WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Sharks held their place atop an increasingly compact Super Rugby table after the weekend's 13th round but again displayed an Achilles' heel in losing away from home, taking a consolation bonus point from a 16-9 loss to the ACT Brumbies.
The loss in a rain-soaked match at Canberra left the Sharks in first place, but only a point ahead of resurgent defending champions the Chiefs, who beat the Auckland-based Blues 32-20 to move into second, a further point ahead of the Brumbies. Each of those teams tops their regional conference.
The Perth-based Western Force beat the Cheetahs 23-16 in Bloemfontein to stay in fourth while the Wellington-based Hurricanes and Dunedin-based Highlanders moved into the top six with wins over rivals from other conferences.
The Hurricanes beat the Rebels 25-15 in Melbourne, and the Highlanders went scoreless in the second half and just held out the fast-finishing Lions to win 23-22.
The Crusaders have a chance to move back inside the top six when they play the 13th-place Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Sunday.
In South Africa, the Bulls beat the Stormers 28-12, moving up to eighth place with back-to-back wins in derby matches.
With six rounds remaining in the regular season only 11 points separate the first-place Sharks from the 10th-place Blues; six points cover the top six teams, and there are four teams within five points of sixth place, ensuring the contest for playoffs spots will be intense.
Saturday's match between the Sharks and Brumbies, in first and second places at the start of the round, promised an early taste of playoffs rugby but the match fizzled in wet and slippery conditions. The Brumbies scored the only try through lock Sam Carter in the 63rd minute and the remainder of the points came from goalkicks.
Christian Lealiifano kicked four of seven for the Brumbies — Nic White also missed a long-range attempt — and Francois Steyn kicked three of six for the Sharks, who have lost two of four matches away from home. The Sharks face the Crusaders and Blues in New Zealand over the next two weeks and will need to improve considerably on Saturday's performance to stave off challenges to their top placing.
The Brumbies, also, may not be safe at the top of the Australian conference on the basis on their latest effort: They lead the conference by three points from the Force, who are two points ahead of the Waratahs, who dropped to seventh place with a bye.
The cold and wet conditions played a part in limiting the attacking play of both sides but there was also a lack of skill or ambition and the match fell well below the standard expected. Even the return to Canberra of Sharks coach Jake White, who coached the Brumbies to last year's final before leaving for Durban, failed to add spice to the occasion.
Both the Sharks and Brumbies have suffered recent heavy losses to New Zealand teams — the Sharks at home to the Highlanders and the Brumbies away to the Crusaders last week — and those results may be the best measure of their standing in the competition. Both may struggle in the playoffs against good New Zealand sides.
"We pride ourselves in the way we react to our losses," Brumbies captain Ben Mowen said, referring to last week's 40-20 loss to the Crusaders. "If you can react well and make sure you get back on that winning bandwagon pretty quickly you're going to be happy more often than not.
"Both teams understood how important this game was. This group is extremely motivated to keep evolving and you can't just do things year to year expecting to get results."
The Chiefs followed last week's 38-8 win over the Lions with a convincing win over the Blues at their new alternative home ground in New Plymouth.
Prop Ben Tameifuna scored two tries against the Blues for the second straight season to set the Chiefs on the path to an important win, keeping them atop the New Zealand conference.
"We're trending in the right direction," coach Dave Rennie said. "On the back of a really good forward performance we got go-forward, were able to build phases, and score off that in tight.
"We also countered pretty well and scored a couple of great tries from long range."