08 July 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

SUPER RUGBY 2019 – BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS

The biggest takeaways from the 2019 Super Rugby tournament, according to Quintin van Jaarsveld.

Crusaders in a class of their own

The biggest question heading into the 2019 tournament was whether anyone would be able to dethrone the defending-champion Crusaders. The Christchurch collective gave a definitive two-part answer. First, by convincingly topping the table before going on to extend their perfect play-off record.

A commanding 38-14 quarter-final win was followed by a thrilling 30-26 semi-final win over the Hurricanes. That was before their crowning moment on Saturday – a classy 19-3 victory over the Jaguares, their third title triumph on the trot and 10th overall.

What set this year’s conquest apart from the nine that came before it was the heart the ‘Saders showed after Christchurch was rocked by a deadly terrorist attack on Friday, 15 March. In the wake of the tragedy, the scheduled clash with the Highlanders was cancelled and they fell to a shock 20-12 defeat to the Waratahs.

Like a true championship team, they rallied and took it upon themselves to help rebuild the city in the best way they knew how, on the rugby field. There were roadblocks in the form of a draw with the Sharks and loss to the Chiefs, but the band of brothers, fuelled by emotion, showed fighting spirit on top of total rugby wizardry to remain at the summit of Super Rugby.

Argentina stand up

2019 was also the year of the Jaguares uprising. In just their fourth season, after missing the play-offs in their first two campaigns and losing to the Lions in the quarter-finals last year, the Buenos Aires side advanced to their first-ever final.

Like all who had come before them, they were unable to usurp the Crusaders in the Christchurch decider. Yet, they fought valiantly – especially in the first half – and will be better for it. Super Rugby, and by extension the Rugby Championship, have done wonders for Argentina rugby. The Jaguares’ success this season, which included a historic South African Conference crown, was a testament of how the tournament can serve as a vehicle for rugby development.

The Jaguares played with a symbiotic synergy as opposed to a group of talented individuals, which was the downfall of many of the other teams. That said, they had multi-talented loose forward Pablo Matera, our Player of the Season, in their ranks, plus perhaps the best halfback combination in Super Rugby in Tomas Cubelli and Joaquin Diaz Bonilla to name but a few of the stars who took them to new heights.

Conference system a shameful farce

The farcical conference system remains the biggest blight on Super Rugby. The three-tier structure is built on bank rather than the spirit of competition, rewarding mediocrity at the expense of credibility, and is largely to blame for the tournament’s regression in recent years.

This year’s biggest victims were the Hurricanes, who accumulated 53 log points, second only to the Crusaders (58) yet finished the regular season in fourth position behind the second-placed Jaguares (51) and third-placed Brumbies (48) by virtue of the latter two teams winning their respective conferences.

It’s nonsensical and has seen Super Rugby lose its stature as the pre-eminent competition of its kind in recent years. That the powers that be have caved in under pressure and announced that the tournament will revert to a 14-team, round-robin format in 2021 is a massive step in the right direction, however, it also means that supporters will be subjected to another farcical campaign next year.

Ex-champions return to prominence

After years of wandering in the wilderness, former tournament winners the Brumbies and Bulls returned to the play-offs this season. The Canberra crew grew stronger as the tournament progressed and stormed into the semi-finals with seven successive wins, their most successful stretch since 2004/5. Their forwards-based approach was a far cry from the more appealing, running style that earned them championships in 2001 and 2004, but the less-sizzle, more-steak approach saw them clinch the Australian Conference.

The Bulls also enjoyed a breakthrough year, qualifying for the play-offs for the first time since 2013 and finishing as the top-placed South African side (fifth, second in conference). The three-time champions added a new layer to their traditional power game by embracing a more ball-in-hand approach and it paid dividends for the Pretoria side.

Ultimately, though, their quarter-final exit, after having pushed the Hurricanes close (35-28) in Wellington, brought their season to a bittersweet end as it marked the end of an era with many of their biggest stars heading abroad. As a result, Pote Human and his charges will have to start from scratch next year.

Inconsistency and ‘cockroaches’ hamper South African surge

The 2019 season was a strange one for South African sides. The irony of the Jaguares coming out as conference champions best illustrates the ‘so, so’ collective challenge from the four local franchises.

There was the good, the bad and the ugly. First, the good: All four sides remained in the play-off race until the very end, with the Bulls and Sharks downing the Lions and Stormers in the last-round winners-take-all derbies to reach the quarter-finals. Those are minor victories at best, though, in the bigger scheme of things.

The bad? The inconsistency that plagued all four sides. They were their own worst enemies for the most part, and byes ended up hurting rather than helping their causes. Sure, the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the teams made for a hotly-contested conference battle (before the Jaguares pulled away down the finishing stretch), but it effectively eliminated
them as legitimate title challengers, as history has shown home ground advantage is imperative in the play-offs.

The ugly? The reported internal battles at both the Sharks and Stormers. The apparent nepotism of Robert du Preez, whose consistent selection of his talented but clearly fatigued and out-of-sorts son Robert Jnr at the expense of the inform Curwin Bosch and Aphelele Fassi crippled the coastal side and reportedly led to a players’ protest. The sensitive issue eventually boiled over in the Sharks coach spewing venom at the Durban media, whom who infamously branded “cockroaches.”

Meanwhile, sans many of the stars that took them to three consecutive finals, several of whom had taken up lucrative overseas offers while others were sidelined by injury, the Lions crashed back down to earth this season (ninth, fourth in the conference).

The Stormers were the biggest losers of the season from a South African perspective. A fierce boardroom battle raged behind the scenes for most of the season, while on the field, the players did little to inspire confidence and entice fans to turn up to Newlands due to a serious lack of creativity and major shortage of tries.

To be fair, they were seconds away from a place in the play-offs, only for Sharks centre Lukhanyo Am to snatch the opportunity away from them with a match-winning try. That crushing 12-9 loss was a final reminder of the importance of tries for the impotent Cape outfit, leaving them with the conference wooden spoon and 10th overall.

New Zealand still Super Rugby’s super power

New Zealand franchises have always been Super Rugby’s standard-bearers and this year was no different. The Land of the Long White Cloud produced the champions, semi-finalists and two quarter-finalists. As aforementioned, the Hurricanes were done in by the conference system, getting little reward for their unrivalled 12 round-robin wins.

Similar to the South African sides, the Chiefs (seventh, third in conference) and Highlanders (eighth, fourth in conference)
battled with inconsistency but still reached the play-offs. After losing their first four on the trot, a Damian McKenzie- inspired 56-20 bashing of the Bulls turned the Chiefs’ season around. That win was followed by a 30-27 victory over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and they booked their play-off berth with a three-match winning streak at the business end of the competition, which included a sensational 40-27 win over the Crusaders.

The Highlanders blew hot and cold, their best result being a 32-27 home win over the Jaguares. With only six wins, it wasn’t the season they would’ve wanted, and more rebuilding will have to be done next year.

The Blues were the only New Zealand team to miss out on the play-offs. They pushed the Crusaders to the limit in the 24-22 opening-round loss and ended a 20-match winless run against fellow New Zealand teams when they edged the Highlanders 33-26 at home, but that’s as good as it got for them as they finished last in the conference and 13th overall.

Disappointment Down Under

The Brumbies were the sole shining light in the Australian Conference. As aforementioned, they didn’t play the most attractive brand of rugby, but the ends more than justified the means. That the four remaining teams finished in the bottom five underscores the underwhelming, low standing of the division as a whole.

The Rebels looked the business and led the way early on, with veteran Wallaby duo Will Genia and Quade Cooper running the show. However, the men from Melbourne soon went from contenders to pretenders. They missed out on the play-offs due to a final-round defeat for the second season in a row and had to settle for 11th overall and second in the conference.

The Israel Folau saga effectively sunk the Waratahs (12th, third in conference). The Sydney side were there of thereabout before they lost their try-scoring machine to suspension for THAT tweet. Without Folau, the ‘Tahs had no sting, creativity or hope.

The rookie-filled Reds (14th, fourth in conference) were always going to struggle in what was a building year for the young squad. Despite their lowly finish, there were promising positives for them to take out of the campaign, the biggest highlight being the 36-14 win over the Brumbies.

The Sunwolves produced two historic highlights, beating the Chiefs (30-15) and Waratahs (31-29) in Australasia, but as their only wins, those triumphs were too little, too late as confirmation came that they’ll be axed from the competition after the 2020 season.

It’s unfortunate that the Asian experiment failed. Worse than the lopsided results is the fact that the franchise have failed miserably at unearthing local talent, opting for journeymen from across the globe instead.

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