Lienert-Brown, Havili, Ioane or Ennor?: Ex-All Blacks clash over New Zealand's midfield combo
Former All Blacks stars Jeff Wilson, Mils Muliaina and Sir John Kirwan, as well as ex-Black Ferns midfielder Hannah Porter, have weighed into the debate over who should start in the midfield for New Zealand this year.
Among those decisions that need to be made includes who will start in the midfield for the national side, a predicament that has plagued the All Blacks since the retirements of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith after the 2015 World Cup.
Since the departure of Nonu and Smith, numerous different players have been tried and tested in a bid to find the next long-lasting All Blacks midfield partnership.
Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape, Malakai Fekitoa, George Moala, Seta Tamanivalu, Matt Proctor and Braydon Ennor were all used at various stages of the last World Cup cycle, but none could hold down a starting role or develop a genuine, effective partnership.
That left the All Blacks with an uncertain midfield combination of Lienert-Brown at second-five and Goodhue at centre during the 2019 World Cup, and both were again used for most of last year’s tests, albeit in opposite roles.
However, with Goodhue ruled out for the rest of the year due to an ACL injury, Foster will be tasked with finding yet another midfield pairing throughout 2021.
Speaking on The Breakdown on Monday, Muliaina and Kirwan agreed that Lienert-Brown deserves to retain his place in the All Blacks’ starting lineup, but they, and their fellow panellists, were at odds over who else should be there.
According to Kirwan, Blues star Rieko Ioane needs substantial game time in the No 13 jersey if he is to become “a world-class centre”.
Since his debut for the All Blacks as a teenager in 2016, Ioane has predominantly been used on the left wing throughout his international career, but has been vocal in his desire to become a full-time centre.
Those demands have been heard by Blues head coach Leon MacDonald, who has played him there regularly at Super Rugby level since the beginning of last season, but Ioane has been restricted to just one appearance in the No 13 jersey for the All Blacks.
That came in last year’s opening Bledisloe Cup test in Wellington, a match of which the 24-year-old endured a rough time as he butchered a certain try by dropping the ball over the line and was caught out defensively on one occasion.
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After that, Ioane was confined to either the left wing or a bench role for the remainder of the All Blacks’ season, but Kirwan said he needs to be used regularly in the midfield if he is to realise his potential in the position.
“Here are my three centres at the moment: Anton Lienert-Brown, [Crusaders vice-captain David] Havili and Ioane,” Kirwan told The Breakdown.
“What I’m talking about is if we want this guy [Ioane] to be a world-class centre, we actually cannot play him on the wing for the All Blacks anymore, I don’t believe.
“He’s got to either come off the bench and play centre or start at centre because if we want him to get through to the World Cup [we need him to play at centre regularly].
“I think he’s still learning some of the subtleties, especially on defence. Sometimes he still jumps out. He’s still learning those little parts of the game, and I think playing him out of position at the All Black level is not going to help him be a great centre.”
Porter, a two-time women’s World Cup winner, disagreed with Kirwan, though, as she believed the All Blacks need Ioane on the wing to fill the void left by Caleb Clarke, who has committed himself to the Tokyo Olympics with the All Blacks Sevens.
As a result, Porter said, the All Blacks are without a power wing, which is a role she said could be filled by Ioane.
Instead, she would have Havili as a “guarantee” midfielder for the All Blacks with Ennor acting as midfield cover on the bench.
“I think we need Rieko on the wing, particularly with Caleb Clarke out playing with the sevens. We need a power winger, so I’ve kept him on the wing,” Porter said.
“Obviously he can come in and cover 13 and I think that’s where they’ll use him at the end of the game [to] keep working on his skills.
“As you [Kirwan] say, we need some specialists in this position, but I would be having Braydon as my out-and-out cover for the midfield.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 8, 2021
Porter said she liked what Ennor, who missed last year’s test season due to an ACL injury, has to offer due his broad skill set that enables him to flourish as a distributor and defender.
“I think he has a really good passing game, really strong in defence, understands the space out wide having come from the wing, and really unlucky to miss those test matches last year.”
She added that whoever takes the national No 13 jersey must be up to the challenges of the position that she described as “the toughest” to play in and is “really crucial”.
“Absolutely the toughest, and not only in defence, but also having to be eyes and ears for your first-five, read the game, find the holes, look at territory,” Porter said.
“Really crucial position which has to be covered by a specialist. It’s really hard to keep people out of position in that role.”
Muliaina, meanwhile, said Lienet-Brown’s performances for the Chiefs this year have “cemented” his place in the All Blacks starting lineup.
“You look at what he’s done in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, he’s in the top five for about five of his offensive things – carries, metres gained, defenders beaten, offloads, things like that,” Muliaina told The Breakdown of Lienert-Brown.
However, the 100-test veteran, who played at both fullback and centre for the All Blacks, expressed concerns over the lack of variation among New Zealand’s midfielders.
“The problem that we’ve got, in terms of our centres, is that they all play a similar game,” he said.
“If you look at the skill set, when you’re looking at guys, they offload, they run hard, we haven’t got an out-and-out skilful guy like a Havili, someone to back him up as well.
“When you look at the centres that we have had, traditionally we’ve had a robust centre that’s going to get us over the gainline and try and knock them back as well, and then you complement that with someone who’s working hard, sets everything else up.”
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Muliaina added that dynamic is what helped make the partnership between Nonu, the “robust centre”, and Smith, the one who set “everything else up”, so effective but worried that the current All Blacks side has too many “robust centres”.
Kirwan shared Muliaina’s concerns over there being no established All Blacks midfield combination, which led him to plead for a partnership to be developed between now and the 2023 World Cup.
“Did we ever say Conrad Smith without Ma’a Nonu. As a combination, this is what concerns me,” the 1987 World Cup winner said.
“I’m not saying who’s right or wrong, but playing people out of position and not creating combinations is a really interesting conversation that people need to have because when you think of the great sides, there was combinations in the loose forwards, in the locks and also in the midfield.
“We’ve traditionally had someone getting us over the advantage line at 12 rather than that silky player, but maybe you swap them round. Maybe it’s Anton Lienert-Brown and someone like Ioane.
“I don’t know, but how many games have we got til the World Cup? I’d like to see some combinations being built, some competition for positions. For example, we’ve got enough midfielders, let them compete. Don’t put them on the wing.”
Wilson rounded out the debate by indicating the All Blacks selectors may opt to reduce numbers in other positions to allow more players to be included to compete for places in the midfield.
“I would be surprised, particularly in these first three test matches, that they don’t find room to take more people into their squad, maybe only take two halfbacks, because TJ Perenara, at this stage, is not available for selection, and they give guys an opportunity to get in their spot.”
The first All Blacks team of 2021 will take to the field against Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on July 3.
The All Blacks will then face Fiji in back-to-back tests in Dunedin and Hamilton over the following two weeks.
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