Those who felt the Brumbies needed to win against tough opponents to confirm their status as Vodacom Super Rugby title contenders now have their answer following the Canberra team’s surprisingly comprehensive 29-10 victory over the Sharks at Kings Park on Saturday.
It’s hard to remember when last the Sharks were dominated and bullied like they were in the first half, at least at home. The Brumbies dominated the battle for territory and possession and surprised the hosts by doing something that teams aren’t supposed to at Durban at this time of the year by running the ball.
Up to this weekend the Sharks had the best tackle statistics in the competition. But perhaps Brumbies coach Jake White figured out that might have led to some complacency in that department from the Durbanites, as after all it wasn’t as if there had been much attempt to run at them in derby matches where lack of adventure was allied to the Sharks’ opponents coming off second in the forward battle.
The Sharks came second to the Brumbies everywhere on Saturday night, save in the lineout battle. The Sharks’ scrum became pretty dominant in the second half, when they did start what was to prove a fightback that was always going to be in vain, but even in that area of expected ascendancy they struggled in the first 40 minutes.
One of the scrums even led to the unedifying sight, for a Sharks supporter, of the Brumbies scoring an excellent try to right wing Henry Speight in his corner after the visitors had won a heel against the head. Jannie du Plessis appeared to be struggling with an injury while he was on the field, and perhaps he should have left it earlier than the halfway mark, for the Sharks were much better in that phase once Kyle Cooper and Wiehahn Herbst had come onto the field.
The game was played in horrible conditions, with the early blustery wind and overcast sky making way for persistent rain later in the game, something that made the Sharks’ hopes of a second-half recovery even bleaker. The Brumbies, believe it or not, led 26-3 at the break, and scored all four bonus-point tries by the time the match reached the 34th minute, which was when Speight went over after the backs used quick hands to capitalise on the scrum turn-over.
To put it simply, the Sharks were just never in the game. They looked nervous at the start whereas the Brumbies were full of purpose. It would be tempting to lambaste the Sharks for having a poor attitude, for that is what it looked like, but the reality was that it was a similar situation to the one we saw the Stormers face at Loftus at the start of the competition – they just never had the ball and were never allowed to get out of first gear.
Still, way too many tackles were missed by the Sharks, although it was quite a revealing statistic at the half hour mark that they had missed 11 while being required to make as many as 55, while the possession stats were as dire – the Sharks only enjoyed 25 per cent of the ball in the first half. Perhaps the Sharks spent so much time since the Kings game in Port Elizabeth worrying so much about the criticism of their attacking game that they forgot the basics for this important clash between unbeaten teams, for to put it simply, their basics were just never good enough.
Brumbies fullback Jesse Mogg had been targeted as a possible danger-man by Sharks coach John Plumtree beforehand, and he wasted no time in confirming that rating by racing over for the first try inside the first five minutes, with the build-up, which featured the crucial ingredients of patience, straight running and well timed off-loads, being executed with such ease that it sent out a loud warning to the Sharks.
They didn’t waste much time in backing up that warning – just seven more minutes to be precise. As had been the case in the first try, flyhalf Matt Toomua played a crucial role with the timing of his off-load as he drew in two defenders and Joe Tomane was over in the left corner. Christian Lealiifano kicked his first conversion and missed his second, but it didn’t matter as the Brumbies were ahead by 12 points after as many minutes.
The possession stats showed that the Brumbies had 83 per cent of the ball in the first quarter of an hour, so the Sharks would have been pleased when they managed to get enough territory for Patrick Lambie to kick a penalty in the 17th minute.
But the Brumbies quickly dispelled any hope among the Sharks ranks that it might be the start of a fightback for them as Lambie’s opposite number powered through for try No 3 after 22 minutes to make it 19-3 with the conversion.
The Brumbies were outstanding, they played with width and enough power to win the collisions, with No 8 Fotu Auelua doing to the Sharks what All Black No 8 Isotolo Maka famously did to the Springboks at the same venue in 1998. Perhaps having a South African coach in Jake White, who was involved with that Bok team, helped the Brumbies in this regard, and certainly this was a game where it could be said that in a physical sense the Brumbies outplayed the Sharks at the South African game.
Kicking has been a big part of the Brumbies' success so far this year but this was a game where the off-load reigned supreme, and full marks to the Brumbies strategists for spotting the way to play. Maybe they took note of all the talk after the Sharks/Stormers game at the Sharks Tank two weeks ago that you just can’t play running rugby there in March.
The Sharks did look surprised early on with the Brumbies approach, and perhaps that was why their defence was so lacking in the intensity that they displayed against the Stormers 14 days ago. What would have shocked them most of all though was the Brumbies’ dominance in the scrums and the collisions.
Ryan Kankowski scored the Sharks’ only try of the match after 52 minutes and briefly it looked as though the Sharks might have some hope as they started to reverse the all-round statistics of the first half. Indeed, in terms just of statistics, the second half was the reverse of the first, with the Sharks winning almost all the ball and also enjoying a territorial advantage.
But that is where the Brumbies did what the Sharks were unable to do in the first half – namely tackling with the intensity demanded for success at this level.
Brumbies 29 – Tries: Jesse Mogg, Joe Tomane, Matt Toomua and Henry Speight; Conversions: Christian Lealiifano 3; Penalty: Christian Lealiifano.
Sharks 10 – Try: Ryan Kankowski; Conversion: Patrick Lambie; Penalty: Patrick Lambie.