Often the picture of calm, Anton Lienert-Brown has put in a lot of work on himself to feel comfortable at the highest level
THAT TEST debut against the Wallabies is still fresh in the mind for Anton Lienert-Brown. Trotting out as an All Black for the very first time, there was something surprisingly serene about the whole experience.
“The legs were going under the water and on top I probably looked quite calm,” the centre tells RW of that day in 2016. “For sure there were a lot of nerves but for some reason, when I ran out there, there was a sense of calm.
“In a way I felt as though I was chucked in the deep end a little bit, because we had so many injuries. I thought I’d be an injury replacement at best (for the first cap) and it turns out I started, in a pretty big match.
“But I’d been in the same situation as an 18-year-old, playing for the Chiefs against the Blue Bulls at Loftus (Versfeld). I was on the wing then, the first time I’d played there since school, a year and a half before. So I took a lot of learnings at a young age.
“In that Chiefs game I went into my shell on my debut. The promise I made to myself for when I reached the All Blacks, I said, ‘No matter what happens tonight, I’m just going to go out there and express myself.’ That’s where the calm came from, I think.”
Steady and measured with his answers, Lienert-Brown talks like the guy you want deciding whether to cut the red or the blue wire while the bomb clock ticks into the last few seconds.
Amazingly still just 25, he plays like it too. It has become something of a parody whenever someone says the Chiefs mainstay is underrated, so often is the phrase used. And indeed when asked about the ubiquitous underrated tag, Lienert-Brown insists that he is not trying to fit himself into one style of play or another, or to stand out as a certain breed of player; he is just doing his job, he says. The labels thrown about do not interest him in the least.
However, he also accepts that what did concern him, earlier in his career, became something of a hindrance.
To get to that point though, we begin by considering how hard it must be to maintain any semblance of tranquillity throughout a career. It’s easier said than done. Lienert-Brown has a process.
“I work on my mental game quite a lot. So I meditate at the start of the week and then close to the game I start visualising my game day in the build-up to that. I don’t actually visualise what’s going to happen in the game but more the times where I feel nervous – it is always in the build-up, from the warm-ups right through to kick-off.
“I’m always really nervous before, until the ref blows the whistle. In that visualisation, I take the same breath as I would out in the field. And that brings me a sense of calm because it’s like I’ve already been there before. I’ve already been there in my week.
“When I realised that worked for me was probably after a lot of learnings over my career. I started really young and initially I was an over-thinker. I over-thought a lot of things and I got to a stage where I actually got really sick of rugby. I didn’t enjoy the game any more and it sort of burnt me out, because of my thoughts.
“I had to make a decision. I said to myself, ‘If I’m this unhappy, I might as well not play the game. Or I’ve got to make some big changes.’ And that’s when I really started being passionate about the mental side of my game.
“I was about 20 at the time. I don’t want to exaggerate what I went through but how I felt at the time was that I hit rock bottom, you know. There was anxiety and depression of some sort, that’s what I was experiencing.
“When you hit rock bottom you’ve got to change things. It was a tough time in my life but looking back on it I wouldn’t change it for the world, because you learn so much through it, and I guess it’s led me to really focus on my mental game. And you also realise that there is more to rugby as well, and that brings you a sense of calm too.”
Importantly, he’s happy to talk about it.
His world is one of high-speed collisions while wearing one of global sport’s most recognisable uniforms, so it’s refreshing to hear him say: “I try my best to be vulnerable – it’s a word I love.”
What he means by this is that he wants to be open, honest and available whenever he is asked to share his feelings on mental health issues. If friends or colleagues want to discuss what they’re wrestling with too, he will strive to be ready and unflinching.
This is not, he says, natural for him either. Before he reached his big fork in the road, he would describe himself as ‘closed off’. Lienert-Brown also makes clear that he still feels pre-match nerves. The difference is that since his Test debut, he has learnt to handle them that little bit better. And in fact, if those nerves were not there at all now he would feel like something was missing.
“When you hit rock bottom you’ve got to change things. It was a tough time in my life”
Although raised on New Zealand’s South Island, the Canterbury-born Lienert-Brown was lured north by the brains trust of Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith. Older brother Daniel still props on the loosehead in the South, for the Highlanders. But the younger sibling says that he wants a long future playing for Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup, the Chiefs in whatever form Super Rugby takes and with the All Blacks.
There is a lot to be said for finding somewhere that feels like the right fit. Of course, for any player considered a safe pair of hands when Test matches get frenetic, it is not always easy to predict who will be lining up beside you when you next put those mitts to use.
Yet in the days leading up to the final round of last year’s Six Nations, England coach Eddie Jones discussed the possibility that the sight of centres passing between one another in attack was getting rarer and rarer. For one Wasps game, the coach told reporters, he tasked an analyst with tracking how many passes went between Jimmy Gopperth and Malakai Fekitoa. The result was zero, Jones said.
At his best Lienert-Brown can control so much play around him. So what does he make of the idea that a link between the centres could be fading in today’s game, with the midfielders perhaps becoming more like American Football running backs, as Jones has hinted at?
“All I do know is that when I’m playing with one midfield partner, I want to form a really good connection with that person,” the Chiefs star says. “You realise how they play and it’s about using your strengths together.
“Sometimes you might build that connection throughout a season. Sometimes you get one week. The All Blacks have rolled out plenty of different midfield combinations over the past four or five years. So each week it’s about building a connection, and I guess the longer you play together, the easier it gets. You want to understand each other’s strength on attack and D.
“You have gotta trust those people but we do that – in the environments I have been in, we do.
“In my first year with the All Blacks, it was Ryan Crotty, Malakai, myself and I think George Moala together. We were a young midfield group and obviously it was my first year in the team. We have these mini units – your midfielders, inside backs, outside backs are units. And one of our goals was to be the strongest mini unit in the All Blacks, because we were so young and the least experienced in everything.
“We did really well and became, I guess, quite a formidable midfield pack. Because we worked so hard on the connection, getting to know each other. I’d say we were the closest mini unit and no matter who rolled out there – because you can only put two midfielders out there and one on the bench – the credit would go to the midfield unit as a whole because we worked hard to get the best out of each other.”
Is the band of midfields still the strongest unit for the All Blacks today, you reckon?
“I’d like to think so!” Lienert-Brown surmises, leaning back as he replies.
ANTON LIENERT-BROWN ON HIS TEAM-MATES
Angus Ta’avao is that guy. I don’t know how to explain it: he has funny written all over him.
I reckon Brad Weber is very smart. Or Michael Allardice at the Chiefs.
Ha, it’s Damian McKenzie I’d say!
I reckon Scott ‘Scooter’ Barrett. He is full-on ripped but he’s one of those guys, I never see him stop eating. He’s just got that metabolism, while he can keep on eating all the time.
Ardie Savea, I reckon. Some others might disagree with what he wears, but for current style he is right up there.
Caleb Clarke, probably – I heard him the other day and he can sing.
There are plenty. I will go with Jordie Barrett though.
One you’d like to be for a day?
Great question. I’ve got to go Beaudie Barrett. He’s just a great lad and he’s obviously pretty good at rugby, isn’t he?
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This article originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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