Wednesday, February 28, 2024

COMMENT: Lienert-Brown deserves All Blacks starting berth

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Probably ranked fourth in the midfield pecking order before injuries to Sonny Bill Williams and Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown deserves a starting berth when the  Rugby World Cup sudden death playoffs begin.

Not for the first time, Lienert-Brown demonstrated his overall class with a man of the match performance in the All Blacks 71-9 romp against Nambia.

Like Ryan Crotty, he has few faults as an attacker and defender and utilises his sidestep and offload in tight situations better than most.

With fullback Beauden Barrett and first-five Richie Mo’unga winning man of the match honours against South Africa and Canada  respectively, the class of the All Blacks backs has been evident.

Others like England, Wales, Ireland and Australia also have outstanding backs, but only host Japan have shown the same daring creativity as New Zealand at this tournament.

Which is sensible when one considers the sidestep, swerve and lightning acceleration of wings Lomano Lemeki (man of the match in the 38-19 win against Samoa) and Kenki Fukuoka who relish the quick service offered by their inside backs.

Credit also to their forwards who put more numbers to the breakdown against Samoa than did New Zealand against Nambia until coach Steve Hansen’s fiery halftime speech.

At 30, gutsy former Chiefs No 8 Michael Leitch continues to be a major force for Japan, especially when it comes to tackling and poaching ball a la Richie McCaw at breakdowns.

Such has been the beehive activity of the low slung Japanese forwards and the enterprise of their speedy backs that Scotland have cause to fear them in their final pool match.

The All Blacks should have less trouble against an Italian team beaten 49-3 by South Africa. Hansen will demand an improved effort on their last game performance when Jordie Barrett was tried with mixed success at first-five.

However he will be pleased Sonny Bill Williams had a very strong game against Canada and Brodie Retallick’s dislocated shoulder survived his brief 30-minute first half stint after a 10-week respite.

Whether Retallick can return to his best in sudden death play is doubtful given his long absence. But he is a remarkable player and it is a comfort that Scott Barrett has been in outstanding form as Sam Whitelock’s locking partner.

The smart move could be to retain Barrett and Whitelock as starters before bringing Retallick on off the bench.

Like Lienert-Brown and Crotty, Williams’ best position is second-five although Lienert-Brown is also a smart centre adept at setting up his wings for tries.

Meanwhile the coaches will be delighted their decision to start both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett is paying a handsome dividend.

Against the rush defence of the top teams, five-eighths often receive the ball and the tackle simultanously. Hence Barrett’s speed is better served at fullback where he has time and space to set his attack into motion.

Meanwhile Mo’unga’s superb crosskicks to wings George Bridge and Sevu Reece continue to be a major weapon against rush defences.

With an improved Rieko Ioane eager to regain a wing berth, Bridge and Reece have hardly put a foot wrong.

Hence it’s that competition for starting spots by so many squad members which should ensure the All Blacks stay sharp for the games ahead.

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