The Dominion Post
ABs’ midfield conundrum
Starting Anton LienertBrown and Jack Goodhue in a test for the first time is one of many options for the All Blacks coaches in Perth on Saturday night.
With Sonny Bill Williams left in New Zealand to improve his match fitness alongside his provincial team-mates at Counties-Manukau and Ryan Crotty still recovering from an operation on a thumb, the All Blacks travelled to Western Australia with just three midfielders in Ngani Laumape, Lienert-Brown and Goodhue.
It also pays to remember Braydon Ennor, listed as a utility back when the squad was reduced to 34 players for the two Bledisloe Cup tests against the Wallabies, can play centre and wing.
Ennor will be desperate to make another appearance after his debut as a replacement on the wing in the 68th minute against Argentina in Buenos Aires last month.
It will be of little comfort to him to be told he’s not alone on that score.
As it stands Goodhue is clearly the leading candidate to secure the No 13 jersey for the World Cup in Japan.
Although he’s only played eight tests since being blooded for the first time against France in Dunedin last year, the selectors have no doubt been impressed by Goodhue’s maturity and ability to make calculated decisions under extreme pressure.
Goodhue, along with fullback Beauden Barrett, was one of the
best performers in the All Blacks backline during the 16-16 draw with South Africa on July 27; he ran aggressively, and the Boks midfielders of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am were unable to destabilise the defensive wall constructed by himself and Williams.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, one of the more emotional coaches on the international circuit, isn’t likely to have hooted with joy after it was confirmed Williams would miss Bledisloe I at a sold-out Optus Stadium.
Because he’s got enough on his own platter to occupy his time.
Although he would have been satisfied with his side’s unspectacular 16-10 win over Argentina last week, Cheika is still tinkering with his own combinations.
The news that veteran backrower David Pocock is finally back from injury will have been welcomed.
Not so much, though, was the sight of his centre Tevita Kuridrani struggling to get anywhere near top gear against Argentina which means Cheika has to quickly find someone to partner the classy Samu Kerevi in the midfield.
The All Blacks aren’t having the same issues. They have options galore to choose from ahead of the World Cup. It’s a case of who to cut.
Lienert-Brown, efficient at second five-eighth and centre in the majority of his 35 test appearances, is valued for his versatility and that’s his trump card as he attempts to tie down one of the four midfield jobs for the global tournament.
Lienert-Brown started at centre against Argentina with Laumape at No 12, and it would be fair to say neither man – like the rest of the backline – covered themselves in glory as the All Blacks held on grimly for a 20-16 win.
The last time Lienert-Brown and Goodhue appeared on the field together was when the former replaced Williams in the second spell of the test against the Springboks in Wellington.
Before flying with the squad last weekend coach Steve Hansen said he expected improvements in the tests in Perth and Auckland, and will aim to bed in his best team in the next couple of weeks.
That suggests a top lineup will be unleashed for Bledisloe II at Eden Park on August 17 which coincides with Williams, providing he’s fully fit, making his return at second-five.
The immediate goal, for now, is to win in Perth.