Canberra, Australia – The Sharks clung to first place in the Super Rugby table by taking a consolation bonus point from a 16-9 loss to second-placed ACT Brumbies in a rain-soaked top of the table clash in Canberra.
Brumbies lock Sam Carter scored the only try of the match in the 63rd minute while Christian Lealiifano had four penalties from seven attempts, outpointing Frans Steyn who landed three goals from six attempts for the Durban-based Sharks.
Despite the cold and wet conditions, the match was a poor advertisement for Super Rugby by the tournament's top-two teams after 13 of 19 regular season rounds.
The Sharks and Brumbies have occupied the first two placings on the Super Rugby ladder throughout the season and their confrontation promised to be one of the tournament's best contests so far.
The clash was given added intrigue by the fact that Sharks head coach Jake White was the Brumbies' head coach until last season when he guided them into the tournament final and this was his first return to Canberra since departing halfway through his contract term.
But even that compelling backstory couldn't add any drama with the Sharks and Brumbies both so lacking in tactical refinement that the game dragged and will likely be remembered as one of the season's most drab and tedious.
The Sharks have scored only 18 tries in 11 matches this season, only one away from home and none in the first half of their last six games. The Brumbies had averaged 26 points per game until this match but they are a team whose play is based on dogged defense and well-learned systems.
Both teams may owe their season-long reigns atop their regional conferences and the overall championship table to generous draws which have given them a majority of games against weaker local rivals.
The Sharks were scorched 34-18 in their last match against a New Zealand team and the Brumbies lost 40-20 in last week's match against the Crusaders, suggesting both teams may only be superior within their own conferences.
Saturday's match contained not a single coherent attacking movement and that owed less to the quality of defenses than the weakness of both teams' attacking structures. The Brumbies had a solid scrum and competed well at breakdowns, helping them to an advantage in the penalty count.
They toiled hard but will need to find more depth to their game as the playoffs approach.
“It's a hugely rewarding result,” Brumbies captain Ben Mowen said. “Any time you get a win against the Sharks is good, especially in the context of this year when they've been leading the competition.
“The boys had to dig deep, they were tough conditions but I thought we managed it well.”
The Sharks are now 1-1 on a four-match road trip to Australia and New Zealand and their stay in first place has begun to look shaky with matches remaining against the Crusaders and Blues.
“It's not what we wanted and I think we missed a few kicks, even in the last few minutes we had a few opportunities to score but we just couldn't,” Sharks captain Bismarck du Plessis said. “We have to really go back to the drawing board and really, really work hard before next weekend.”
ACT Brumbies 16 (Sam Carter try; Christian Lealiifano conversion, 3 penalties),
Sharks 9 (Frans Steyn 3 penalties). HT:
6-3. – Sapa-AP