Anton Lienert-Brown, the man his mates simply call ‘Alby’, has been a bolt out of the blue for the All Blacks in 2016, writes MARC HINTON.
Where the heck did he come from? More to the point, how on earth did he end up the find of the All Blacks’ history-making 2016 season? The rise and rise of the midfield marvel looks destined to be a story they tell in the corridors of New Zealand’s academies for many, many years to come.
Lienert-Brown’s is a saga of prodigious talent, perseverance and opportunity. Of biding your time, then unleashing when the chance finally comes your way. Of backing yourself and bathing in the spotlight of the big moments, and turning the pressure of slotting into the finest team on the planet into a springboard to something very special indeed.
Lienert-Brown, the 1.81m, 96kg 21-year-old, started the 2016 season struggling to find a regular start for the Chiefs; and ended it as an integral part of the record-breaking All Blacks, unable to play his way out of a beautifully efficient midfield combination with the equally impressive Ryan Crotty.
But first let’s wind back a little. A schoolboy star with Christchurch Boys’ High (an institution that has produced such All Blacks luminaries as Fergie McCormick, Richard Loe, Andrew Mehrtens, Aaron Mauger, Dan Carter, the Franks brothers and Brodie Retallick), he moved to Waikato and the Chiefs to ply his trade as a young professional. He was 18 when he made the first of his half-dozen appearances for the Chiefs in 2014, mainly filling in on the wing.
Lienert-Brown continued his role mostly as a handy backup through 2015 and was an integral member of the New Zealand U20 side in 2014 and ’15, winning the world title in his final campaign as skipper.
Again this year, his third with the Chiefs, he looked destined for another bit-part role when the in-form Charlie Ngatai and blockbusting Seta Tamanivalu emerged as Dave Rennie’s first-choice midfield through the first part of the season.
But then one man’s misfortune became another’s opportunity. Ngatai went down with concussion that would morph into ongoing head issues, which would keep him off the field for the remainder of the year. Rennie, who had a fair idea of Lienert-Brown’s class, ushered the youngster in at second five-eighths and his finish to the season was so impressive it even registered on the All Blacks’ radar.
‘We’ve been following him through the age-group stuff, and we’ve known about him for a while,’ said All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster who just happens to live in his new midfielder’s adopted home town. ‘It became a matter of at what point do we bring him in? It was his form post-June in a couple of big games; he really looked like he was settling in. That was when we decided he was one for us.’
So, with Ngatai ruled out for the season, and Sonny Bill Williams also shackled post-Rio with an Achilles tendon injury, Lienert-Brown came into the All Blacks and eventually leapfrogged Tamanivalu, Malakai Fekitoa and George Moala into a starting spot at centre, outside the rock-steady Ryan Crotty.
From there he’s hardly put a foot wrong, starting at 12 against the Wallabies in Wellington, then coming off the bench in the home Tests against Argentina and South Africa, before moving to outside centre for the road games in Argentina and South Africa and the third Bledisloe in Auckland (where the win streak hit 18, and record territory).
He has run hard and elusively, offloaded with precision and handled every challenge thrown his way. He is a stout defender and his combination with Crotty has quickly settled into something that appears to be bringing the best out of both men.
He’s also an anachronism. A bolter. A surprise selection in an era when nearly every fine young All-Black-in-waiting is heavily signposted. But Lienert-Brown’s whirlwind rise had that feeling of unexpectedness, of freshness, of a roll-the-dice risk that came up a winner. Yes, the kid had talent. But who knew he could be this good?
‘His strength is in the carry and his ability to offload, and he’s running some great lines. He’s just going out there and doing his job really well, and that’s why the perception is we’re playing as a good combination,’ noted Crotty before the November jaunt north.
Foster says it’s been hard not to be impressed by his ability to take on new things, yet still retain his natural game.
‘The good thing is while he’s making gains in some of his running lines, he’s still able to keep his instincts about how he wants to play. His offload game has been good, he’s got quick feet and he’s handled the introduction to Test level really well.’
But Foster adds: ‘He’s going to be analysed a lot more and people are going to be working on how to shut him down. His challenge is the same as every player when they make a big impact early − to not get complacent and keep figuring out how they can keep improving.’
Head coach Steve Hansen loves his newcomer’s ‘demeanour’ under pressure. ‘He’s got the ability to cope with it. His skills are complementing what we’re trying to do in his combination with Crotts. Alby is not the finished product by any stretch but he’s shown us plenty and he’s getting reward for it.’
Foster believes simplicity has been key in a team filled with world-class performers.
‘He looks for a picture in front of him and reacts to that. That’s probably his greatest strength. His work off the park has been considerable, too. We’ve challenged him the past couple of months about some parts of his game and his attention off the park has been really good.’
Fellow Chief and All Black Sam Cane is rapt that Lienert-Brown has finally got a chance to prove himself. ‘Rarely do you see people coming into the All Blacks environment and adapting and stepping up the way he has. But it’s been a long time coming. His first couple of years out of school he had a couple of bum runs with injury that pegged him back a wee bit.
‘But he’s got great all-round skills, there are no real weaknesses to his game, yet he’s only 21 and only going to improve. The best part is he’s got his head firmly on his shoulders and he’s not getting carried away.’
He’s not. But the rest of us certainly are.
– This article first appeared in the December edition of SA Rugby magazine.