After 29 games in the midst of a pandemic that has almost paralysed a region, the Superliga Americana de Rugby has confirmed its four semi-finalists. The tournament of six high-performance franchises from Sudamérica Rugby can already be considered a success despite the fact that its winner is still to be determined.
With rugby almost stopped across the continent, the only professional tournament in South America could go ahead thanks to two strict sanitary bubbles in Santiago, Chile, and Montevideo, Uruguay.
As much as the sporting outcome is of relevance, more is the exemplary behaviour of players, team personnel, referees and staff in order to be able to complete the tournament; after multiple tests over the last two months, there were no positive COVID-19 tests.
Olimpia Lions (Paraguay) managed to find a place amongst the top four sides and will meet Jaguares XV, the only unbeaten side, and big candidate to take the first SLAR, in Saturday’s second semi-final.
In the opening game, Uruguayans and Chileans will renew their sporting rivalry, this time in the form of Peñarol Rugby and Selknam.
Unable to crack the top four, but leaving their mark on the tournament and the game in their own countries were Cafeteros Pro (Colombia) and Cobras Brasil XV.
As much as being a much-needed pathway for regional rugby, the Superliga Americana de Rugby has been of huge assistance in preparation for five nations in their quest to qualify to Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.
Cafeteros Pro made their debut at this level and even though they failed to win games, the lessons for the team coached by the experienced Rodolfo Ambrossio, both on and off the field, were huge.
Despite having a big number of Argentine players in the squad, Colombian players were given constant opportunities and the pay-off was how much they learnt from game to game.
Their 22 tries in ten rounds gave them three attacking bonus points (awarded for four or more tries) and two defensive (for losing by seven or fewer points). Being the only side to score four tries against Jaguares XV in a game, they did receive 69 tries. Because of this, Gerson Ortíz (114) and Lautaro Simes (105) lead the tournament’s top tacklers.
Prop Diego Posada and loose forwards Diver Ceballos and Ortíz, were some of the Colombians that most benefited in a team ably led by former Pumitas scrum-half Gonzalo García.
The Brazilian team had a patchy start, unable to reach Santiago in time for the opening round due to positive COVID-19 cases. They won three of their nine games, but were far from the expected standard for a side that had little foreign input and is focused on the road to France 2023.
Backs Felipe Sancery, Moisés Duque, Daniel Lima Maranhao and forwards Clebber Días and André Arruda were among the best performers.
Peñarol Rugby vs Selknam
In normal circumstances, this match would have the added spice of colourful support from the local fans. To be played in front of empty stands, pride will be the key.
Last year, in the same Charrúa Stadium, Selknam generated the big shock in the opening round by beating Peñarol in a tournament that, unfortunately, was cut short after only three games.
There were few differences this year when they played each other – in Chile, Peñarol won 26-22, while in Montevideo the winner was Selknam 27-17.
The loose forwards in the Chilean team, named to honour an indigenous tribe, had a crucial role, with captain Ignacio Silva and Martín Sigren true leaders, and wing Matías Garafulic always dangerous. Much of the game will be decided in the centres, where the outstanding Domingo Saavedra will be controlling traffic.
The opposition won two more games than Selknam – seven to five – and are fully aware that they are playing as much for survival in SLAR as to make a point ahead of their RWC-qualifying games in July.
Led by experienced centre Andrés Vilaseca (main photo, playing against Selknam), Peñarol Rugby had in Manuel Ardao, Santiago Civetta and Diego Arbelo their best players. As with the Chileans, thinking on what lies ahead, their squad had only a handful of Argentine players.
Jaguares XV vs Olimpia Lions
Jaguares XV were the best team in the tournament. Out of Super Rugby, the Superliga Americana de Rugby comes as a great option to promote the best players in Argentina. They won their nine games (their opening game against Cobras Brasil XV cancelled), scoring 85 tries.
Puma Sebastián Cancelliere was unstoppable, scoring 14 tries, while lock Franco Molina, full-back Juan Bautista Daireaux and flanker Frankie Gorrisen were always outstanding.
Olimpia Lions, with a big Argentine contingent in their squad and experienced coach Raúl Pérez at the helm, confirmed their place among the top four two games ahead of the round-robin's second round.
The big question is whether the team's strong pack and stronger scrum, lead by experienced captain Axel Zapata, and the polished boot of Máximo Ledesma, will be a challenge to Jaguares XV.
For the Paraguayan team, the growth of local backs Renato Cardona and Sebastián Urbieta, and lock Mariano Garcete Eli has been a joy to watch.
In their previous two games, Jaguares XV won 77-13 and 40-26, which showed a big step-up from Olimpia Lions.
Being in the semifinal should be a goal reached, yet they know they are 80 minutes away from creating history.
Photo: Gaspafotos / SLAR