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Anton Lienert-Brown Out for SIX MONTHS! What will this mean for the All Blacks?

Written by Max Sharp.

The Chiefs' team spirit will have been severely demoralised after they were held scoreless by the Blues in a 0-25 loss. However, the loss of Anton Lienert-Brown to injury, will be a far worse wound than the massive losing margin. He posted on social media, a status which said "going under the knife this week which will put me out for 6 months"; when referring to his shoulder injury sustained in the match's 7th minute.

Anton Lienert-Brown (centre-right) runs to pick up a Sam Cane offload. Photo: Max Sharp.

For several years, the 56-test veteran has been the glue holding that backline together for the Chiefs, his absence however, could have even more dire repercussions for Ian Foster's flailing All Blacks, who have yet to reach the heights of their 2011 and '15 counterparts.

21 tests have involved the All Blacks so far this decade, Ian Foster has been in charge since the start of 2020. In 21 tests, Foster has been unable to get a decent amount of continuity going in his midfield pairings, having capped a total of 8 different midfield combinations.

The aforementioned midfield combinations are:

  1. Jack Goodhue (12) Rieko Ioane (13) - 1 test together

  2. Jack Goodhue (12) Anton Lienert-Brown (13) - 4 tests together

  3. Ngani Laumape (12) Anton Lienert-Brown (13) - 1 test together

  4. Quinn Tupaea (12) Rieko Ioane (13) - 3 tests together

  5. David Havili (12) Rieko Ioane (13) - 3 tests together

  6. David Havili (12) Anton Lienert-Brown (13) - 6 tests together

  7. Quinn Tupaea (12) Braydon Ennor (13) - 2 tests together

  8. Anton Lienert-Brown (12) Rieko Ioane (13) - 1 test together

The most-capped combination is that of Havili at second-five and Lienert-Brown at centre, they have only started 6 tests together and the most tests they played together in a row was 4 tests, this was from the duration of tests vs Fiji (17/07/21) to Australia (05/09/21). As displayed, Havili has played the most minutes for Foster at 12, while Lienert-Brown has played the most minutes at 13.

These statistics, plus their skillsets of being hybrid players with a passing, kicking and running game, make it obvious that this is the combo for Foster to settle on, but Lienert-Brown's injury will deal a massive blow to this settlement; Lienert-Brown will not return to action until mid-October; he may not play a test in 2022.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has missed several weeks of injury, meaning he has only played 2 matches of rugby union in 10 years; Havili is therefore the only option at 12; Tupaea's crash-ball running is read like a book by other tier 1 nations, that's why they pushed Havili so far back when Foster tried and failed to use Havili as a crash-ball runner; the tactic is dying out, as the likes of Henry Slade, Sam Johnson, Owen Farrell, Nick Tompkins and Jeronimo de la Fuente have proven many a time in the last 18 months.

At 13, it's logical to go with Ioane; who has played the most minutes of any individual player, for Foster. Ioane has played 1188 minutes of test rugby since the decade began. As seen in the 13 Depth Chart, Ioane is only slightly behind Lienert-Brown for minutes.

Assuming Foster picks just two First-Fives for the All Blacks in 2022, he will pick 5 midfielders, so that will be Havili, Ioane and Tupaea, but who could be the other contenders?

Possible contenders for the All Black midfield in Lienert-Brown's absence:

Braydon Ennor (Crusaders) - 24 years old

As harsh as this may sound, Ennor appears to have lost his career prospects to injury. He has played just 3 tests for Foster, accounting for only 8.2% of the minutes at 13. Ennor's defence has improved out of sight in Super Rugby, but he appears to have lost a lot of pace. He has run just 97 metres off a low 18 carries this season; that's 5.39m per carry across 5 games. Ball-handling isn't convincing at test level yet either.

Leicester Fainga'anuku (Crusaders) - 22 years old

Though Fainga'anuku is still 22 years old, he feels long overdue for an All Black cap. Many suspected the absence of Caleb Clarke would see the utility back called in for 2021. Though this did not happen, the drum has beat even louder this year. Fainga'anuku may be better at wing, but offers power, pace and surprisingly for his size, a kicking game. The Tongan-born try-scoring machine would be a huge asset in a black jersey.

Jack Goodhue (Crusaders) - 26 years old

The man who once had the world's best mullet missed all of the 2021 international season due to tearing his ACL in Super Rugby and has recently made a comeback for his amateur club, which is great to see.

Max Sharp meets Jack Goodhue after a game in 2021.

Goodhue is by far the weakest attacking midfielder on Foster's radar, but an equal amount of minutes at 13, to those he has already attained at 12 (21.1% of the chart), would provide an experienced player to come off the bench and make good decisions at a World Cup. I would look elsewhere than his 19 tests, but Foster's decision counts and not mine.

Bailyn Sullivan (Hurricanes) - 23 years old

Or, you could have a like-for-like replacement for Rieko Ioane off the bench. I've long suspected that Ian Foster wants an experienced bench of Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane for 2023, hence why Ioane has played such massive minutes. If Foster wants Ioane at 23 in it's namesake year, get Sullivan practicing for that same role NOW.

Sullivan is the closest replica to Ioane available and has got a bit more action this season than his 1-test team mate, Peter Umaga-Jensen. Sullivan has pace, power, distribution and a utility value. All World Cup-winning sides have had like-for-like replacements of their most important players. Ioane might end up being our most important player despite the potential number on his back.

Hulking Hurricane, Bailyn Sullivan. Photo: Max Sharp.

Alex Nankivell (Chiefs) - 25 years old

This bloke is the wildcard. Insiders say that character plays a big part in selecting the fringes of the squad, if so, look no further. Nankivell's 50th Chiefs game jersey has been donated to charity and this season, he's had a burst of form from nowhere; to suddenly become one of the competition's most underrated players. Nankivell can cover both the 12 and 13 jerseys and is becoming an experienced player who will benefit, minutes-wise, from Lienert-Brown's absence from Super Rugby. At 25 years old, this will be Nankivell's last chance to get a cap. He'll be making a massive effort to get it, that's for sure.

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