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Anton Lienert-Brown targeting return to play in final weeks of NPC

By Sam Smith
Anton Lienert-Brown. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

While Ian Foster may believe the midfield partnership between David Havili and Rieko Ioane is starting to flourish for the All Blacks, the New Zealand head coach will be pleased to hear that Anton Lienert-Brown is recovering ahead of schedule following shoulder surgery in April.

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Lienert-Brown reinjured the same shoulder against the Blues that kept him out of the All Blacks’ final game of the 2021 season, a 40-25 defeat at the hands of France. The 27-year-old midfielder has been sidelined ever since but revealed this week that his rehabilitation is progressing well and, all things going to plan, he could make his return to play for Waikato against Bay of Plenty on October 2 in the final round of the NPC regular season.

Speaking to Stuff, Lienert-Brown indicated that featuring on the All Blacks’ trip north at the end of the season is not out of the picture.

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“I’d love to go on the end-of-year tour,” he said, “but I always believe you’ve got to prove yourself first.

“The main thing for me is to get back on the footy field and start playing some good rugby.”

Lienert-Brown last featured for Waikato during the 2020 season, when the top-line All Blacks were released to play for their provinces prior to the compacted Test campaign.

While the All Blacks have been facing off with South Africa and Argentina in the Rugby Championship this year, Lienert-Brown has been in charge of backline strikes for Waikato – and helped the side to an undefeated start to the season, with a draw against Hawke’s Bay the only blemish on the record to date.

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In the 56-Test midfielder’s absence, Havili and Ioane have established themselves as the clear first-choice partnership in the centres for the national side.

If Lienert-Brown is able to get a handful of matches under his belt before the NZ kick off their northern tour on October 29, the weekend after the NPC final, it would be a major surprise for Foster to omit him from the side that heads offshore for matches against Japan, Wales, Scotland and England.

Where Lienert-Brown fits into a first-choice All Blacks backline will remain up for debate, however.

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With all three of Lienert-Brown, Havili and Ioane available last year, Foster preferred to run with Ioane on the left wing with the other two combining in the midfield. Such a scenario would likely see Caleb Clarke pushed out of the top line-up – but that would leave the team with just one sizeable body in the backline in the form of Jordie Barrett.

Jack Goodhue could also potentially be available for the end-of-year tour but has recently undergone surgery for a troublesome knee and his return-to-play timeframe is unclear.

Regardless, the more fit and able players that Foster’s All Blacks have available for the trip to Japan and Europe, the more likely the team has of finishing the year on a high – and ensuring they’re in the best position possible for next year’s Rugby World Cup in France.

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