PRETORIA BULLS 44 (Jono Ross 2, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson tries; Jacques-Louis Potgieter 6 penalties; Potgieter 2, Handre Pollar conversions) bt ACT BRUMBIES 23 (Henry Speight, Ben Mowen, Tevita Kuridrani tries; Christian Lealiifano 2 penalties, conversions) at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday morning. Referee: Craig Joubert. Crowd: 16,463.
THE FORM SLIDE
The 21-point loss to the Bulls marked the end of a five-week "season-defining" run for the Brumbies and they finished with just two wins. The good news is that their two wins were against competition front runners the Durban Sharks and the Waikato Chiefs. The bad news is that their losses were so bad, most people have forgotten about their wins. There are worrying signs at Brumbyland with the finals just three games away. The scrum has struggled in recent weeks and the Brumbies' backs have been starved of good, fast attacking ball. The NSW Waratahs have shown what backlines can do when playmakers get time and space. But whenever Matt Toomua or Christian Lealiifano touches the ball, the defence is already on them. The Brumbies are lacking go forward and that's being reflected in their form slump. They have lost top spot on the Australian conference, conceded 91 points in their past three losses - almost a third of their season tally - and are fighting to keep their finals hopes alive. The defence needs to be worked on. There were too many soft tries against the Bulls.
THE RUN HOME
The Brumbies play the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra next weekend and desperately need to win before the three-week international bye. A loss would all but cripple their finals hopes, but a win would keep them well in the hunt. When the season resumes, they play the NSW Waratahs, have another bye and then finish against the Western Force. The simple equation is that the Brumbies need to win all three games. If they lose one, they're shot ducks. Three wins still might not get them into the top six, with the Waratahs well placed to lock up the Australian conference guaranteed spot and the Force lurking. After ending a 10-season finals drought last year, the Brumbies could fall from grand finalists to missing the top six if they don't rediscover their form.
THE SLOW STARTS
Failing to fire in the opening exchanges is handcuffing the Brumbies this season. Instead of level pegging or in front, the Brumbies have been well beaten in the opening 20 minutes against the Canterbury Crusaders, the Free State Cheetahs and the Pretoria Bulls. What makes it more concerning is the fact the Brumbies said they were preparing for the Bulls' match like it was a "mini grand final". That pre-match intensity wasn't transferred on to the field and the Brumbies trailed 20-3 after just 25 minutes. Ill-discipline gave Bulls playmaker Jacques-Louis Potgieter a chance to practise his goalkicking from around the field. The Brumbies are intent on making amends against the Melbourne Rebels next weekend. But the last time teams met, the Rebels stunned the Brumbies at AAMI Park, despite the Brumbies scoring the first try in the first five minutes.
THE MATFIELD FACTOR
Springboks great Victor Matfield is 37, has just come out of retirement and should be coaching instead of playing, but his presence played mind games with the Brumbies. Brumbies captain Ben Mowen admitted the team's set piece was caught worrying what lineout expert Matfield would do rather than concentrating on their own game. It showed. The usually sound and competition leading Brumbies lineout turned over too much ball and squandered good attacking chances. Matfield has just been named in the Springboks squad for the June Test series and the Rugby Championship. He obviously still has what it takes to run the lineout. He knew every Brumbies move and poached possession. "I certainly felt we were more concerned about what he was doing rather than our own drill," Mowen said of Matfield. "We have to be consistent on the drill because generally you win the ball if you do that. But we were inconsistent and we brought [Matfield] into it." Matfield also set up the first try of the match, slipping through some lazy Brumbies defence, throwing a dummy and then finding Jan Serfontein.
TEVITA'S BUZZER BEATER
What a difference a year makes. Tevita Kuridrani was the Brumbies' trying-scoring hero in the semi-final win against the Bulls in Pretoria last year. His 78th minute try lifted the Brumbies into the grand final and ended the Bulls' unbeaten play-off streak at Loftus Versfeld. The Fijian centre scored in the same minute in this year's clash, but it was consolation if anything. The Brumbies were well and truly beaten by the time Kuridrani crashed over after picking up a loose ball. It showed the Brumbies hadn't given up and they then pushed for a bonus-point try to try to take something out of the game. They fell short and return to Australia with one point from their two matches in South Africa. It's their worst return since their 2011 tour. It was also their first trip back without World Cup-winning Springboks coach Jake White. Maybe the Jake effect had more of an impact than was first thought. White's biggest attribute was making the players believe they could do the impossible. That was evident in his new team's tour of New Zealand, the Durban Sharks beating the Canterbury Crusaders and the Auckland Blues despite being under-manned in both contests.