Element of intrigue in crucial Canberra clash
‘This is not about me’ insists Jake White as Sharks face his former club Brumbies in top-of-the-table showdown
Jake White will coach the Sharks against his former team, the Brumbies, on Saturday in a top-of-the-table match which has the potential to sway the Super Rugby play-off chances for both teams.
White's intimate knowledge of the Brumbies, whom he coached from 13th place in 2011 to runners-up last year, adds an element of intrigue to the clash at Canberra Stadium between the tournament's first and second-placed teams.
The Sharks opened their four-match tour to Australia and New Zealand with a 22-16 win over the 11th-placed Melbourne Rebels, building a five-point lead over the Brumbies. But Saturday's match marks the start of a much tougher group of games that will determine if the Sharks can sustain their season-long reign atop the table.
White quit the Brumbies half way through his contract to become director of rugby at the Sharks. No bitterness lingers from his departure and the Brumbies are doing as much as possible to play down the significance of his return to Canberra, emphasising they have enough to deal with after last week's 40-20 loss to the Crusaders.
The Brumbies managed to stay top the Australian conference by a point from the New South Wales Waratahs, but that comprehensive loss, to a team ranked six places below them at the time, has made their hold on that position seem precarious.
Brumbies and Wallabies hooker Stephen Moore said it would be unwise, after such a loss, to focus too much on White's possible contribution.
"I think there's been a lot said about Jake and him leaving, but I think that's peripheral to what's important this weekend," Moore said. "It's an important game for us. We need to bounce back after last week's loss and play really well at home."
White said his knowledge of the Brumbies as individual players and as a team did give him some small advantage in preparing the Sharks for the match. But he added: "This is not about me.
"It's about this game. That's the most important thing. We don't want any other sideshows. It makes no difference who is coaching."
The Sharks are unlikely to lose their championship lead whatever the outcome of the match this round because of their five-point lead over the Brumbies and their superior points differential.
But they have to face the Brumbies, the sixth-placed Crusaders and ninth-placed Blues over the next few weeks. The Brumbies could give up first place in Australia if they lose and if the Western Force beat the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
Titleholders the Chiefs returned to the top of the New Zealand conference when they posted their largest win of the season last weekend, 38-8 over the Johannesburg-based Lions, but they face a tough test this round when they host the Auckland-based Blues in Hamilton.
The Blues have impressively won their past two games against Australian opponents – the Queensland Reds and Waratahs – but both matches came at home where they are unbeaten this season. They have lost their past 12 matches on the road.
"We're well aware of it," coach John Kirwan said. "This team need to win away from home if we're going to be in the play-offs. There's no science around that."
The Crusaders will try to extend a four-match winning streak when they play the Reds in Brisbane, while the Hurricanes, who dropped out of the top six with a 39-30 loss to the Waratahs, face the Rebels in Melbourne.