Cape Town - Three influential Super Rugby weeks loom in the South African quest to prevent the Jaguares from winning the domestic conference for a second season in a row.
Early days these may still be in the competition, but the Argentinean team’s imminent trio of fixtures on SA soil - Stormers, Bulls, Sharks in that order - seem set to be hugely relevant, nevertheless, to the chase for group table-topping honours in 2020.
Losing finalists to the Crusaders last season in what was undoubtedly the best of their campaigns since entry to the tournament in 2016, the Jaguares begin with a big ‘un at Newlands on Saturday (15:05), against John Dobson’s unbeaten Stormers charges.
It is a meeting of one versus two in the conference, as the Jaguares have one defeat to their name after three games (to the Hurricanes in Buenos Aires) but recovered well from that setback on Saturday to see off the Reds 43-27 in Buenos Aires, to currently lie three points adrift of the Capetonians.
Frankly, all three looming matches in South Africa have that “eight-point swing” feel to them: in short, a good tour involving a precious win or two would greatly enhance the South Americans’ chance of repeat conference mastery this year, whereas a less productive mission - especially if they were clean-swept - would enormously swell the likelihood of an SA-based franchise beating them to top berth in 2020.
The Jaguares are always disadvantaged in the sense that they have at least two multi-match tours within ordinary season: this one is effectively the first, and the next will be a four-game roster later in the campaign against the Brumbies, Blues, Crusaders and Sunwolves.
What’s more, they will have to come long-haul to South Africa one more time at the back end, when their final fixture before the knockout phase is a visit to the Lions’ den at Emirates Airline Park.
Game one at Newlands shapes up as especially formidable this weekend given the Jaguares’ winless record at the Stormers’ headquarters, plus the mounting confidence the hosts should have from their unblemished run in the results column, despite probably not even yet finding optimal sparkle.
The Argentineans have played three times previously in Cape Town, being thumped 35-8 last season, losing 28-20 in 2018 and 32-25 in 2017.
But they would have reason to square up to both the Bulls and Sharks with a more optimistic feeling, as they will not be visiting notably hoodoo-like venues.
The Jaguares pipped the Bulls 22-20 at Loftus last season, and earned one of their most heartening results of the campaign - though humiliating from a home perspective - when they thrashed a schizophrenic Sharks outfit in the closing phase of Robert du Preez’s coaching career in Durban by a remarkable 51-17 margin.
Matias Orlando registered a hat-trick of tries as the visitors ran in seven in total to two that day, a showing by the Sharks branded “diabolical” on Sport24.
Will the Sharks be able to avenge that outcome this time around? Not in their favour, perhaps, will be that the game comes straight off their (ongoing) four-match tour of Australasia, whereas the Jaguares will be feeling reasonably acclimatised to South African conditions by then.
In each case over the next three weeks, if the home team crash it will be a bad portent for them just in relation to the quest to be better than the Jaguares this year, because all will still have to visit Buenos Aires as well … the prospect of “doubles” will loom large.
In 2019, the Argentineans earned a 100 percent home record against the trio of sides in question, beating the Bulls 27-12, Sharks 34-7 and Stormers 30-25.
It is just one extra reason why the Jaguares being thwarted more often than not in the next three weeks is a vital element of the collective bid to ensure a South African winner this season of the conference branded the “SA” one …
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