The 2019 Super Rugby season will be decided in Christchurch for the second straight year, with the Crusaders to host the Jaguares on Saturday evening [AEST].
The weekend's semifinals followed vastly different scripts but the competition again has its two best sides contesting the final in the penultimate year of the controversial conference system.
Read on as we look back the weekend's action.
JAGUARES 38-7 BRUMBIES
From the moment they bustled through a little corridor jammed tightly by their non-playing teammates, the Jaguares were on their way to a first Super Rugby final.
The look on back-rower Pablo Matera's face said it all: The Jaguares weren't about to drop the intensity nor the execution that had seen them win 10 of their last 11. The fans had flooded to Estadio Jose Amalfitani too, and the Jaguares could feel the energy pulsing into their sheds pre-match.
It was on show from the outset as the hosts asserted their authority on the contest from the opening whistle. Behind the shrewd direction of fly-half Joaquin Diaz Bonilla and some uncharacteristic Brumbies errors, the Jaguares raced out to a 13-0 lead in as many minutes before a try to Tomas Lavanini made it 20-0 after 20 minutes.
From there, the Brumbies were chasing the game. And with the visitors unable to win their own lineout, and constantly buckling under the defensive pressure of the Jaguares, it was always going to be a margin too great to bridge.
Hooker Folau Fainga'a gave the Brumbies some hope with yet another try from close range, just a couple of phases after a driving maul, right on halftime. But it was a fleeting visit to the Jaguares' 22 and one that did little to shift the momentum as the home side snuffed out any chance of a revival with a try to Matias Orlando nine minutes into the second stanza.
The 31,000-strong Buenos Aires crowd celebrated in the stands for much of the second half; fans singing and dancing in the realisation that, in just their fourth season, the Jaguares had reached a Super Rugby decider.
The Argentines have come in for criticism; their right to a Super Rugby position questioned by former Wallabies hooker Phil Kearns, who again made the point in his commentary role with Fox Sports on Saturday [AEST], but even the disgruntled Fox Sports commentator could surely admire the steady improvement that has filtered through the Jaguares franchise over the last four years.
It is also a huge result for the national side who will soon embark on a Rugby Championship campaign, and then of course the Rugby World Cup, with a squad of players that has played together all year, but also one that will be boosted by a swag of big names returning from Europe.
Unfortunately for the Brumbies, they saved their worst performance since a horror showing against the Reds in April for the semifinals. Under pressure at lineout time, the Brumbies compounded their early woes with two high tackles that gifted the Jaguares six points; when Toni Pulu and Rob Valetini failed to deal with a simple kick behind the defensive line, Tomas Cubelli swooped to ensure any early nerves his teammates may have had were quickly settled. It was a superb pick-up from Cubelli that reflected the gulf that existed between the sides; the scrum-half scooping up a loose ball at full speed while a number of Brumbies were fumbling simple passes or carrying loosely into contact.
It was a hugely disappointing result for a Brumbies team that had won seven straight games and one that was trying to send veterans Christian Leali'ifano, Rory Arnold and Sam Carter out on the ultimate high. Still, coach Dan McKellar deserves an enormous amount of credit for sticking to a 2018 game plan overhaul that finally bore fruit from the midway point of this season.
The Brumbies were easily the best Australian team this season and should contribute the lion's share of Wallabies when the squad is announced for the Rugby Championship. The one big concern for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika will be whether or not there is a smattering of quality players across the other franchises to add into his starting side.
Would the additions of Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper, Samu Kerevi and Will Genia, for example, be enough to create an entirely different result at Test level? We'll find the answer to that in just a couple of weeks.
As for this weekend's final, the Jaguares will head to Christchurch full of confidence. Play like they did against the Brumbies and they'll be right in the contest with the Crusaders. But they will also likely need to find something a little extra if they're to deny the Crusaders a 10th title, and earn a first Super Rugby trophy of their very own.
CRUSADERS 30-26 HURRICANES
The Crusaders will host the showpiece once again as they chase their third successive title, and their 10th in all, after their semifinal against the Hurricanes surpassed their home-and-away fixture against the Chiefs in Fiji as game of the season.
It was so good that at one point Sky Sport commentator and former All Blacks scrum-half Justin Marshall was right to borrow a line from Russell Crowe's character in Gladiator, the protagonist Maximus, in declaring: "Are you not entertained?"
Yet we're not talking about that, with post-match headlines about the call -- or non-call -- of Australian referee Nic Berry after Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock knocked the ball out of Hurricanes scrum-half T.J. Perenara's hands at a ruck in the final two minutes of action.
The Crusaders led by four points, but the Hurricanes had the attacking momentum 15 metres from the hosts' line; the visitors were pressing for the score that would send them to the final and no doubt Whitelock felt the pressure enough to challenge for a ball that really wasn't there to be challenged for. Berry, who, otherwise had a fine game, and who has had a good season with the whistle, missed Whitelock's action and called a knock-on against Perenara. The Crusaders won the ensuing scrum and Richie Mo'unga cleared the ball to touch to bring forth the final whistle.
Thankfully, the visitors weren't within three points so the missed call didn't deny them a gimme penalty goal for victory -- which, if successful, would have meant the Jaguares hosting the Canes, and assumed short-priced favouritism for, the tournament decider.
Perenara and everyone of the yellow-and-black persuasion fumed post-match -- "but it is what it is in a game of footy" -- while the Crusaders' Kieren Read described Whitelock's action knowingly as "a veteran play", which was all but a public statement that his mate had got away with a foul act committed for the good of the team.
For all that the Hurricanes can feel hard done by after Berry's decision, however, they will in quiet moments of reflection, likely accept they also undermined their hopes with a submissive performance in the first half.
Much as they had done against the Bulls in the quarterfinals, they were content to roost the ball away from their territory rather than playing to their strengths of taking on the Crusaders with ball in hand. This time, however, their kick chase was not as good as it had been against the Bulls, and the home receivers were not challenged often or hard enough; hence the Crusaders had been untroubled in claiming a 13-0 lead after 34 minutes through a converted try from Sevu Reece, that owed much to the genius vision of Ryan Crotty to kick the ball into open space behind the defensive line, and two penalty goals from Mo'unga.
Only the Canes will know how much their game plan was affected by the knowledge that the Crusaders were unbeaten in 30 successive home matches and had never lost a home finals match; the Crusaders were 23-from-23, with six of those wins against the Hurricanes, and they had also recorded 38-22 and 32-8 victories in the home-and-away season. They're the sort of numbers that can affect a mindset, or a game plan, if they're allowed to.
Only when the Hurricanes kept the ball in hand did they threaten the Crusaders, and they scored tries through Ngani Laumape and Ben Lam either side of halftime to make the scoreline 13-12. As Lam touched down in the left corner, one was reminded of quotes from Carlos Spencer at halftime of the home-and-away fixture against the Lions in Johannesburg, when the Hurricanes assistant coach had said the message had been simply to "build phases" and "keep ball in hand"; much as they had been brilliant in the second half at Emirates Airline Park, so too were they after the interval at Orangetheory Stadium.
The Hurricanes, in building phases and keeping ball in hand, stretched the Crusaders in the second stanza, and they will surely wonder what might have been had they played their brand of rugby for 80 minutes rather than 45; for when they did so, with Perenara and Beauden Barrett superb in directing and driving the play, they matched and exceeded the Crusaders as the action went one way then the other.
The Crusaders, most likely, will enjoy the talk about the Hurricanes, and Berry, for it means they can just get on with the business they are still conducting. They remain the best team in the competition, and over 80 minutes on Saturday, they were the best team in Christchurch. Now, after celebrating their latest victory, they will get down to preparing for the Jaguares.
And that fixture will allow Mo'unga once again to press his claim for the All Blacks' No. 10 jersey.
For all that Barrett, the incumbent, was superb in the second half for the Canes, Mo'unga was sublime for 80 minutes in making play for the Crusaders.
We mentioned in our preview that Mo'unga was perhaps "underappreciated" for playing behind the Crusaders' "Rolls-Royce" pack; it's worth noting that the pack did not assume dominance against the Canes, and still he starred. His chip and chase, after collecting a poorly chased kick from Barrett, running a support line inside Reece to take the final pass and scamper under the posts for a try, was the stuff of genius; and he nailed all his kicks, whereas the Barrett brothers left five points on the field from the tee.
The Mo'unga-Barrett debate will continue as a nice sidebar to the All Blacks' campaign. Before that kicks off, however, we have the Crusaders vs. the Jaguares.