Crusaders chase a 10th title in Super Rugby final
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Christchurch-based Crusaders will try to end a season punctuated by tragedy and controversy on a winning note when they face Argentina's Jaguares on Saturday in the Super Rugby final.
The Crusaders are attempting to win the southern hemisphere tournament for the 10th time and the third time in consecutive years. The Jaguares are playing in the final for the first time in only their fourth year in the competition.
While the Crusaders have been the dominant team this season, their progress to the final has not been smooth. On March 15th, a gunman opened fire in two mosques in their South Island home town, killing 51 worshippers and wounding dozens more.
The tragedy cast a pall over the city of Christchurch and hit hard at a team which has come to epitomize the city's sporting pride. When they returned to the field after an eight-day break, the Crusaders lost to the New South Wales Waratahs, their first defeat in almost two years.
The Crusaders then found themselves drawn into a whirlpool of controversy around forms of hate speech and vilification, generated by the Christchurch tragedy. The team's name and logo of a sword-wielding knight were seen as iconography of the crusades when Christian and Muslim armies fought over the holy lands of the eastern Mediterranean.
Despite calls for the team to change its name and imagery, the season finale arrives with both still in place.
The Crusaders' ability to surmount challenges on and off the field to reach the final emphasizes their strength and character. They head into Saturday's final as favorites against a Jaguares team enjoying its best season but exploring new territory in the playoffs.
Scott Robertson, who won three Super Rugby titles as a Crusaders player and is now chasing his third as head coach, said his players have complete faith in their game plan that has brought them this far.
"It is a mental side for us now," Robertson said. "(The aim is) to be really clear on what we are trying to do tactic-wise and then get excited."
The Jaguares fashioned an 11-5 regular season record to top the South Africa conference, then brushed off the Chiefs and ACT Brumbies in home matches in the quarter and semifinals. They must now travel to Christchurch to confront the most formidable record in Super Rugby — the Crusaders have never been beaten in a playoff match at home.
"There aren't many guys who would have said you'd be playing (the Jaguares in the final) at the start of the season," Robertson said. "You've got to give it to them. They've got the ability to front up when they do travel.
"We're really impressed with them. It's going to take all of, probably more, effort than against the Hurricanes."
The second-best team in the tournament on points, the Wellington-based Hurricanes came within four points and one contentious call of ending that record in the semifinals.
The Hurricanes were outclassed by the Crusaders when they played a structured kicking game in the first half. When the game lost its structure in the second half and the Hurricanes played more spontaneously the Crusaders looked in trouble.
That insight might not help the Jaguares, who have prospered this season through the strength of their teamwork and their ability to execute a structured game plan.
Captain Jeronimo de la Fuente is confident the Jaguares can win by sticking to that plan.
"The road was a learning one that brought us to where we are today," he said. "The road was the right one with successes and mistakes.
"We're not going to change the way we play. Yes, we are going to put together a strategy; that is what we do for all matches. (But) our game will be the same as we developed throughout the tournament."