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Who will win Australian conference?

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Game of inches: Who has the edge in Australian conference title race between Brumbies and Rebels?

The Brumbies are in the box seat to top Super Rugby’s Australian conference and play finals but three key derby clashes amid desperation for Wallabies jerseys make for an intriguing finish.

Bonus point wins in round 15 have given the Brumbies (34 points) and Melbourne Rebels (33) a big lead from the NSW Waratahs (26) who are badly missing Israel Folau’s strike power after their eighth loss by eight points or less.

The Brumbies appear to have the better run home – facing the lowly Sunwolves (12) then the Waratahs and Queensland Reds (24).

The Rebels play the Waratahs at home before a daunting away assignment against the ladder-topping Crusaders and a home clash with the always-competitive Chiefs.

While the Waratahs’ hopes are slim at best and the Reds are out of the running, the competition for Wallabies spots in a World Cup year should ensure the derby clashes are ferociously contested.

Brumbies coach Dan McKellar was talking up playmaker Christian Lealiifano’s claims for an emotional Wallabies return following his cancer battle after he maintained impressive 2019 form in a 22-10 win over the Bulls on Friday.

“He’s been outstanding, just consistently good every week and off the back of his defence, his leadership and direction,” McKellar said. “He’d be my 10 (at the World Cup), but I’m a little bit biased.”

The coach would be equally impressed with giant Wallabies centre Tevita Kuridrani’s recent surge of form that included three tries against the Bulls.

The Rebels will have fingers crossed that talismanic halfback Will Genia is fit to play the Waratahs this week after being knocked out in his team’s 52-7 thrashing of the Sunwolves.

Without the sacked Folau’s rare ability to find the tryline, the Waratahs have were frustrated yet again when beaten 23-15 at home by Argentina’s Jaguares (36), who top the South African conference and look a genuine title threat.

“It’s like every game this year, you look up, 70 minutes and the game’s in the balance again. We just haven’t been able to grab the game and run away with it,” said skipper Michael Hooper.

Adding to the Waratahs’ woes, tough centre Karmichael Hunt’s Super Rugby season appears over after he copped a medial ligament injury.

The improving Reds had their hopes snuffed out in heartbreaking fashion when falling just short of their first win in New Zealand since 2013, losing to the Chiefs 19-13.

The Crusaders (53) remain a class above every team in the competition after they put a controversial week behind them with a 19-11 win against the Blues.

The African conference remains the most open with just six points separating all five teams.

The Jaguares knocked the Bulls (32) off top spot, the Stormers (30) downed the Highlanders and the Sharks (33) were too strong for the Lions (30).

AAP

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Game of inches: Who has the edge in Australian conference title race between Brumbies and Rebels?