In the most important year of his young professional rugby career, Anton Lienert-Brown has found 2019 to be the most difficult season thus far.
It’s been five years since the 33-test All Blacks midfielder made his Super Rugby debut with the Chiefs as an 18-year-old on the wing against the Bulls in Pretoria, but the 24-year-old rates this, his sixth season with the club, as the toughest he’s endured.
A five-match winless run to open the season was followed by a hopeful three-match winning streak, but after losing key playmaker Damian McKenzie to a season-ending knee injury, the Hamilton-based franchise have fallen to back-to-back defeats.
Lienert-Brown has been a leading star for the Chiefs despite their struggles, as he eyes a spot in the All Blacks’ World Cup squad.
Competing against fellow midfielders Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape, Ma’a Nonu and Matt Proctor for a place on the plane to Japan in four months’ time, there’s little room for error or inconsistency in this year’s edition of Super Rugby, which makes the Chiefs performances all the more challenging for Lienert-Brown.
Speaking to Stuff ahead of this weekend’s Kiwi derby against the Highlanders in Dunedin, Lienert-Brown expressed his frustration as the Chiefs have fallen to the bottom of the New Zealand conference and second-last on the overall standings with just three wins and 17 points to their name from 10 outings.
“It definitely is the toughest period I’ve been through personally,” Lienert-Brown said.
“Before this year, we’ve always been in contention for that first spot or second spot on the table and now we’re trying to be in the top eight. So it is definitely something new for me.”
A spot in the top eight won’t come easily either, with a whopping 10 teams separated by just four points between the Australian conference-leading Rebels and the 13th-placed Brumbies.
Trailing the latter side by three points, Lienert-Brown told Stuff that his side need a big showing in the closing stages of their campaign if they’re to appear in the play-offs for the eighth straight year.
“If we are honest, we pretty much have to win five of the next six games,” he said.
“But we want to win them all. It is must-win territory, but we have the belief in this team that we can do that. We just need to get back on track and start playing our game again.”
That starts at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday when he and his teammates face a Highlanders outfit, featuring Lienert-Brown’s older brother Daniel at loosehead prop, that overcame the Chiefs through a 30-27 season-opening victory at Waikato Stadium in February.
“They’re obviously a team who were in a place we were a while ago, and now they’re on a good run,” Lienert-Brown said in reference to the Highlanders’ five-match losing streak through March and April, followed by two convincing wins against the Blues and Sunwolves over the past fortnight.
“In a way they try to play a brand of footy we do – run the ball hard and a bit of flair in their backs – so we’re going to go down there and try match them physically, and if we do so I think we can win.”
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