TOKYO, 17 Oct – Even at the tender age of 18, Anton Lienert-Brown was already being pinpointed as a special talent.
Such was the precocity of the teenager from Christchurch that he was famously selected for his Super Rugby debut for the Chiefs before he had even played a provincial game.
But as 2019 dawned, Lienert-Brown, above, had never quite translated his early promise onto the international stage. Here was a player who appeared to have become typecast as a solid but versatile bench performer, perennial cover for the more established stars in the All Blacks' midfield. By the end of 2018, he had made only 16 starts in 33 tests, and only four in his previous 15.
It is a mark of Lienert-Brown's meteoric rise over the past 10 months that he has morphed from a bit-part option at the start of the year into New Zealand’s pre-eminent creative force at Rugby World Cup 2019.
This year he has started six of their eight tests, and virtuoso pool stage displays against South Africa and Namibia – the latter earning him Player of the Match honours - have seen his country’s media laud him as arguably the best midfielder on the planet.
Lienert-Brown has credited the many hours invested in the mental side of the game with his breakout season. He enjoyed an outstanding 2019 Super Rugby run for the Chiefs, his trademark ability to bust through defences with his strength, speed and agility placing him in the top six for both defenders beaten and carries in the end-of-season stats as the Waikato-based franchise bounced back from a poor start to reach the play-offs.
But while other teams have their mix of punishing ball-runners and industrious operators, it is Lienert-Brown’s ability to combine those skillsets, with an on-field intelligence and vision to create opportunities for others, which has really made him stand out as an all-rounder. No player completed more offloads in Super Rugby in 2019 and he has continued in that vein at the World Cup.
No inside-centre remaining in the competition has completed as many clean breaks (six), and none can match his 6.6m per carry. His two try assists – including one to Scott Barrett that put New Zealand out of reach in their opening game against the Springboks (00:45 seconds into the video below) – are the most by an inside-centre so far at this tournament, while only Argentina’s Juan Cruz Mallia and Wales’s Jonathan Davies share his tally of four tries and try assists combined.
In particular, it was his performance against South Africa that showed his mettle in the biggest of games. With the All Blacks enduring serious pressure during the opening quarter, it was Lienert-Brown who helped shift the momentum irreversibly in New Zealand’s direction. His final tally of eight defenders beaten was more than any All Black had managed in a World Cup game since 2007.
While Lienert-Brown will be entering unchartered territory this weekend as he tastes World Cup knockout play for the first time, he will take some stopping. Not that he will be taking anything for granted as he faces up to the formidable Irish defence.
"Ireland are a quality side, they're well coached and I'm sure they'll have plenty of specials up their sleeves,” he said. “It's always tough against them but, as a team, we're in a good place.”