And then there was one. A tenth successful Crusade for the people of the northern half of the South Island of New Zealand, and a long ride home for a very proud Jaguares playing group.
But overlooked in the post-mortems of the final was that another title, a similarly prestigious title was also decided last Saturday night – and that’s gone to bloody New Zealand as well!
So hearty congratulations to Digger, marking our third different tipping panel winner over the last three seasons.
And great that it went right to the final to decide it, too.
Final 2019 table
Nobes and The Crowd 80
So let’s wrap the Super Rugby season up properly. I asked the guys to tackle two topics to put a bow around the 2019 campaign, and there’s going to be plenty to talk about in both of them:
1. What was your 2019 Super Rugby season highlight?
2. Which team from your conference will you be keeping an eye on in 2020?
So many highlights for me this year, none more so than the various hairstyles on display, from the curious case of Elton Jantjies’ ‘style’ to the magnificence of Tom Robinsons’ red velvet, to Henry Speight’s seemingly floating sideline afro, and the unhindered, grotesque, yet strange beauty of Jack Goodhue’s mullet.
Throw in a few suspect rat tails, some sparklers attached to the top of the goalposts – hell, even some lit up in neon brilliance – and there are plenty to remember fondly over the coming months while we await the 2020 edition.
Definite highlight was the Jaguares, both for their on-field performances as well as their fans. The Sunwolves, despite their struggles, still had their stadiums filled and always made for a great viewing experience.
Of course, the Sunwolves will sadly not be with us for much longer – a significant lost opportunity not just for SANZAAR but New Zealand rugby as well. What it does suggest is that there is an appetite for additional teams and Super Rugby as a whole – it’s about learning how to harness it.
For 2020, I’ll be keeping an eye on how Warren Gatland will fit back into the scene at the Chiefs and influence the side.
The Chiefs have made the playoffs regularly but not threatened for a title win since 2014, and expectations will be high now the successful Gatland has returned home.
Sure thing: the selection debates will surely heat up as we make our way towards the World Cup. Cannot wait.
The most outstanding thing was witnessing the final in Christchurch, despite the cold and the result. As for the tournament, the unpredictability of the results and the number of games that were defined in the last play made it very entertaining.
In second place, I would highlight the competition to reach a place in the playoffs.
As for the teams to watch in 2020, I’ll say a few things about the Jaguares.
Outgoing players for now are Pablo Matera, Garcia Botha, and Tomas Lavanini, with the situation around Ramiro Moyano unresolved. The aforementioned players are of great standing in the team but their replacements this year worked well – maybe we should be optimistic for 2020 that new signigns will be up to the challenge, particularly with the help of the remaining players who have gained the experience and thrill of playing the final.
Sure thing: The Rugby Championship will be the testing bench for many players and systems and by no means will reflect what we are going to see in the World Cup. What is the point of showing your moves ahead of time?
Bonus: Los Pumas will play in Buenos Aires then fly to Australia to play the Wallabies. Flight to Salta to face the Springboks and from there to South Africa for a friendly match. From there they will go directly to Sydney to prepare for Japan. That’s a lot of travel mileage for players that already had to go to Christchurch and back.
Round 12. Loftus. Exactly 17 minutes have elapsed, and the score is 10-7 to the home team, as Damien Fitzpatrick throws the ball into the sun at a lineout on the Bulls’ 35-metre, with Bernard Foley poised to ignite a sweeping Waratah backline movement.
Left winger Curtis Rona has crept around to slot into a midfield spot, and Kurtley Beale is wide right. The ball is well thrown to the front. Nic Phipps is in a crouch, ready to take the soft downward toss and spiral the pill to Foley. As he fields the ball, Duane Vermeulen, at the tail of the lineout, has begun to rumble forward. It is 17:03 when he palms Phipps’ medium-pace pass (the ‘Phipps Phloater’) in his big left mitt, at the Bulls’ ten-metre line.
He is off. Eight Tahs are tied up in the lineout complex and won’t have a chance. Foley is frozen, because he is the Ice Man, but he puts on the brakes, does a U-turn, and tries to chase the galloping Thor down, but the gap will be too much.
At halfway, Thor is at ‘top speed’ – not slow, but definitely not fast. In full sun, with the crowd going mad, we all know there will come a tackler. It is Rona with ten metres of depth to work with, but about ten metres of lateral space to make up.
The two men reach the Tahs’ ten-metre line at the same time, but Rona is definitely going to catch the No.8.
At 17:08, the two men reach the 22 together, and they begin to engage in hand-to-hand. Rare for top-flight rugby, they are alone together, on an island. Only Foley can hope to ‘photo bomb’ their picture.
Thor and Rona grapple, as they continue to run in a rugby ballet to the try line. Rona goes high. Thor fends. Rona goes medium. Thor shrugs. Rona finally goes low, and Thor high steps like a pony and falls over the line, at 17:11.
His team mobs him. Fans kiss. And we know we have seen this warrior in a rare moment of grace and light, and the pride and skill that the best in the game have, even when their physical traits have begun to wane.
As for 2020, Western Province has replaced Robbie Fleck with John Dobson. Dobbo is a better coach than Fleckie, although there are few better men than Rob.
Also, the Stormers have lost fewer stars.
Sure thing: the best predictor of a Test team’s performance is not how well their best club team did, but how well their worst club did. For the Rugby Championship and the World Cup, I would put a few quid on the Boks.
My 2019 Super Rugby highlight was the Round 16 match in Fiji, where the Chiefs came from 20 points down to stun the Crusaders – and the pulsating Suva crowd – to score a remarkable 40-27 victory.
The match stood out for many reasons – the quality of some of the tries scored, the champions going from one minute cruising to a predictable victory, to the next having 40 points posted on them.
It was also great that the local crowd treated the rugby on its merits, in the process demonstrating a complete absence of the cynicism and jaded excuses offered up by fans in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
It was, as ever, an exercise in exposing the discord that exists in Super Rugby between the product (mostly excellent), the expectations of many fans (often unreasonable), and the inability of SANZAAR to connect the two.
My team of interest in 2020 is, unsurprisingly, the Rebels. Higher expectations in 2019 were for a large part met, until a soft underbelly was exposed by the bigger South African sides, and the more skilled Kiwis. They were overly reliant on Will Genia, while other senior players were exposed as lacking the leadership qualities anticipated.
In retrospect, what looked a stellar roster was only ever thus in the context of comparison to other Australian players, not against other overseas squads with more depth, experience and talent.
So next season will be one where what might look like an initial step backwards, in terms of personnel changes and coaching realignment, will actually be what is required. The group will be able to address specific weak-points, get another collective 14 matches under their belt, start to tough out more matches against higher ranked sides, and finally claim a finals berth.
Sure thing: four international coaches acting like ducks. On top of the water, whatever the outcome of the Rugby Championship, win or lose, all calmly claiming “there is no room for confidence or despair, it all means nothing for the World Cup”.
Under the water, meanwhile, all of them will be paddling like crazy, the winner wondering if they’ve peaked too early, the others torn between sticking to something that isn’t quite working, and having no time left to make substantive change.
Well, what a season! The clear highlight for me has been our horrendous tipping form, a by-product of a year of Super Rugby which, going into any given weekend, you were nervous about more picks than you weren’t.
Digger’s 81 correct tips from 127 games represents a 64 per cent success rate. My 69 correct tips is just a pass mark. Over 18 rounds and three weeks of finals, the panel – including you lot in The Crowd – put up 126 ‘rounds’ of selection each week.
We had just 11 perfect rounds for the season!
The South African conference changed hands I don’t know how many times, and by my count, the Jaguares as the eventual conference champions were the fourth different leader. Only the Stormers didn’t lead at some point, and at times, just one win separated the five sides. It was quite remarkable.
In the Australian conference, the Rebels and Waratahs were expected to do well, but it was the Brumbies and Reds who finished the year with their tails up and wishing 2020 started next week.
The Sunwolves as an entity have been royally screwed over by the Japanese RFU, by the SANZAAR partners, and ultimately, by World Rugby’s inability to turn the Nations Championship concept into reality. But the mighty Moondogs remain a joy to watch, both in the flesh and on TV, and I hate that we’ll have only one more year of the joy they bring to the game.
In 2020, I’ll be watching how the Brumbies and Waratahs rebuild, but I’m really excited about the chances of the Reds. That talented young forward pack will be one year and 15 games older, and they’re already testing some pretty handy packs now. How they overcome the loss of Samu Kerevi will be intriguing, and if they can get their midfield sorted? Well, strap in Queensland fans.
Sure thing: I’ll be speaking with the Eds this week about carrying the panel through the international season and even into the Rugby World Cup.
A bit of public sentiment from you lot in the comments can only help the cause! So speak up, for the rugby gods’ sake!
Thanks to everyone who lodged their vote for The Crowd and had their say. The banter and the discussion was made all the better for your involvement.