Teen set for his Chiefs debut on massive stage
If Anton Lienert-Brown can handle this, you imagine he could handle anything.
The 18-year-old, who hasn't even played at NPC level, has been thrust into the Chiefs' starting lineup, out of his usual midfield position and on the wing, for their match against the Bulls in Pretoria tomorrow.
It's a move which rewards the teenager, yet at the same time has been designed to send some shockwaves through the two-time defending champions.
After one of their worst performances in recent years in their loss to the Force in Perth last weekend, the Chiefs are desperate to turn their fortunes around.
It's not too many times under this coaching group that they have lost two matches on the trot.
Assistant coach Wayne Smith said the eight changes to the starting XV reflected that there were "consequences when you don't play well".
"So we're just trying to keep a bit of edge and raise our performance this week," he said. "We're all pretty unhappy with how we played last week."
It's a massive weekend for Lienert-Brown, with his 21-year-old brother Daniel remarkably also making his Super Rugby debut, the prop coming off the bench for the Crusaders against the Hurricanes last night.
The pair have been in touch during the week and Anton has made several phone calls back home to a proud mum and dad.
His rapid rise is remarkable. He spent last year out of rugby after dislocating a shoulder in a semifinal for Christchurch Boys' High School against Otago Boys' High School in 2012.
Having signed for Waikato and joining the Chiefs last year, Lienert-Brown didn't really play again until this year's pre-season, where he was eye-catching, before injuries in the squad had him in the touring party and sitting on the bench for the 80 minutes last weekend.
"In normal circumstances it's a hell of a big ask, but this is a pretty special kid," Smith said.
"There's a tinge of madness about us coaches as well. You get a gut feeling about a player. He's just one of those special young men who's all for the team. He's got a huge capacity to learn quickly. And we think his time's coming, so we're going to give him a crack. And it creates a bit of discomfort with others in that he's taking others' spots, and we want to see a response there as well from players who'll come off the bench."
Smith admitted the coaching unit were tempted to play Lienert-Brown in the midfield and shift Tom Marshall back to his familiar spot of wing, but with the latter excelling at second five-eighth – winning the team's player of the day against the Stormers and the defence award against the Force – they have gone bold.
"We just felt that because he's trained a lot on the wing and he's played there a bit in our scenarios, that was probably the best way to introduce him," Smith said, adding that Lienert-Brown will make good decisions and retain the ball.
"He's a very mature, young man, and we wouldn't have put him in there if we didn't think he could handle it.
"We're not expecting the kid to walk on water, just do his job for the team. And if we can get everyone doing that we'll give ourselves a chance."
But the task in front of the Chiefs doesn't come much tougher than winning at altitude at Loftus Versfeld, in front of a boisterous crowd.
The Chiefs have gone there eight times, and been beaten in their past six visits, which includes the 61-17 drubbing in the 2009 final.
The Bulls began the season with two losses on the road, but have won three in a row at home, including last weekend's 23-19 dismantling of the previously unbeaten Sharks.
Smith is expecting more of the hosts' double-runners to try and get them over the gain-line, while he is mindful of their quick switch to wide attack.
"We've got to be able to perform well in that transition between knocking them over and then marking bodies out wide. So they're quite a multi-faceted team, a lot more than what people think, and provide a pretty big challenge."
The altitude factor has come into the thinking of the coaches too, with plenty of experience and potency sitting on the bench.
What the Chiefs need more than anything is to stabilise their lineout and eliminate handling errors, which made for the frustration of last week.
That ensured the team was riled up with some harsh words, which will have their ears ringing as they take the field.
"We're pretty direct," Smith admitted. "We stab in the belly. We have a lot of one-on-ones in this team, so every player knows exactly where they stand, how we're feeling."
But Smith said it wasn't just the players who got it wrong last week, and that the coaches had to do things better too.
"Whenever we've lost in the past we've had a pretty good response," he said.
"There's a tinge of realism as well, to know that it's going to be a hell of a battle. But it's a battle that, if you win, will stay with you for years. It would be one of those occasions that would be pretty special for this team. So we're steeled up for it and hopefully we see that on the field."
AT A GLANCE
BULLS: Jurgen Visser, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Francois Hougaard, Dewald Potgieter, Jacques du Plessis, Deon Stegmann, Victor Matfield (c), Paul Willemse, Werner Kruger, Callie Visagie, Dean Greyling. Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Marcel van der Merwe, Grant Hattingh, Jono Ross, Piet van Zyl, Handre Pollard, Ulrich Beyers, Morne Mellet
CHIEFS: Mils Muliaina, Anton Lienert-Brown, Andrew Horrell, Tom Marshall, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden (c), Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Kane Thompson, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Matt Symons, Ben Tameifuna, Rhys Marshall, Pauliasi Manu. Reserves: Mahonri Schwalger, Jamie Mackintosh, Ben Afeaki, Michael Fitzgerald, Sam Cane, Augustine Pulu, Gareth Anscombe, Tim Nanai-Williams
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Kickoff: 2am tomorrow, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria