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Sharks coach Jake White returns to Canberra for crucial clash with Brumbies

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Jake White will coach the Sharks, against his former team, the Brumbies, in a top-of-the-table match Saturday which has the potential to sway the Super Rugby playoffs chances of both teams.

White's intimate knowledge of the Brumbies, who he coached from 13th place in 2011 to runners-up in 2013, adds an al element of intrigue to Saturday's 13th round match 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 whether the Sharks sustain their season-long reign atop the table.

White quit the Brumbies halfway 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, emphasizing they have enough to deal with after last week's 40-20 loss to the Crusaders.

The Brumbies managed to stay atop 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 he and his teammates 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 hastened to add "this is not about me."

"It's about this game. That's the most important thing," he said. "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. Their five-point lead over the Brumbies and their superior points differential insulate them against any substantial loss of position.

But they have to face the Brumbies, the sixth-placed Crusaders and ninth-placed Blues over the next few weeks and, given the generally poor record of South African teams away from home, are unlikely to negotiate those matches without some cost.

The Brumbies could give up first place in Australia if they lose and if the Western Force beat the last-placed Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

Defending champions the Chiefs returned to the top of the New Zealand conference when they posted their largest win of the season last weekend, by 38-8 over the Johannesburg-based Lions, but they face a tough test this round when they host the Auckland-based Blues at Hamilton.

The Blues have impressively won their last two games against Australian opponents — the Queensland Reds and Waratahs — but both of those matches came at home where they are unbeaten this season. They have lost their last 12 matches on the road and are unlikely to reach the playoffs unless they can overcome that Achilles heel.

"We're well aware of it," coach John Kirwan said. "This team needs to win away from home if we're going to be in the playoffs. There's no science around that we just need to take more individual responsibility and make sure we get there."

The Crusaders will attempt 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 last weekend's 39-30 loss to the Waratahs, face the Rebels in Melbourne.

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