Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Lienert-Brown needs to find freedom in midfield

Jaco Kriel of South Africa attempt to tackle Anton Lienert-Brown of New Zealand. Photo / photosport
Jaco Kriel of South Africa attempt to tackle Anton Lienert-Brown of New Zealand. Photo / photosport

Anton Lienert-Brown was the find of last season but I'm struggling to get a fix on him this year.

He has looked solid and reliable in all his opportunities as he's worked through various midfield combinations at the Chiefs.

Strong defence, attempts to get on the outside of his opposition to create overlaps and an engaging work rate remain at the core of his game and so highly-valued by his team. But games don't seem to be running his way.

Maybe it's the team style or a lack of effective possession from phase play which has left him without the imprint other New Zealand midfield backs have been providing.

A similar observation could have been made last season but the All Black selectors looked past those images and dug deeper into the value and skills he brought to his team.

When Charlie Ngatai then Sonny Bill Williams with George Moala fell to a range of damage around the start of the Rugby Championship, the search for a midfield back took on hand-wringing proportions for those outside the All Black think-tank. Among the ideas were to shift Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa or use a twin five-eighths system with Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden.

However, Steve Hansen and his henchmen figured Lienert-Brown was someone with all the ability to cope with a midfield role at the international level and had shown those qualities when he was with the national age-group squad.

Promotion for Lienert-Brown was a shock which took on even greater significance when he made his debut with a tidy display against the Wallabies in Wellington. That form continued through the Rugby Championship and end of year tour as he earned World Rugby accolades.

It was a massive rush for someone who is still 21. He is in his fourth season with the Chiefs and does not have a huge bank of experience.

The Chiefs will add mega-experience when the ageless Stephen Donald starts against the Stormers and that may give Lienert-Brown more freedom to show us the qualities the All Black selectors valued.

When everyone is fit, there is an overload of midfield talent with Ryan Crotty, Lienert-Brown, Moala, Williams, Fekitoa, Seta Tamanivalu, Richard Buckman, Ngani Laumape, Matt Proctor and Rieko Ioane putting their bids in for international selection against the touring Lions.

- NZ Herald

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