Since the era of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the All Blacks are yet to find a similarly devastating midfield combo.
They may have selected many players at 13 for general footballing ability instead of the skillsets required for the position. Their current incumbent to fill the 13 jersey, Anton Lienert-Brown, is a great player but I simply feel that 13 may not be the right place for him and that vice versa, he may not be the right 13 for the All Blacks.
I am a fan of Lienert-Brown, but the statistical summary of his performance just seemed a little wrong for a 13. The attacking gameplay statistics are summarised by the acronym KRP (kick-run-pass). Here is Lienert-Brown’s KRP: he had zero kicks from hand, three carries (runs) that made six metres and zero passes.
Meanwhile, in defence, his defensive solidity played up excellently, with 14 out of 15 completed tackles and three turnovers won. His tackle count is excellent considering that he had to mark Jordan Petaia, one of the best-running 13s anyone could find.
However, his kicking and passing just seem wrong. Such a limited attacking influence just is not the kind of performance you want from a class 13.
He is an extremely good strike runner with pace, power and agility to crack the line. In that sense, as an open-running 13 he is one of the best 13s in the world. Defensively, he is one of the most consistent you can find in those tackles. Though he went backwards in contact at times during the Bledisloe, he made decently good reads and big tackles on his opposite number to kill Petaia’s options.
However, he is not great as a playmaking 13. He is a short/medium passer and I have not seen much long distribution from him. This is one aspect of the 13 game that Lienert-Brown is lacking in. He has the general ball skill excellence and proficiency, but the 13 channel is the place with space to be exploited.
The All Black alignment in midfield has Richie Mo’unga usually acting as first receiver with all the strike options at his disposal. They have Jack Goodhue as a wide passing platform and strike runner, while Lienert-Brown is a bruiser/stepper. Beauden Barrett is out wide as he is a visionary in broken play with one of the wingers.
As it is, the job of a 13 comprises three aspects: ball carrier, key defender and playmaker/wide distributor. Lienert-Brown fits two of the three perfectly. Maybe since Goodhue is the wide passing platform, his job is a short playmaker and not a wide distributor. His passing is short and fast. His carrying often compensated for his lack of long passes.
So, if Lienert-Brown does not completely fit the prototype of a 13, who does?
He could play 12 with short playmaking and crash-ball and maybe a shuffled alignment with the 13 to pass wide if needed.
We have Peter Umaga-Jenson, a fast man who has the pace of a wing and great feet in attack. Then we have Braydon Ennor, who is good at club level with the pace, however, I think that he is more of a utility back.
In my opinion, there are only two other realistic options for complete 13s that are Test quality – Jack Goodhue and Rieko Ioane. Joanne has been a 13 before he was a wing and his preferred position is in outside centre. In his only start at 13 this year, he made two carries, three passes, and zero kicks. Goodhue has made some great passes and great moments this Bledisloe series, but he has been a little inconsistent – just hot and cold.
On the other hand, there may be no need for a player to completely fit the skillset prototype of a 13. Lienert-Brown could play 13 as a short playmaker, key defender and ball carrier.