Lienert-Brown ends New Zealand’s 13 debate

Date published: October 9 2016

New Zealand’s latest young star backed up a breakout performance in Buenos Aires by stealing the show a week later in Durban.

Conrad Smith’s 13 shirt for so long seemed destined to end up in the hands of Malakai Fekitoa after his outstanding Super Rugby season in 2014 with the Highlanders, when the hulking centre arrived on the scene.

Fekitoa couldn’t buy a game for the Blues during his time in Auckland, but before we knew it he was coming off the bench for the All Blacks against England for his Test debut, and justly so having excelled in Dunedin.

Smith was always revered for his vision combined with his organisational and playmaking abilities at 13 – the deliverer of the killer pass, even though 24 tries in 96 Tests is far from a shameful return.

But Fekitoa offered more from an attacking standpoint – the pacy, powerful weapon ready to make a dent in defences. And he still does those things, while also improving as a defender with each cap he earns.

The problem now for Fekitoa is that Anton Lienert-Brown has come out of nowhere and played out of his skin.

In his accomplished outings at 12 and 13 for the All Blacks the 21-year-old has shown real poise and time on the ball to go with real incisiveness on attack.

Not shy of an offload but smart enough to know when to use it, he has excelled in the wins over Argentina and South Africa.

Three assists and a try in Buenos Aires was undoubtedly impressive, but it was a certain moment in Durban that stuck out.

Attacking from deep with only Waisake Naholo outside him, Lienert-Brown’s dancing feet and pass created the attack from which eventually the All Blacks scored their first try, on a day when they would finish with nine.

There was no panic, skipping out of a tackle and sucking in three tacklers, backing himself when the safe option would be to try and hurry a kick upfield. For a young man making his third Test start it was something to behold.

What is so ominous for the rest of the world is that Lienert-Brown came to starting in the Rugby Championship from way off the grid.

Fekitoa, Seta Tamanivalu and George Moala were the contenders to play 13 following Conrad Smith’s departure. Lienert-Brown? We know the name now.

Other players will no doubt follow the same path for New Zealand, perhaps as soon as the end-of-year Tests. After a brief audition period the outside centre position is Lienert-Brown’s to lose.

by Ben Coles