Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Anton Lienert-Brown has it all

Anton Lienert-Brown of the All Blacks. Photo / Getty
Anton Lienert-Brown of the All Blacks. Photo / Getty

And they say there are no surprise selections in rugby anymore.

To that you can answer Anton Lienert-Brown, who is the most extraordinary All Black plug-in for quite some time.

Not even the selectors - who rarely miss a trick these days - seemed to know what they had on their hands. He wasn't exactly first in the queue.

The 21-year-old is opening up the midfield to possibilities which began to die in days when players scraped a living by scraping loot out of their boots and weren't fit enough to shut down the gifted ones.

Lienert-Brown shone against Italy, his main man-of-the-match challenger being that most inventive of props - yes props - Wyatt Crockett.

When in Rome, please don't do what the Romans do when it comes to rugby.

The rugby team representing the country famed for its clever defending in football was as subtle and accurate as a wrecking ball operated by Donald J.

Trump.

They hoofed the ball away and hoped like hell, and quite wrongly, that it wouldn't come back with interest from the world's top ranked team.

The most interest, in terms of class, came via Lienert-Brown's finest moments. His arrival on the test scene came with virtually no fanfare. There was far more excitement around Malakai Fekitoa's elevation two years ago, but unfortunately for the Highlander he is already looking like yesterday's man compared to the Chiefs' wunderkind.

Clever passes. Clever kicks. Or just plain clever. Lienert-Brown has it all. His set up of the Waisake Naholo try at the Stadio Olimpico looked kind of simple, and yet who else is doing this sort of thing, a bit of drift and little in-pass opening up a perfect gap. He took out two defenders brilliantly before unleashing his trademark offload for Dagg's try.

Lienert-Brown is a magician building an aura which might one day rival those of old legends of the backline, like JB Smith or George Nepia. His best moves feel like gifts from the old days, and ones which can't be quantified by rugby's descent into analysis by numbers.

Test midfields are stacked with quasi loose forwards and a sad lack of imagination. Conrad Smith ruled there with a long stride, relentless team ethos and a sharp mind, but Lienert-Brown has subtle skills. It's like discovering a Rembrandt hanging in the local library.

The only question now is whether he is a No. 12 or a No. 13. I suspect, long term, it is second five-eighths, because Steve Hansen will already be eyeing Rieko Ioane at centre.

The rise of Ryan Crotty and the potential rise of Sonny Bill Williams from the sick ward complicates things, so Lienert-Brown will probably find himself at centre in the short term.

Wherever, it is a wonderful prospect. Despite problems handling Israel Folau, he is by reputation a good defender, so absolutely everything is in place. He'll need it, because he will already be a marked man.

More than anything, Lienert-Brown is a joy to watch and has produced something special, that works, in almost every test he has played. He doesn't overplay his best moves either.

He might appear different to the following players, but reminds me of their class - the likes of Tim Horan, Bruce Robertson, Mike Gibson, Phillipe Sella. Seriously. And he has a lot less room to work with than that lot had. Okay, the danger is over-selling his potential. But I can't help it.

As for the skilful Crockett, he is a bench regular who epitomises a team ethos. He is forever the bridesmaid who can outshine the bride.

- NZ Herald

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