ACT BRUMBIES 16 (Sam Carter try; Christian Lealiifano 3 penalties, conversion) bt DURBAN SHARKS 9 (Frans Steyn 3 penalties) at Canberra Stadium on Saturday night. Referee: Glen Jackson. Crowd: 11,615.
THE RUNNING RUGBY?
Forget about running rugby, the top-of-the-table battle was all about a kicking duel. With more than 70 kicks inside the first 55 minutes, the game between the Brumbies and Sharks was an arm-wrestle more than a fast-flowing match. It was always going to happen with so much at stake for both teams. The Brumbies were desperate to beat the first-placed Sharks and former mentor Jake White. White's influence was all over the game. When he coached the Brumbies in 2012 and 2013, the Brumbies refused to take risks from inside their own half. Now the Sharks are doing the same and using Frans Steyn's booming boot to strangle teams. The tactics were clear. After 55 minutes, the Sharks had made 38 tactical kicks compared to the Brumbies' 34. The Brumbies want to play a free-flowing style this season, but the contest between the two best teams was a far cry from the high-scoring NSW Waratahs-Wellington Hurricanes battle last weekend. When the Brumbies finally got some fast ball at the breakdown, Nic White put Sam Carter through a massive hole for the first try. The interesting battle will be seeing which style can win the Super Rugby title. Or maybe it's a mixture.
TIME TO MOVE ON: JAKE
The Jake White era at the Brumbies is over and the World Cup winning coach felt a sense of relief after leaving Canberra Stadium. White quit the Brumbies last year, just two months after guiding them to the Super Rugby final. It shocked the players and club. White has maintained leaving was the right decision. But even with all his experience, White was still nervous. It wasn't the crowd's reaction to his comeback that had him a little on edge. White wanted to see the players he'd worked so closely with over the past two years. After the siren, White made a direct line for the Brumbies change rooms. He joked he was confused at which room he was supposed to be in. But it was a deliberate act to address Brumbies players before he had been to see the Sharks squad. White spoke to players individually, saying he was hugged by David Pocock and he felt it was time to move on. He's right, the Jake White chapter is almost over. There could be one final twist though. With the Brumbies and Sharks so close on the ladder, a finals match up is certainly on the cards.
THE DEFINING MOMENT
In a game dominated by kicking in general play, one try was enough to separate the top two teams in Super Rugby. It came from an unlikely source, Brumbies lock Sam Carter dashing 15 metres to score. Both camps after the match said the goal wasn't to play attractive rugby. There was a higher prize at stake, with the Super Rugby season winding down and crucial competition points up for grabs. But scrumhalf Nic White's decision making at the breakdown and Carter's surprising speed burst proved the difference. White saw a gap in the Sharks line, drew a defender and passed to Carter who scored. The Sharks had their chances to score from rolling mauls close to the line, but they failed to capitalise in the dying minutes.
Just as the Brumbies start to get over their injury nightmares, winger Joseph Tomane was hit with the curse on the eve of a South African tour. Tomane now looks like a long shot to win a spot in the Wallabies squad for a three-Test series against France after suffering an eye socket injury against the Sharks on Saturday night. Tomane clashed heads with teammate Ben Alexander in the first half and was forced to leave the field. He was sent to hospital for X-rays to see if he can travel to South Africa with his teammates. It's a major blow for Tomane and the Brumbies. His start to the season was halted by a foot injury and now he faces another stint on the sideline. However, it could prevent a selection headache for the Brumbies coaches. Henry Speight is set to make his comeback from a broken jaw this week and will join the team in South Africa. Robbie Coleman has been outstanding in Speight's absence. But you've got to feel for Tomane. Every time he starts to hit top form, injury hits. He made his Wallabies debut in 2012 but played one Test before injuring his ankle. With his first touch in the first minute against the Sharks, the former NRL winger made a 50-metre break.
If there's one area of the Brumbies' game that needs to urgently be addressed, it's their ability to get out of trouble after scoring points. Lock Sam Carter scored the first try of the match in the 65th minute to put the Brumbies on the front foot. But just when they needed to put the Sharks under more pressure, they dropped the ball at the kick-off and were under the pump immediately. It has happened far too often for the Brumbies this year. Their defence has been outstanding and regularly gets them out of trouble. But in tight situations, the inability to recover after scoring points looms as a game breaker.
WHITE'S RUNNING BATTLE
Brumbies scrumhalf Nic White continues to press his claims for the Wallabies No.9 jersey with some outstanding form. The diminutive scrumhalf set up Sam Carter for a try with some superb play at the breakdown and was willing to attack the line. He re-signed with the Brumbies and the ARU earlier in the week and the Wallabies will be relieved he decided to stay in Australia. But there was one running battle White had no control over on the field. Referee Glen Jackson was sick of hearing the chirpy No.9 and warned him to be quiet. Jackson has been in charge of the past two Brumbies games and has exchanged words with White on both occasions. Jackson's officiating left a lot to be desired. He penalised the Brumbies early on for shepherding off the ball when chasing a kick, but both sides did the same thing all night and he failed to punish them. He penalised White for not putting the ball in the scrum, despite the set piece failing to settle before the ball could go in. Meanwhile, Brumbies prop Scott Sio's superb work around the field has to put him in Test selection contention. Sio must be the best on-ball big man in the competition, regularly pulling off textbook steals at the breakdown.