The Crusaders are a team that, more often than not, get what they want.
They’ve won the last three Super Rugby titles on the trot, emerged as champions in 10 of the 24 competitions that have taken place since 1996 and always have a healthy supply of All Blacks on their books.
In fact, 13 of their current squad members have represented national sides and that’s after factoring in that they lost five All Blacks following last year’s World Cup in Japan.
One man who they don’t have on their books, however, is Anton Lienert-Brown.
The Crusaders have always been excellent at bringing some of the brightest young talents to the region post-schooling to groom the players for a future in the red and black jersey. They’ve had ample success with the likes of Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock, Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor, just to name a few.
It’s not hard to see why so many of New Zealand’s most promising players choose to head to the region – they’ve got an exceptional academy and are comfortably the most successful rugby union when it comes to helping players achieve their dreams of playing for the All Blacks.
Lienert-Brown, however, was somehow never snapped up by the Crusaders – and he was born and bred in the region, a Canterbury man through and through.
“I was one of the first players as a kid to not stick around Canterbury,” Lienert-Brown told RugbyPass.
“I went through the Canterbury age-grade set-ups from under 14s, I think. I was in their Canterbury Academy with the likes of Richie Mo’unga so I did have a lot of association with them.
“To walk away from Canterbury at the time, a lot of people would think you’re silly because they do have a world-class set up down there. That was just the thing to do – you play your rugby down there, you stick down there, and then they may bring other players in and that just creates great competition.”
But Lienert-Brown did walk away from Canterbury, instead signing with Waikato and the Chiefs – and that’s largely thanks to the initiative of coaching guru Wayne Smith, who travelled down to Christchurch Boys’ High to have a chat with the impressive midfielder.
“After a school game in my last year – it was against Christ’s College actually, I was playing Damian [McKenzie] – and Smithy came and approached me. He said, ‘What are you up to tomorrow? Can I come around and visit you and your family?’
“He came over after that and he had a plan that he set out in front of me and my family and said where he saw me as a player down the track and then he flew us up to the Chiefs. They showed us around and then I got to meet another great coach, Dave Rennie.”
This was in the final stages of the Chiefs’ 2012 campaign – their first under Rennie and Smith, and eventually, also their first-ever title win.
“They were having a really good year and they brought me up during their semi-final week,” Lienert-Brown said. “So I went in and watched the captain’s run before they played their semi-final and funnily enough, they were playing the Crusaders – and they ended up winning the next day.
“At the time, I was a Crusaders fan but to get to meet the players and the coaches in person, I almost wanted the Chiefs to win because when you get to know the people, it makes watching rugby completely different. It was just perfect timing.”
"If your team’s not doing so well, confidence is low and you've lost your groove, you tend to try harder but things just get worse."@LimaSopoaga spoke candidly with @TomVinicombe about the challenges he's faced since arriving at @WaspsRugby. #PremRugbyhttps://t.co/MzVZDBTSkU
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 10, 2020
And it was getting to know the Chiefs set-up, the players and the coaches that ultimately lured Lienert-Brown away from the Crusaders. Yes, the Chiefs were on an extraordinary run and it’s naturally considerably easier to entice young players to your team when the victories are coming thick and fast, but it was less about the results and more about the environment and opportunities for growth that won Lienert-Brown over in the end.
“It was almost just them being such genuine down-to-earth people was what lured me up here, but also them having such a good environment and being such good coaches at the same time,” said Lienert-Brown.
“I had a lot of association with Canterbury, but I didn’t have a Todd Blackadder come to talk to me or one of the coaches high up – which, to be fair, I didn’t expect at all.
“So to be at school and for someone like Smithy to approach me was unreal. You never think that a coach of his calibre would come and talk to you. He could have easily told someone he knew in Christchurch to go talk to Anton and say, ‘Smithy’s keen’, but that’s not the man he is, he wants to meet you in person. It was just surreal for him to come up and talk to me and be interested in me as a rugby player.”
Almost eight years later, Lienert-Brown is now one of the most revered centres in the world and is nearing 40 caps for the All Blacks and 70 for the Chiefs.
The fleet-footed 25-year-old debuted for the All Blacks in 2016 – setting up a try with his first touch of the ball in test rugby – and started in New Zealand’s crunch matches at last year’s World Cup against South Africa, Ireland and England.
Admittedly, the Crusaders haven’t exactly lacked for midfield options since Lienert-Brown relocated to the Waikato. The likes of Tim Bateman, Ryan Crotty and Seta Tamanivalu have served them well in the past while this year’s combination of Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor – who were both schooled in Blues territory – is emerging as one of the most well-rounded and deadliest in Super Rugby.
That’s not to say that the Cantabrians wouldn’t love to have Lienert-Brown on their books in the future; any team in the world would be champing at the bit to bring the Chiefs-man into their squad.
Unfortunately for outside parties, Lienert-Brown recently extended his contract with the Chiefs through until the end of 2023, which means he can continue to grow his combinations with the likes of Quinn Tupaea, Alex Nankivell and Tumua Manu in Mooloo country.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine Lienert-Brown not becoming the seventh player to earn a century of caps for the Chiefs franchise (assuming Aaron Cruden clocks off that milestone later this season) – and a big part of that must surely be accredited to Wayne Smith, the man that bucked the trend and went after the man he wanted, despite the fact that the Crusaders rarely let anyone out from their clutches.
“It’s just the Canterbury system,” said Lienert-Brown. “You got through the age grades and you sort of just work your way up until you either become a Canterbury player or a Crusader.
“But I was approached and that just didn’t happen in Canterbury. I think people just didn’t bother because they knew what the response would probably be. But I guess Smithy had a plan, and normally, his plans work out.”
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