England fullback Mike Brown finds his cutting edge
Hard work on the training field has begun to pay off as high tempo play yields results
England’s Mike Brown celebrates his try against Scotland in the Six Nations match at Murrayfield. It was the fullback’s second try in successive games in the competition. Photograph: Lynne Cameron/PA Wire.
Try-scoring fullbacks are among rugby union’s most valuable assets. From Serge Blanco and Andy Irvine to Israel Folau and Israel Dagg, there is no finer sight than a top-class number 15 bursting upfield from deep, creating a rising defensive panic with each stride.
Folau scored a record-equalling 10 tries in 15 Tests in his debut season for Australia last year; Dagg has been the silken-handed provider behind many of New Zealand’s best scores in 2013.
Which brings us to England’s Mike Brown. Until recently, was still without an entry visa to the promised land of the international in-goal area, capped 21 times without registering a single point. Tries in the first two Six Nations games have brought an overdue sense of release.
Is this proof England have finally located a genuine collective cutting edge? Is Brown finally exerting the all-round influence at this level he has had for years at Harlequins? If the answers are yes, the remainder of the championship, not to mention the rest of England’s year, will be fascinating.
“I want to stamp the way I play the game on the pitch and back myself that I can be as good as these guys, if not better,” Brown says firmly. He does, even so, admit to poring over videos of Dagg and Leigh Halfpenny, determined to find new ways of improving as an international 15 beyond his regular sessions with specialist speed coach Margot Wells.
“I have been looking at the way Dagg steps in at first receiver on a two-sided attack, which is what we’ve worked hard on recently. After the Lions tour we also looked at the way [Leigh]Halfpenny defended; that’s what we’re trying to get our fullbacks doing as well. It’s good to look at them and see how you can improve, but you also need to focus on yourself and what you bring to the game.”
There were glimpses of the English back line beginning to flower in Paris and Edinburgh, despite the poor Murrayfield pitch and the virus which caused Brown some discomfort in the buildup.
Head coach Stuart Lancaster and lieutenants Andy Farrell and Mike Catt have spent many painstaking hours developing the depth and shape of their team’s attacking structure, with the entire back three heavily involved.
England, says Brown, knew they could not plod along as they had been. “We were all disappointed with the way our attack had been going but we’ve worked hard on it and you can really see it’s getting a lot better. We’ve started to off-load and play with high tempo, which is great for someone like me who wants to play that way, as well as the other back-three players.”
Dotting down tries himself is merely a pleasant bonus, although his 45 tries in 149 Premiership appearances compares well with Alex Goode’s total of 11 in 100 league games for Saracens and Ben Foden’s 31 in 134 for Northampton.
Since his earliest days at Salisbury RFC, the club which has also produced two Richard Hills, Dave Egerton, the Scotland outhalf Tom Heathcote and London Irish’s Tom Homer, what has always mattered most of all is winning, regardless of the jersey he is wearing.
His spiky on-field persona may also reflect the struggles he has endured off it, from his parents’ separation when he was 12 to his father’s ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis, but at heart he has never changed. Losing hurts deeply. “Whenever you lose it’s a bad memory, a scar you want to put right.
‘Losing hurts a lot’
“I do enjoy the wins, obviously, but losing hurts a lot. Like the France game . . . it was massively frustrating to lose in the way we did. Things like that niggle away. It’s about how you react to those losses that defines you as a team. As long as we keep reacting in a positive way, hopefully there won’t be too many of them.”
It explains why he is more inclined “to look at the little mistakes you make before you look at the good stuff you did”.It has also enabled him to ignore knocks or illnesses which would floor others, as was the case last weekend.
“It wasn’t too bad before the game, although I didn’t sleep too great. It was worse at half-time . . . trying to get going for the second half was tough. My legs were quite stiff, my back was stiffening up and feeling sensitive and my hips were hurting. But I wouldn’t have not gone out.”
Heading to Twickenham in the coming weeks will be the Lions’ fullbacks Rob Kearney and Halfpenny, as good in certain aspects of the game as any fullback their countries have ever produced. Neither Ireland or Wales, even so, will be taking the in-form Brown lightly. –