Super Rugby Preview: Crusaders, Jaguares favoured in semifinals

Pablo Matera has produced career-best rugby as the Jaguares have progressed to a Super Rugby semifinal against the Brumbies. Daniel Jayo/Getty Images

And so we come to to the penultimate weekend of Super Rugby, with undoubtedly, and thankfully, the four best teams of the season still in action.

The Crusaders and the Brumbies breezed past the Highlanders and the Sharks respectively in the quarterfinals -- albeit that the defending champions faced a more stern challenge from their South Island rivals -- while the Jaguares and the Hurricanes were made to work a lot harder over the full 80 minutes, by the Chiefs and the Bulls respectively.

We're left with two riveting semifinals.

Read on as we unpack some of the key storylines in Buenos Aires and Christchurch this weekend.

Jaguares vs. Brumbies, Estadio Jose Amalfitano, Buenos Aires, Saturday, 9.05 a.m. [AEST]

Jaguares: Emiliano Boffelli, Sebastian Cancelliere, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo De La Fuente (captain), Matias Moroni, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Tomas Cubelli, Javier Ortega Desio, Tomas Lezana, Pablo Matera, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Santiago Medrano, Agustin Creevy, Mayco Vivas. Replacements: Julian Montoya, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Enrique Pieretto, Marcos Kremer, Francisco Gorrissen, Felipe Ezcurra, Domingo Miotti, Ramiro Moyano.

Brumbies: Tom Banks, Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Irae Simone, Toni Pulu, Christian Leali'ifano, Joe Powell, Lachlan McCaffrey, Tom Cusack, Rob Valetini, Sam Carter, Rory Arnold, Allan Alaalatoa, Folau Fainga'a, Scott Sio. Replacements: Connal McInerney, James Slipper, Leslie Leuluaialii-Makin, Darcy Swain, Murray Douglas, Jahrome Brown, Matt Lucas, Tom Wright.

The Jaguares were undoubtedly the best team in the South African Conference, and not just because their rivals from the Republic were so in-and-out each week; the Argentinean team, laden with Pumas Test players as it is, got on a real roll to win nine of the final 10 games of the conference campaign before defeating the Chiefs with physical defence in the quarterfinals.

Physicality percolated into the Jaguares' game plan through that winning run; much as the P word essentially describes Argentine rugby through its history, the Jaguares often were lacking as they went through phases and put the ball through hands to their outside backs. Emiliano Boffelli, Sebastian Cancelliere and Matias Moroni remain brilliant strike runners who each represent a huge try-scoring threat, as does Ramiro Moyano, the team's leading try scorer who is back on the bench after being sidelined by injury, but truth of the matter now is that the Jaguares make more hard metres up front.

They're also much harder at the breakdown, and certainly they overwhelmed the Chiefs there last week in securing their first ever finals victory. And in blindside flanker Pablo Matera, they have a player to rival Ardie Savea for the title of Back-rower of the Year; he has been sensational, ranking top or near top in most statistical categories you'd expect him to figure.

The Brumbies also enter this fixture in top form, having won their past seven and destroying the Sharks last week despite seeing virtually no more; their opponents didn't offer much that day, but they proved their defensive chops also previously in repelling the Waratahs for 15 minutes in Round 17 before going bang in scoring four tries of their own.

Basically their entire game seems to be in harmony with itself, with the absence of David Pocock felt and noted mostly only by the media men; Rory Arnold throwing inside balls and playing as link man reflects the Brumbies game plan that is built around a strong set-piece with weapons out wide -- in particular the speed of Tom Banks and Henry Speight. They'll miss the absent Pete Samu, however, who was involved in everything good in the first 40 last week before leaving the field at the oranges with a hamstring injury.

Up front the Brumbies certainly have the edge in the scrum, and that come be a key element in what shapes as an even contest. The lineout also shapes as being a huge battle with Guido Petti, Arnold and Sam Carter the three most proficient players in stealing opposition ball also season. Another key stat is this: The Brumbies have score more tries in the first half than any other team (52 -- 15 more than the Jaguares).

Verdict: This fixture is too even across the park to be dogmatic in offering a verdict, and, truthfully, both sides can win without causing an upset. Pick a player from either side, and you can argue why they're a match winner. This might just boil down to travel and home-ground advantage. It's a lengthy journey from Canberra to Buenos Aires, and the effect, inside a passionate cauldron, could catch out the Brumbies in the final quarter, when the Jaguares have been strong all season. Still, if the visitors make a fast start and capitalise in the first half, travel effects might not be a factor. Jaguares by 5.

Crusaders vs. Hurricanes, Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch, Saturday 5.35 p.m. [AEST]

Crusaders: David Havili, Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Sam Whitelock (captain), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Replacements: Andrew Makalio, George Bower, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Jordan Taufua, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Braydon Ennor.

Hurricanes: Jordie Barrett, Salesi Rayasi, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Ngani Laumape, Ben Lam, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Gareth Evans, Ardie Savea, Reed Prinsep, Isaia Walker-Leawere, James Blackwell, Jeff To'omaga-Allen, Dane Coles (captain), Toby Smith. Replacements: Asafo Aumua, Xavier Numia, Ben May, Kane Le'aupepe, Vaea Fifita, Richard Judd, James Marshall, Jonah Lowe.

The Crusaders and Hurricanes meet for the third time this season, the visitors with it all to do after they were comprehensively beaten in both of the regular-season fixtures. Beauden Barrett was absent for the first of those defeats, but the Hurricanes couldn't run the same excuse when they were thrashed 32-8 at home in Round 7.

The two sides met at the same stage last season, too, the Crusaders running out 30-12 winners in damp Christchurch conditions that limited the threat of the Hurricanes' backline. John Plumtree's side are again chock full of strike weapons, but they also have a stronger pack than in 2018 -- with Dane Coles returned at hooker and Ardie Savea playing the best rugby of his career.

It's fair to say, however, that the Crusaders still hold the edge up front via their "Rolls-Royce" pack. That was the description All Blacks coach Steve Hansen used to describe the Crusaders forward unit last season, and why he'd be sticking with Barrett ahead of Richie Mo'unga as All Blacks No. 10.

As Hansen saw it, Mo'unga had the advantage of playing behind one of the most dominant forward packs in Super Rugby history, and the benefit of the time and space that came with it. Crusaders coach Scott Robertson has rolled that pack out of the dealership, and its finely tuned replacement parts off the bench when necessary, over the past two years, and Mo'unga has thrived on the open road it has presented.

One of the Hurricanes' biggest concerns will be their lineout, which was the worst of any team in Super Rugby this season at just an 83 percent success rate. Their scrum could also come under pressure, negating whatever threat the visitors' backs might be able to impose from a solid set-piece platform.

And then there's the Crusaders' home ground and finals history, which makes for imposing reading whichever narrative you choose to explore. The Hurricanes won't have mentioned it in their preparations, but the belief the Crusaders draw from it is immense.

That's why it's so hard to see anything other than a Crusaders victory. The Hurricanes have plenty of points in them, but they will only be given fleeting opportunities to secure them. The hosts, meanwhile, can play at speed, or, slow the game down, depending on the flow of the match and the conditions on offer.

The Hurricanes also only just scraped past the Bulls last week, while the Crusaders weathered a strong first-half from the Highlanders and then capitalised on the sin-binning of Liam Squire. It goes without saying, but if the Hurricanes are any chance of an upset they must retain 15 players for the entire 80 minutes.

Verdict: Watch for Ardie Savea to assert himself on this match in its infancy; if the Hurricanes are going to stay in the contest, they are going to have to rely on Super Rugby's form back-rower to disrupt the breakdown and shed tackles in attack as he has all season. They are also going to require a hit of Barrett magic, from either Jordie or Beauden, to shift momentum that, when owned by the Crusaders, only ever results in one verdict. Even if that does come, you should expect the Crusaders to regroup, and ride the energy and class off their bench to victory. It's a Rolls-Royce pack up front after all, while Mo'unga, Jack Goodhue, David Havili and Sevu Reece have all hummed like an Aston Martin at different stages this year. Crusaders by 13.