Critics of Australia’s Super Rugby depth will be lining up after a record home loss by the Brumbies left the Melbourne Rebels as surprise Australian conference leaders.
The Rebels (5-3, 22 points) lead the conference just after the halfway stage despite being eighth on the overall competition ladder, having a negative for and against and no wins against teams in the top half overall.
Their bonus point from a five tries to two 36-14 home win over the Cheetahs is the difference from early pace-setters the Brumbies (5-3, 21 points) who were flogged 40-14 at home by the red-hot Crusaders on Sunday – their worst-ever home losing margin.
The Brumbies, who started the season with three straight wins, dropped to ninth overall, after their third loss in their last five games and now also have the NSW Waratahs (3-4, 17 points) breathing down their necks in the battle for the local conference top spot which guarantees a playoffs berth.
Continuing a disturbing trend, it was the ninth loss in 12 matches for Australian teams against New Zealand opposition this season, with Kiwi teams losing just two.
On current ladder positions, Australia’s only finals representative will be the conference winner, with New Zealand teams occupying the three wildcard spots in the Australasian group.
The Brumbies face another tough game next weekend against defending champion the Highlanders in Invercargill, but at least they will have champion openside flanker David Pocock back from suspension.
Melbourne are within sight of their franchise record of seven wins in a season.
However, all of their wins have come against teams 11th or lower on the overall ladder and their three losses were all by 20 or more points.
The Waratahs stayed in contention for top spot in the local conference with a record-breaking 49-13 win over the struggling Western Force in Perth.
NSW notched their biggest win and highest score against the Force and scored their most points ever against an Australian Super Rugby opponent.
Fullback turned centre Israel Folau added to the landmarks by scoring a franchise-record 30th try, surpassing the previous mark set by another former NRL superstar, Lote Tuqiri.
The Tahs next opponents are South African group leaders the Stormers.
The Stormers host the Sydney-based franchise coming off a 40-22 home win over the improving Queensland Reds (8), who led 22-17 in the second half.
The two games in New Zealand produced a couple of one-point thrillers.
The competition-leading Chiefs shaded the Hurricanes 28-27 in Wellington and the Sharks upset the Highlanders 15-14 in Dunedin, with the reigning champions still only fourth on the NZ conference ladder.
The Lions stayed top of the second South African conference with a 45-10 thumping of the Kings.
Japan’s Sunwolves scored their first win, defeating Argentina’s Jaguares 36-28 in Tokyo.