thinner than the wafer biscuit that now constitutes Will Skelton’s lunch and the usual array of entertaining clashes from the New Zealand conference.

Such a season deserves a fitting finale, and despite the Jaguares having to overcome an imposing travel schedule, and coming down from their own post-semifinal exuberance, there is a feeling that a cracking match lies in store for next weekend.

To finish, some optimistic news on the Israel Folau front. The failure of mediation talks on Friday at the Fair Work Commission means that the matter will now proceed through a trial process and either be settled by mutual agreement (unlikely because the financial risk to Folau if he loses has been mitigated), or set for hearing at a yet to be determined date.

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That date is likely to be some months, more likely years, into the future. Think about that for a moment – even the facile mainstream Australian media and zealots on both sides of the argument will find it impossible to provide enough oxygen to keep the matter visible to extent they have over the last couple of months.

The legal process, and the timing around it, not only allows for the noise to subside, but for the ‘real’ argument to resume precedence. As respected Industrial Relations advocate and writer Katrina Grace Kelly wrote in Saturday’s The Australian (a publication that has been overwhelmingly in support of Folau), “this employment law matter may not be the best spark for a crusade on new laws for religious freedoms.”

There may well be an important discussion that needs to be had in Australia around freedom of religious expression, but a lot of people are going to be very disappointed when they discover that this is a topic altogether different than Folau providing incontrovertible proof to the court that his dismissal was for an unlawful reason.

It is also no bad thing that nonsensical attempts to tie this matter to the manner in which people voted in the recent election, will now subside.

I look forward to the self-styled ‘quiet Australians’, many of who have been anything but in their claiming a groundswell of support for Folau, proving just how quiet they can be.

In the meantime, I’m feeling happy for the Jaguares but will be backing the Crusaders.