The kings of Super Rugby, the nine-time champion Crusaders, have reached a 14th final in the competition's 23-year history. It is a simply astounding record; so, too, the fact they have triumphed on nine of those previous 13 occasions, and have won two deciders outside New Zealand.
This season, however, has not been without its challenges -- both on the field and off it.
On it, the Crusaders have had to juggle rest weeks for a swathe of key All Blacks, and they were without star forwards Codie Taylor, Kieran Read and skipper Sam Whitelock for the first few weeks of the season. Off it, the franchise was engulfed by a discussion about its name following the Christchurch terror attacks. The Southern Derby against the Highlanders scheduled for the next day was ultimately cancelled, before the Crusaders then turned in their worst performance for the year in a loss to the Waratahs in Sydney.
But, as is the Crusaders' way, they regrouped and refocused their attention on what they could control: Winning games of Super Rugby.
The back half of the season brought about some better form, save for two draws against South African opposition, but they were also drawn into an off-field issue -- only this time it was their own making. Richie Mo'unga and George Bridge have since been cleared of separate incidents in Pretoria and Cape Town, though the official wording of "unsubstantiated allegations" earlier this week raised more than just a few eyebrows.
Still, there was one final twist to come with All Blacks Ryan Crotty and Scott Barrett ruled out of the final after the duo picked up hand injuries in the thrilling semifinal win over the Hurricanes.
If the Crusaders' season has followed the path of a roller-coaster, with ups and downs in equal measure, the Jaguares are driving a potentially landmark year for Argentine rugby.
With a patchy start to the season that saw them lose three of their first five games -- rounded out by a 35-8 defeat by the Stormers the week prior to a bye -- the Jaguares appeared to be headed for another season in which they failed to capitalise on a wealth of playing talent. That theme only seemed more likely when they were beaten 32-20 at home by the Chiefs. Cue the season turnaround. Back-to-back victories on the road in South Africa followed by two further wins at home had the Jaguares back in playoff calculations and, due to the closeness of the conference, well and truly in the hunt for the top honour in South Africa.
There was a minor hiccup in a close loss to the Highlanders on the road, but they then finished the year with five straight wins including an ultra-impressive victory over the Hurricanes in Wellington. That was good enough for second spot overall and, after two playoff wins at home, the last of which was played before 31,000 fans in a coming-of-age moment for the franchise, the Jaguares are in a first Super Rugby final in just their fourth year in the competition.
As mentioned above, the Crusaders have been hit by the loss of Scott Barrett and Ryan Crotty. The lock and inside centre are two of the team's most consistent performers, so their absence represents quite the setback considering the significance of Saturday night's contest. Fortunately, they have excellent cover for Crotty in recent All Blacks call-up Braydon Ennor; Mitchell Dunshea is no Scott Barrett, but his role will be focused squarely on maintaining the Crusaders' strong set-piece.
David Havili, Sevu Reece, Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Sam Whitelock (captain), Mitchell Dunshea, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Replacements: Andrew Makalio, George Bower, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Jordan Taufua, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Will Jordan.
The Jaguares have also made two changes, though coach Gonzalo Quesada's selection are not injury-forced. Loosehead Prop Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro has been charged with solidifying a scrum that has struggled in its past two outings while Pumas winger Ramiro Moyano comes onto the left wing; Matias Moroni shifts to the right wing as a result, with Sebastian Cancilliere moving to the bench.
Emiliano Boffelli, Matias Moroni, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo de la Fuente (c), Ramiro Moyano, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Tomas Cubelli, Javier Ortega Desio, Marcos Kremer, Pablo Matera, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Santiago Medrano, Agustin Creevy, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Replacements: Julian Montoya, Mayco Vivas, Enrique Pieretto, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Tomas Lezana, Felipe Ezcurra, Domingo Miotti, Sebastian Cancelliere.
Key match-up: Richie Mo'unga vs. Joaquin Diaz Bonilla
The Jaguares' pack must improve its scrum work, considerably, as a unit, but the biggest individual showdown comes at No. 10, where the in-form Richie Mo'unga and Joaquin Diaz Bonilla face off.
Mo'unga has again been in breathtaking form -- his omission from ESPN's Team of the Year drawing heavy criticism, particularly after a star showing against the Hurricanes last week. The big question this week is whether he will be given the same freedom to play or whether the Jaguares' defensive pressure can limit the space and time he usually thrives on.
Diaz Bonilla will have a role to play in that, too. The Jaguares No. 10 was able to continually turn the Brumbies around last week with an excellent display of tactical kicking; it is a fine line against the Crusaders, though, for even the slightest error or aimless centre-field kick will hand the ball over to what is probably the most lethal back three in the competition in Sevu Reece, George Bridge and David Havili.
Verdict: The Crusaders' unbeaten record at home in playoff games explains why they are such red-hot favourites, more-so than what they have produced on the paddock this season. Scott Robertson's side have played some sparkling rugby, in patches, but two draws against South African opposition, who both slowed the game down, focused on defensive pressure and threw numbers at the breakdown, should give the Jaguares plenty of hope. The Argentines will still have to play something akin to the perfect game of rugby for victory and while they did that last week against the Brumbies, the Crusaders are a couple of steps up in talent again.
Crusaders by 5.