BUENOS AIRES – Brilliant defending helped the Argentine Jaguares reach the Super Rugby semi-finals for the first time with a 21-16 home victory over the Waikato Chiefs from New Zealand on Friday.
After scoring a 45-second try through Pablo Matera, the South Americans trailed 10-8 at half-time and the Chiefs stretched their lead to eight points not long into the second half.
But a Matias Moroni try pulled the Jaguares back into a tense quarter-final in Buenos Aires and Joaquin Diaz Bonilla slotted two penalties to seal the fate of the visitors.
The Jaguares will enjoy home advantage again next weekend against the Brumbies from Australia or the Coastal Sharks from South Africa with a place in the final at stake.
Overcoming the Chiefs was another massive step forward for a Buenos Aires outfit packed with Argentina internationals – 14 started and another seven were on the bench.
The Jaguares won only four of 15 matches as 2016 debutants, achieved seven second-season victories and reached the quarter-finals for the first time last year.
"This is a dream victory," said Jaguares skipper and centre Jeronimo de la Fuente. "We have beaten great rivals in the Chiefs.
"I thought our defending tonight was magnificent with everyone putting their body on the line and restricting the Chiefs to one try.
"We came under huge pressure about 10 minutes from the end as the Chiefs crept closer and closer to our line with each phase, but we survived."
After losing four of six matches at the start of this season, the Jaguares have won 10 of 11 since, including an away triumph over former champions the Wellington Hurricanes of New Zealand.
Chiefs skipper and flanker Sam Cane was gracious in defeat, the first suffered by the side from Hamilton in Argentina after two narrow regular season wins in previous seasons.
"That was real finals rugby and the Jaguares won because they defended better than us," he said of a loss that followed three straight regular season wins.
"The pressure they put on us forced errors and penalties and I wish them all the best in the remainder of the competition.
"They attacked aggressively at the breakdowns, which often prevented us winning quick ball, and if they continue to play like this they are going to be hard to stop."
A potential disadvantage for the Argentines is a long flight to New Zealand should they reach the final, to face trophy-holders the Crusaders in Christchurch.
The Crusaders beat fellow New Zealanders the Highlanders 38-14 in the first quarter-final Friday to set up a home semi-final against the Hurricanes or the Northern Bulls from South Africa.
Matera scored off a ruck after the Chiefs were dispossessed trying to run the ball out of their 22 and although Bonilla failed to convert, he slotted a penalty for an 8-0 lead.
The Chiefs then controlled territory and possession with Lachlan Boshier scoring between the posts and Jack Debreczeni converted and kicked a penalty for a two-point half-time advantage.
Debreczeni retired injured after kicking another penalty and his replacement at fly-half, Marty McKenzie, succeeded with his only penalty attempt.
Sensing defeat, the Jaguares raised their game and Bonilla converted the Moroni try and kicked two penalties to turn a 16-8 deficit into a five-point triumph.AFP