Super Rugby preview Round 15: Brumbies can fire title warning

Can Tom Banks (R) cut open the Bulls like he did the Sunwolves a fortnight ago? Jason McCawley/Getty Images

Just four rounds of Super Rugby's regular season remain with all but the Sunwolves still capable of reaching the playoffs.

The loser of Round 15's opening game, between the Chiefs and Reds in Hamilton, will see their hopes evaporate while the Blues, Waratahs and Stormers can ill-afford a slip-up either.

Read on for some of the key storylines to keep an eye on this weekend.

AUSTRALIAN CONFERENCE

A Brumbies stampede would silence remaining critics

One point clear at the top of the Australian conference, the Brumbies can take a giant step towards a home quarterfinal with back-to-back victories over the next two weeks.

At home to the Bulls on Friday night, and then away to the Sunwolves, they have a fantastic opportunity to do just that.

The Brumbies' season to date has, in a way, mirrored their efforts from 2018. After a slow start, that included two losses to the Rebels and an embarrassing effort away to the Reds, a trip to South Africa and then Argentina proved to be the kick-start their stuttering season needed, just as their two-week tour did last year.

While it came much later in the season in 2018, the time away seemed to solidify the Brumbies' change of game plan as they recovered from a 42-24 loss to the Lions in Johannesburg to upset the Bulls in Pretoria 38-28.

They finished 2018 by winning three of their last four, and were only just pipped in Hamilton by the Chiefs, but they had left their run too late to figure in the finals.

But it's a different story this year.

With their season-righting tour coming four weeks earlier, and generating five competition points opposed to four, the Brumbies are in a much better position to attack the closing weeks of the regular season. Having won their two games since returning from tour, over the Blues and Sunwolves, they have consolidated that position.

But question marks remain over their attack, specifically as to whether they have the ability to trouble the likes of the Crusaders and Hurricanes when their powerful rolling maul meets prolonged resistance.

You need look no further than the name at the top of the try-scoring charts to see just how effective the Brumbies' maul has been. The fact that Folau Fainga'a, who is tipped to wear the Wallabies' No. 2 jersey at this year's Rugby World Cup, has crossed for 10 five-pointers this year shows the kind of weapon the Brumbies have in their arsenal.

For comparison, outside backs Tom Banks and Henry Speight have combined for nine tries between them.

Take nothing away from the Brumbies; their rolling maul is so devastating that they would be mad not to play to it whenever the situation presents. That was certainly the case against the Blues, when Fainga'a grabbed a hat-trick of tries in a grinding 26-21 victory.

After objecting to criticism of the fashion in which that win came, specifically that the maul was the attacking weapon they had at their disposal, the Brumbies went some way to proving that isn't the case by smashing the Sunwolves 33-0.

A similar commanding attacking performance against the Bulls would silence any of the remaining doubters once and for all, however, and send a clear message they're genuine title contenders, too.

NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE

Will Crusaders be rattled by off-field allegations?

The Crusaders are no strangers when it comes to dealing with off-field challenges.

In 2011, when an earthquake struck Christchurch, killing 181 people and injuring many more, the Crusaders helped to raise the spirits of a heartbroken community by making it all the way to the Super Rugby final.

Earlier this year, the franchise was engulfed by a debate around its name following the Christchurch terror attack. An independent research company continues to investigate that situation while the Crusaders have got on with the business of winning a third straight Super Rugby title.

But the franchise now finds itself engulfed by an off-field situation of their own doing, with allegations of poor behaviour on behalf of their players in South Africa.

Earlier this week, it emerged that winger George Bridge, alongside two other unnamed Crusaders, had allegedly exhibited "homophobic behaviour" after the 19-all draw with the Stormers in Cape Town. Meanwhile, a week earlier in Pretoria, star playmaker Richie Mo'unga allegedly spat beer at members of the public.

New Zealand Rugby and the Crusaders have since announced a joint review into the alleged incidents, while both Bridge and Mo'unga are at this stage free to play.

But what effect have the two alleged incidents had on the Crusaders' mentality as a team, let alone the individuals at the centre of the allegations? The Crusaders have long been the proud owners of a glowing brand and sparkling image -- one beloved by their community even as external forces began to question its suitability earlier this year -- and they have seldom had trouble with player behaviour.

On paper, a home game against the Blues, who haven't won in Christchurch since 2004, doesn't appear to be a match the hosts should have any real trouble with.

But given the off-field distractions this week, and the toll the journey back from South Africa can take, the Blues may just be in with more of a chance on Saturday than one might think. Leon MacDonald's team should also have that little bit of extra belief against fellow New Zealand opposition after they added the Chiefs to a list of victims that already included the Highlanders.

And if the three-time champions are truly serious about featuring in the playoffs after a prolonged absence, this is the type of opportunity they can't afford to let slip.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson has done little wrong in his three-year tenure, however, and he will again be working hard to limit the mental baggage his players take out onto Christchurch Stadium on Saturday.

But there's no denying this game isn't quite as clear cut as it was at the start of the week.

SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE

Jaguares poised if they can maintain discipline

Much has been made about the up-and-down nature of the South African Super Rugby conference this season, about the inconsistent form of the teams; including in this column. No sooner would one of the five teams -- in particular the Stormers, the Bulls, the Lions and the Sharks -- produce a top-draw effort against a strong opponent than they would suffer head-scratching embarrassment the week after.

So this week, we're left to ponder how the Bulls might follow up their splendid effort to smother the Rebels in Melbourne when they face the altogether more physical and pragmatic Brumbies in Canberra; the Bulls are also minus Handre Pollard, who's replaced by Manie Libbok, having returned home with a tour-ending calf injury that could be hugely damaging to their playoff aspirations even if the Blues and the Highlanders might not, in theory, be the strongest of New Zealand opponents in the fortnight after Canberra.

How will the Stormers back up their hugely physical effort to claim a last-gasp draw at home to the Crusaders when they host the Highlanders, who'll be smarting after their defeat by the Lions? Can the Lions reproduce their efforts to defeat the Highlanders when they play the Sharks in Durban, where the hosts are fresh off a bye having claimed a win, a draw and a bonus-point loss on tour of Australia without having played an awful lot of rugby?

So many questions...

The Bulls, the Sharks and Lions have each topped the South African conference this season, and each could be ladder leaders again after the weekend. So, too, the Jaguares who have moved with menace into second spot in the conference; all four teams hold a playoffs spot on the overall ladder right now, and it's not inconceivable that all four will feature in the postseason. Even the Stormers, so often written off for their attacking limitations noted by Crusaders coach Scott Robertson after the Newlands draw last week, are just seven points behind the Bulls.

Perhaps, then, it's time to consider that the South African conference teams are better than we have credited, whatever their limitations? Perhaps some of the results have been decided only by minimal peaks and troughs in performance, and they've been exacerbated when the team in front has got on the front foot?

More questions...

And one more: Perhaps it's time also to look outside South Africa in considering the Jaguares as the likeliest conference champions, particularly given the injury to Pollard, as they've really developed peak form to get on a roll.

Argentina's Test team in all but name, they have produced some top-line rugby in recent weeks, including in defeat by the Highalnders -- their only loss in their past six matches -- and they sparkled in handing the Hurricanes their first home defeat by overseas opposition since 2015.

Having completed a clean sweep on tour of Australasia last season, they'll be full of confidence that they can account for New South Wales again -- they have won both matches between the sides to date -- even though the Waratahs showed plenty of spirit to defeat the Reds last week, despite conceding six tries to four, after a tough tour of South Africa.

The Tahs simply must be tougher in defence this week, as the Jaguares are relentless with their pick-and-drive and possess some of the most dangerous broken-field runners in the game -- most notably Emiliano Boffelli and Ramiro Moyano, who each starred last week. They'll look to learn, perhaps, from the Stormers, who overpowered the Jaguares in Cape Town much earlier in the season and remained close through goals more recently in a five-point defeat in Buenos Aires.

That latter game illustrates the chief weakness of the Jaguares; namely, their propensity to give away penalties.

Discipline will be key for them at Bankwest Stadium, as they have conceded 132 penalties this season (only the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Sunwolves have given up more); most tellingly, they have conceded a tournament-high 32 penalty goals, and that could be hugely damaging to their hopes given that Bernard Foley has kicked 41 goals at 71 percent this season; only the Bulls' Pollard has been better from the tee.

Maintain discipline, claim the competition points, and head to Brisbane before heading home to host the Sharks and the Sunwolves; that will be the Jaguares' mantra this weekend, and victory may have them top of the South African conference for the first time this season -- with a seemingly favourable run home to remain there and fulfil our preseason prediction for them.