Lions tour: Anton Lienert-Brown hugely unlucky to be dropped from All Blacks midfield
OPINION: Anton Lienert-Brown has to be one of the unluckiest demoted All Blacks in recent times.
Last weekend at Eden Park, venue for the first test against the Lions, he was close to if not the best player on the field. Sure, Samoa were weak opposition and much of their second half defence was woeful. But you can't downgrade some of his classy offloads, work-rate off the ball and decisive decision-making from centre.
Lienert-Brown has not enjoyed a vintage season with the Chiefs, struggling on attack in particular amid familiar second year blues after his breakout 2016 campaign. But he hit form at the right time, saving his best for the last Super Rugby outing against the Hurricanes in Wellington.
As was the case last year, he immediately rose to another level in a black jersey. The 22-year-old has looked at home from the moment he started at second five-eighth on test debut against the Wallabies in Wellington. And last week, he certainly outplayed midfield partner Sonny Bill Williams, who was exposed several times defensively in the first half.
With Ryan Crotty back from rib damage suffered three weeks ago against the Highlanders, a strong case could be made to station the Crusaders No 12 in his more accustomed role against the Lions and bring Williams off the bench, just as the All Blacks did with great success during the 2015 World Cup.
Williams against tiring tacklers is a recipe for go-forward and clean breaks.
Crotty and Lienert-Brown have prior form, too, having established themselves as the first-choice midfield at the end of last season, starting the final test of the year in Paris.
The reality, though, is Williams-Crotty has been penciled into the All Blacks starting team for this test all year. It is not a slight on Lienert-Brown at all, more a reflection of the balance they are seeking.
While Williams needs to improve defensively from last week, he was a standout in the Blues' victory over the Lions. That performance carries weight and is also reflected in Rieko Ioane's surprise selection over Julian Savea on the left wing.
The All Blacks clearly believe they need their biggest, strongest ball-carrying presence from the get-go at second-five on Saturday. Williams' ability to punch over the gain line and get his arms free in contact will be seen as vital assets to counter the Lions' rush defence which has caused Kiwi opposition major problems this tour.
When, not if, Beauden Barrett is squeezed for time and space he can dish to Williams to cart it forward and get him out of trouble. The All Blacks may also utilise the speed and width of Aaron Smith's pass to hit Williams straight from set piece, aiming to generate quick ball from that first ruck to get the Lions backpedalling.
For these reasons, the midfield debate probably came down to a straight choice between Crotty and Lienert-Brown at centre. In the end Crotty's experience and depth of trust in his composure won out. This will, after all, be the biggest rugby occasion since the World Cup final.
While Crotty has only started two of his 26 tests at centre, he has been around the All Blacks since 2013 and is one of their most mature players.
Unlike Williams, Lienert-Brown's ability to cover either midfield role from the bench is another factor.
Steve Hansen has made it clear he sees his midfield as a one, two, three punch. The value placed on that means the All Blacks will not carry outside back cover on their bench, with the option of shifting Barrett to the backfield firmly in mind.
Lienert-Brown is likely to be injected relatively early in the second half, when his footwork at the line will threaten to open things up for his outsides.
No doubt, as every player must, he will buy into the All Blacks' team-first mantra. But after his exceptional performance last week no-one would begrudge him an ounce of disappointment too.