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The Wrap: The Crusaders do it once again for Christchurch

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7th July, 2019
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By any measure it’s been an awful decade for Christchurch. A major earthquake in 2011 killed 185 people, injured many more and left an indelible mark on a city that is still years away from being properly remedied.

For some people, many of them elderly, fear and the lack of control of their own destiny still impacts upon their daily lives. Fear that if a quake happened once it could happen again. And where relocating away from support networks is out of the question, the severely diminished value of their homes curtailing other options.

Psyche is impacted too in the form of lost landmarks; Christchurch’s central cathedral, where a rebuilding project is hoped to gather pace next year, and the Lancaster Park rugby stadium, finally demolished last year, but with replacement options still only at the ‘concept’ stage.

Further tragedy struck on March 15th this year when 51 people were murdered in a gunfire attack on two city mosques. Australian Brenton Tarrant has pleaded not guilty to total of 92 charges relating to the incident and will face trial in May next year, ensuring months and years of ongoing pain and sadness, not only for the immediate families of the victims, but all of the community.

Throughout such a difficult period, one constant has been the Crusaders. Their 19-3 win in Saturday night’s final against the Jaguares was their 10th title, in 24 seasons of Super Rugby. In addition, they have finished runner-up on four occasions, including that tragic 2011 year, when they were forced to play every single match away from home.

Sam Whitelock

Crusaders’ captain Sam Whitelock celebrates with the trophy (MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the build-up to this year’s final, sentiment flowed overwhelmingly to the visiting Jaguares. Making the final in only their 4th year in the competition, they have impressed everyone this season with their organisation, discipline and brilliant backline play.

By virtue of their newness, an element of South American romanticism, and their second-placed ranking requiring them to travel to Christchurch for the final, they further cemented their status both as underdog and sentimental crowd favourite.

All fair enough. But in retrospect, perhaps more of that sentiment should have resided with the home side.

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While rugby is not at the forefront of every Cantabrian’s thinking, let us not underestimate the gratification the Crusaders bring a city that has experienced such intense suffering.

It has been suggested by some writers and fans that the same team winning three consecutive titles equates to boredom and a competition that has gone stale. I’d suggest instead that it is a reward for sustained excellence, and a benchmark that other teams – if they really want to become better – should aspire to.

Let us put to bed too complaints that the competition is distorted by the finalists each comprising a high proportion of Test players. In the case of the Crusaders, players like David Havili, Sevu Reece, George Bridge, Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, Richie Mo’unga – I haven’t even got to the forward pack yet – have become All Blacks because of what they have done at the Crusaders. They are not examples of Test players being parachuted in to strengthen the squad.

Save for a spilled kick-off, the Jaguares came through the first quarter of the final well. They were composed and connected in their defensive line, accurate at the tackle, and quick and loud enough in their footsteps to harry the Crusaders into numerous handling errors.

This was classic finals rugby, played at full intensity, dictated in part by the slippery conditions, but framed also by the high stakes, with both sides putting a premium on defence.

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But if the Jaguares felt they had withstood the early storm and worked their way into parity in the possession and territory stats, they were set back in the 24th minute. Held in the air from a kick receipt, Joaqin Diaz Bonilla had the ball ripped from him by the irrepressible Matt Todd, Keiran Read swept the ball off the ground, and Sam Whitelock hared down the touchline before linking with Codie Taylor back on the inside for the match’s only try.

Quality players getting the business done.

The Jaguares weren’t averse to creating their own try-scoring opportunities either, with the superb Pablo Matera dominating the wide channels (much in the manner that Read has done at the same ground over the years).

Pablo Matera

Pablo Matera of the Jaguares (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Indeed, the image of a distraught Matias Moroni, sunken on his haunches immediately after the match, was a reminder that on another day, with an ounce more luck and a slightly less accomplished defence, Moroni could easily have been celebrating a hat-trick instead of coming up with a donut.

When the post-match tears settled, the Jaguares will surely have reflected on a noble defeat that spoke more to the Crusaders’ experience and ability to keep winning (now 24 consecutive home finals wins) rather than their own deficiencies.

One area that will need shoring up is their scrum – by no means poor, but targeted by the Crusaders, who leveraged off this to send Santiago Medrano into the night sky, and edge to a match winning lead in the crucial third quarter.

Another disappointment was the Jaguares’ tactical kicking, a key factor in their semi-final win against the Brumbies, although this was purely a reflection of the difference between Diaz Bonilla kicking on his home ground off the front foot, versus being forced back on this occasion, into the pocket, to kick to a well organised backfield defence.

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Having benefitted from the Crusaders’ handling woes in the first half, the Jaguares own error count mounted in the second, chasing a match that continued to slip further away from them.

When Moroni only just failed to reel in a kick before the dead ball line intervened in the 68th minute, any faint hopes of a comeback win were extinguished, leaving Scott Robertson to spend the final ten minutes focusing on his celebratory dance routine.

What happens next will be an intriguing test of Robertson’s coaching ability. In his brief coaching career so far, he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to turn water into silky Coonawarra Shiraz.

Coach Scott Robertson of the Crusaders (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Appointed Canterbury coach in 2013, he won the ITM Cup in his first year, and again in 2015. He was also appointed coach of the NZ Under 20s in 2014, winning the world title in 2015, in Italy. And having assumed the reins at the Crusaders in 2017, he has now won the Super Rugby title three times from three attempts.

Next year, Robertson will be without assistant coach Ronan O’Gara and a slew of top players – start with Read, Whitelock, Todd, Ryan Crotty and work your way through the list from there. His coaching chops and the much-vaunted Crusaders system will be severely tested.

But remember also that similar questions were raised in the wake of the departure of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter after the 2015 World Cup. Questions that were answered most emphatically.

There are signs too that player replenishment is already well underway. Young fullback Will Jordan already looks like he can be anything, and 23 year-old Mitchell Dunshea (a member of Robertson’s victorious U20 side from Italy), made light of any concerns over Scott Barrett’s absence from the final, with an impressively high work-rate and assured defensive performance.

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If Robertson still has his team in the thick of things this time next year, look for him to write his own ticket as to where he ends up next, (perhaps a two-year contract with a French or UK club to gain more northern hemisphere experience), with a longer-term eye towards the All Blacks’ coaching job, post the 2023 World Cup.

Speaking of the World Cup, an interesting challenge awaits the leading Argentine players as they transition from Jaguares to Pumas. Jaguares coach Gonzalo Quesada has done a wonderful job this year in uniting his playing group to the balanced style of game – and increased attention to discipline – that he has chosen.

It is unlikely that Puma’s coach Mario Ledesma will stray too far from this template – why would he? Nevertheless, the voices will be different, the jerseys different, the peculiar demands of Test rugby different, and what Agustin Creevy describes as “the essence” of the rugby experience, different.

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In that context, automatic transformation from the success of the 2019 Jaguares into the success of the 2019 Pumas cannot be assured.

But such is the youthful talent within the group, bolstered by the experience of players like Creevy, Matera, Tomas Lavanini, Tomas Cubelli, plus the injection of some key non-domiciled players like Nicolas Sanchez, Facundo Isa and others, it is fair to keep expectations high.

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For now the 2019 Super Rugby title has escaped the Jaguares, but it would be a foolish man who today bets against them going one better next year.

And all bets are off too for day two of the World Cup, where a very nervous Jacques Brunel will present his French team for a pivotal, early D-day appointment with the Pumas, and a potential first slippery step to an early exit.