Anton Lienert-Brown was near done. He’d finished another rugby year and he was so exhausted he didn’t have the energy to consider another one. Was this it for his career?
Luckily for the now 24-year-old, the Chiefs and the All Blacks, Lienert-Brown, a professional rugby player since 2014, stuck with the game after making a few significant changes to his approach a few years ago.
It wasn’t the physical side of the game that was hurting him – the near relentless training and playing – it was the inability to switch off mentally. The game had consumed him and he couldn’t get away from it. It sent him into a spiral – “gassed”, he called it.
But after discussions with Chiefs mental skills coach David Galbraith and All Blacks manager Gilbert Enoka, Lienert-Brown learned to put the game’s importance into perspective and he and the All Blacks are now reaping the benefits; he will start the World Cup quarter-final against Ireland at Tokyo Stadium as one of Steve Hansen’s form backs, a young man with the unorthodox attacking style which could cause a few problems for the Irish.
“Things all got a bit much and that stemmed from rugby taking over my life,” Lienert-Brown told the Herald this week. “All my thoughts were about rugby. It was who I was. If I had a bad training or bad game that controlled my life. It’s not a very pleasant place to be when that happens because some things are uncontrollable and you have to have a balance.
“When I got to the end of a rugby season I’d be gassed. I didn’t know if I could do another one. I thought am I training too hard? Is it this hard? Is this how I’m going to feel every year?
“We train hard but it wasn’t that. My brain was ticking over at 100 miles an hour all the time and that takes it out of you.
“Where I’ve got to know is a good balance. I make a conscious effort to step away from rugby and to be present in the moment, whatever moment that is.
“It’s been a long process over three or four years. It’s easy to say, ‘oh, just don’t think about rugby’, but it’s hard to do,” he said. “Growing up helps as well. Now when I step on to the pitch or training field or into meetings I can be present but when I’m away from rugby I can have my downtime.
“What that’s done to my rugby is massive. It’s freed my mind up and reignited my love for rugby and I think my on-field performances have shown that; the freedom to play. I’m really enjoying my rugby again.”
Lienert-Brown’s openness about his challenges comes from a growing awareness of the mental side of the game and the differences among the All Blacks in how they approach it. It’s a far healthier attitude on several levels. Years ago it would never have been discussed and players would have dropped out the game. Now they are supported and told it’s okay to feel vulnerable.
“I think it’s massive in professional rugby,” Lienert-Brown said. “Obviously physically you have to be at your peak, but mentally you have to find your peak as well. You can’t be physically fit and mentally not there.
“A lot of people probably wouldn’t have known. I probably put on a pretty good front. What I’ve learned now is that it’s better to express your feelings and let people know, especially your loved ones.
“I wouldn’t say I’m at my peak but I’m in a much better place.”
Lienert-Brown, the youngest of three children – brother Daniel is a prop at the Highlanders, and the boys have an older sister – left Christchurch for Hamilton and the Waikato rugby academy as a 17-year-old.
He’d decided to shift north during his final year at Christchurch Boys’ High School but dislocated his shoulder in his last first XV game. Training in preparation for a first club game in Hamilton, he dislocated it again. Surgery was required.
“It was tough,” he said. “You’re in a new place and you want to prove to people that you’re worthy to be there but you can’t because you’re on the sideline.
“I guess it was tough moving away from your family but it was also good. You’re on your own, you have to make new friends and you have to grow up pretty quickly because you don’t have mum and dad to fall back on all the time. They’re a phone call away but it’s a little bit different.”
The “wee, chubby boy” who played hooker, prop and loose forward, moved to the rugby midfield after a year playing league. Lienert-Brown’s dad was keen for Anton, in his first year at high school, and Daniel to “learn how to tackle properly”, and Anton leaped at the chance to play centre.
He’s never looked back, and, after being considered a good impact player for the All Blacks, his consistency means he’s a nailed-on starter. With 40 test caps, he’ll be the third most experienced All Blacks backline starter against Ireland, behind Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett.
“It’s funny – if I didn’t spend that year in league I could still be in the forwards. I don’t know where I’d be. One decision like that can be a pivotal moment in your life.”
Described as “unorthodox” by attack coach Ian Foster this year, Lienert-Brown is all funky angles and offloads – a potential nightmare to defend against, a man, along with Richie Mo’unga and Barrett, who might just hold the key to unlocking the Irish defence.
“I do things differently,” he said. “Sometimes I make the basic things look hard and the flashy things – the offloading and stuff – can look more natural. I don’t know why, it’s just how things work for me.
“Ever since I’ve been in this environment I’ve worked hard on the basics. I know I’ve got that offloading ability or jinky running ability. I’m always honing the basics because that’s the key to the game.
“We’ve played Ireland a few times over the last few years and there’s plenty of motivation there.
“There’s a good feeling in the team but there’s also a lot of edge. They’ve beaten us in two of the last three tests but this is a different kettle of fish. We’ve prepared well and we just have to get out there and do the business.”