Jaguares to break new ground in Super Rugby playoffs
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Argentina's Jaguares will celebrate a significant milestone in their history, ignoring the catcalls of opponents, when they host a Super Rugby quarterfinal for the first time on Friday.
The Jaguares have made the playoffs only once before in their four-year history — last year when they were beaten by South Africa's Lions in the quarterfinals — and will have home advantage for the first time when they host the Chiefs in Buenos Aires.
In other quarterfinals, the defending champion Crusaders will play the Dunedin-based Highlanders in Christchurch, the Wellington-based Hurricanes will host the Pretoria-based Bulls and the ACT Brumbies will play the Durban-based Sharks in Canberra, Australia.
The Crusaders are attempting to win the Super Rugby title for the 10th time and for the third straight year while the Bulls are seeking their fourth title, the Brumbies their third, the Hurricanes and Highlanders their second and the Sharks and Jaguares their first.
The success of the Jaguares this year has attracted critics, especially in Australia, who say that because they are built around the Argentina test team, they enjoy a huge advantage as a national team playing in a "provincial" competition. Critics also say Argentina will enjoy an advantage at this year's World Cup because the Pumas have effectively been playing together throughout the Super Rugby season.
It's unclear whether any of those critics would mortgage their houses to bet on Argentina winning the World Cup, an outcome rated 40-1 by British bookmakers.
It is also unclear how Argentina could field a Super Rugby team if it couldn't call on its test players who would otherwise have to play in France.
The Jaguares haven't responded to those criticisms but have concentrated on putting together their best-ever Super Rugby season, compiling an 11-5 record to top the South Africa conference. They also overcame the problems of travel which have tripped them up in the past, winning in New Zealand for the first time.
History shows that home advantage has a massive influence in Super Rugby playoff matches and it may be more valuable to the Jaguares, who will face a travel-weary Chiefs team.
However, the Jaguares are not taking anything for granted, recognizing they are moving in uncharted waters.
"New Zealand teams are always very difficult and more in these types of games," captain Jeronimo de la Fuente said. "They become strong and play good rugby.
"For us it represents a good opportunity to play well and take advantage of what we do at home."
The Jaguares will take confidence from their two wins this season over New Zealand teams and a narrow 30-27 loss to the Chiefs when they met in the regular season.
"We look at ourselves, how we have been improving and how we are playing this year," de la Fuente said. "If we want to keep going, we have to beat anyone who comes in front of us."
The Crusaders, who qualified in overall first place, are heavy favorites to beat the Highlanders, who just scraped into the playoffs when the Bulls beat the Lions in the last match of the regular season. But the Highlanders go to Christchurch on Friday with nothing to lose, no greater outsiders than when they won the title in 2015.
The Hurricanes have struggled all season to harness their huge array of talent. Their weakness at set pieces is likely to be exposed by the Bulls on Saturday and remains a major Achilles heel, though they have shown an ability to win with only fragments of possession.
The Brumbies, who won the Australian conference with a 10-6 record, may need home advantage to see off the Sharks, who finished third in South Africa with a 7-8-1 record, the draw coming against the Crusaders.