Pick'n Go: Brumbies' culture test a window into title hopes

Matt Toomua Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images

The Super Rugby competition is only five weeks old but already the Highlanders and Chiefs have asserted themselves as the teams to beat in 2016.

After slow starts, the Hurricanes and Crusaders have shown they will be thereabouts, too.

So much for New Zealand's Rugby World Cup hangover; it hasn't happened and shame on us for thinking it ever would.

And what New Zealand's two most immediate champions have shown in the past fortnight has only reaffirmed what we already knew, and paved the way for a look into the Brumbies' true soul in Round 6 - that a strong club culture is at the heart of every title run.

After two weeks on the road, and a host of injuries, the Chiefs could have been forgiven for a lacklustre effort against a Force side capable of frustrating even the most patient of teams.

But the Chiefs instead turned up to Waikato Stadium on Saturday and dished out a 53-10 hammering - giving the two-time champions their third win on the bounce. And right there leading from the front was skipper Charlie Ngatai, who finished the match with four tries; he may just be playing better without Sonny Bill Williams alongside him.

The Highlanders meanwhile had their own tricky assignment in a Rebels side buoyed by their first best ever start to a season - a task made a little tougher by the fact it was the defending champions' second straight game on the road in Australia.

But they too had no trouble in dispatching a trans-Tasman neighbour for the second straight week, and this time it came without a 20-minute fadeout that almost cost them against the Waratahs a week earlier.

The Highlanders played with only 42 percent possession but built their 27-3 victory on a 91 percent tackling success rate and a ruthless streak that saw them capitalise on what few opportunities came their way. Jamie Joseph's side didn't have too much personnel turnover from last year's triumph but they did wave goodbye to Nasi Manu, and then lost Richard Buckman to a season-ending injury early in 2016.

Both men played key roles in their run to the title in 2015, but recruits Liam Squire (No.8) and Rob Thompson have settled straight into the Dunedin Brotherhood and already been standout performers.

Similarly, the Brumbies are largely the same side that went all the way to last year's semifinals -- apart from Nic White and Jesse Mogg -- while they haven't suffered any major injuries early in the season.

But they return to Canberra this week amid the franchise's biggest off-field upheaval in its 21-year history after chief executive Michael Jones' extraordinary interview with ABC Grandstand set in motion a chain of events rarely seen in Australian rugby circles, let alone at the Brumbies.

Fortunately, Stephen Larkham's side missed much of the drama as they were on the other side of the planet in South Africa; Jones and the Brumbies have since however resumed their court battle on Tuesday.

It has the potential to be a major distraction as they prepare to meet the Chiefs on Saturday.

So the challenge will fall on Larkham and co-captains Stephen Moore, whom Jones publicly slammed late last year when the Wallabies skipper revealed he would be returning to Queensland in 2017, and Christian Leali'ifano to ensure the Brumbies are focused on what they can control.

The travel factor will make defeating the in-form Chiefs just that little bit tougher, too.

But the Brumbies have already negotiated the circus that became David Pocock's immediate future and if they can manage a similarly tricky scenario this week their playing culture should be held in the same regard as that of the Highlanders and Chiefs - and the same should be said of the Australian outfit's title aspirations, too.