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By the AAP
The Brumbies' transformation isn't complete but Jake White's FxPro Super Rugby surprise packets have ensured the Australian conference won't be a two-horse race between traditional rivals Queensland and NSW.
Feeding off the back of a dream early draw to gain confidence, the Brumbies showed they were true play-off contenders with a 37-6 demolition of the listless Melbourne Rebels on Saturday night.
The result, their fourth win in seven matches, which is as many as they secured in all of 2011, has put the ACT franchise (24) three points clear of the Reds and Waratahs on the conference table.
Even with NSW set to have injured skipper Rocky Elsom back for the first time next weekend and the cavalry returning in the next fortnight for defending champions Queensland, the Brumbies are playing a disciplined field-position game to be legitimate challengers.
Former Springboks mentor White justifiably stressed the real test of their remarkable turnaround comes next weekend with the menacing, in-form Bulls (29) lying in wait on the high-veldt at their Loftus Versfeld fortress.
The Bulls bashed the last-placed Lions 32-18 to sit just two points behind the pace-setting Chiefs (31), who took the overall ladder lead from the Stormers (29) with a sixth straight victory 39-33 over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
While they have enjoyed an injury-free start, plus five home games, the Brumbies play the Bulls and Lions in South Africa before returning to play the Waratahs on May 5.
"I don't think some of these boys know what's coming," White said of his young squad.
The critics and bookmakers had the Waratahs and Reds as near certainties to top the Australian conference and book finals places together.
Both have been hit by injuries and the effects of a draining 2011 for their Wallabies stars, but NSW coach Michael Foley was well pleased to see some of his bigger names hitting customary form in their gritty 23-18 win over the Western Force in Perth on Friday night.
Bruise brothers Wycliff Palu and Tatafu Polota-Nau produced their best games of the season as the Waratahs gave up a 17-3 lead before rallying late to win.
Foley and Queensland counterpart Ewen McKenzie both praised the Brumbies for their fine start to 2012 but expect their own teams to hit higher notes in the coming months.
"I have no doubts it's going to be a competition that goes right down to the wire," Foley told AAP.
Elsom is on track to play his first match this season after overcoming shoulder and leg injuries but Foley admitted it would be tough to squeeze Palu or the in-form Dave Dennis out of the back-row to allow the captain to start against the Rebels on Saturday night.
The Reds will have playmakers Mike Harris and Ben Lucas back from hamstring injuries to play the Stormers, who suffered their first loss of 2012 as the Crusaders' gamble in moving Dan Carter to inside centre paid off with a 31-24 win in Christchurch.
Queensland will also have lock Adam Wallace-Harrison (elbow) available while Digby Ioane (suspended) and Saia Faingaa (ankle) are a fortnight away.
The Auckland-based Blues (11) continue to be the biggest disappointments of the competition with a 29-23 loss to the Sharks at home on Friday night.
RaboDirect Rebels flanker Jordy Reid has extended his contract at the Club and will remain a Rebel until at least the end of the 2017.