Favourites Jaguares XV are celebrating winning the first Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR) title after beating home side Peñarol Rugby in a nervy 36-28 win in the first-ever final at the Charrúa Stadium.
As many had anticipated, the new champions were the best team in a unique tournament that had to be played within a strict sanitary bubble across Santiago and Montevideo; players are now returning home after more than two and a half months away. Jaguares XV were also the youngest team, with an average age of 22, confirming that the production line in Argentine rugby continues to deliver top-quality players.
Coached by former Puma great Ignacio Fernández Lobbe and skippered by Rugby World Cup 2019 veteran Felipe Ezcurra, many of the title-winning players have put Puma coach Mario Ledesma under so much pressure that 20 were included in an initial 67-player list for the two tests against Wales in Cardiff in July. Gonzalo García, who captained the Colombian franchise, was also included.
Likewise, positive signs from Peñarol Rugby promise them a solid road to Rugby World Cup 2023’s qualifying rounds, which start in July and are the next focus for the other five countries that competed with Jaguares XV in South America’s premier professional competition.
Alongside the two finalists, semi-finalists Olimpia Lions (Paraguay) and Selknam (Chile), and Cobras Brasil XV and Cafeteros Pro, from Colombia, competed in the 2021 tournament.
Running the favourites close
Despite Jaguares XV's status as favourites, Peñarol Rugby were known to have the ability to challenge the Argentine team – a short spell in the latter part of the second half saw the side only two points adrift of the eventual champions.
Extremely committed in defence, Santiago Vilaseca’s side had few attacking opportunities and the metronomic boot of Martín Roger again led to points – the first score in the final came from his penalty in the 19th minute, with the home side stronger in the opening stages.
The Jaguares XV reply came almost instantly as wing Tomás Cubilla scored the first try of his hat-trick after two offloads. Seven minutes later, full-back Bautista Daireaux, who made the extended Puma list, benefited from a loose ball after a strong tackle from Juan Pablo Castro, to take his side 12-3 up at the break.
After an early Roger penalty, two tries in three minutes – from Cubilla and Agustín Segura – stretched the lead to 22-6.
Far from giving up, Peñarol Rugby attacked and scored their first try within a minute when full-back Baltazar Amaya showed his speed, and seven minutes later, a Vilaseca try left the home side two points adrift – 22-20 down with 16 minutes to play.
Peñarol prop Facundo Pomponio was sin-binned 12 minutes from full-time after repeated penalties in defence; from the ensuing penalty, a scrum resulted in a penalty try for Jaguares XV.
Two minutes from full-time, Cubilla sealed his hat-trick, and in overtime, with Jaguares XV sure champions, Facundo Gattas narrowed the scoreline.
Captain to captain
Jaguares XV were the best team throughout the tournament, and the trophy ceremony saw a unique moment that encompassed the spirit of SLAR.
Maintaining the sanitary bubble to the utmost, losing captain Vilaseca handed the bespoke trophy to Ezcurra.
The winning captain said: “I feel huge satisfaction. Living in a bubble was very tough, so many days away from the family; we are delighted and relieved to have made it so far.
“In these hard and difficult times, Sudamérica Rugby managed to run a full professional tournament. It has been a privilege given the circumstances.
“I cherish the four months of commitment of our team, giving their all. Players were the real stars. Maybe at times we didn’t play that well, but we knew how we wanted to play. With time, the team came through thanks to a solid defence.”