Mike Brown is a bruising, brawling snarler - and perfect for the Lions

Will Greenwood
Mike Brown does not shy away from confrontation - AP

Mike Brown usually looks as if he is seconds away from punching you in the face. It is the combination of the shorn head, the swagger and the “please-don’t-sit-next-to-me- nutter” stare. 

I have known him since his Quins academy days. He did not back down then, and he does not shy away from confrontation today. That means I have often overlooked his strengths, and have preferred to focus on other more elegant players such as Alex Goode, Anthony Watson, and even Elliot Daly at full-back. 

There are plenty of critics happy to line up and hammer Brown for what he does not do, rather than applaud him for what he brings. True, his reputation was scarred in 2013 when he found himself on the left wing in the disaster of Cardiff. But since then, he has barely put a foot wrong. When Brown plays, England don't tend to lose. 

If you put that in the context of the Six Nations, he is almost invincible. His track record over the past three years, until Dublin last month, was unblemished. The losses, when they came, never took place on his watch, and that is tough to argue with. Which is funny because Brown is very easy to argue with. 

In his early days he could pick a fight with the wallpaper. But most of his remonstrations are in dead time. The whistle has gone, with no real impact on the game, and tends to result in aggravating the opposition and inciting choice words from opposition fans on social media. I do not want to get drawn too much on whether or not I like this aspect of his play. Suffice to say it is not my style. Each to their own. 

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Instead, I want to talk about his rugby. Stuart Hogg gets all the attacking plaudits; Leigh Halfpenny is seen as the master points machine; Rob Kearney produces arcing runs and aerial acrobatics. Brown’s strengths lie in his defensive excellence and backfield mastery, which is a lot less headline grabbing. As a result, I want to go on record stating that - even allowing for the talent that I just named - it would be a crime if Brown did not get a shot at New Zealand for the Lions. 

Brown's biggest issue when the squad is announced next Wednesday will be his lack of connectivity with other members of his back line. What do I mean by this? I am talking about his contribution to the flow of a back line. When the All Blacks are at their aesthetic best, Ben Smith or Israel Dagg join the line from full-back with grace, balance and an ability to run an outside arc, taking on defenders, or deliver fizzing passes off either hand to the flyers outside them, cutting out the defenders completely. The whole time this is happening, they are maintaining a real individual threat themselves, always threatening that they will keep hold of the ball and rinse a weak defender. 

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Brown is not top of the class here. The ball may start in two hands but it rarely brings others players into the game. And yet, when you look at this weakness, it is also his strength. By not being a distributor he needs to focus on being a yard-gain provider. Fun fact - Brown was the leading yardage maker of the Six Nations. Going forward is what he does, and that is the sole purpose of the game of rugby. 

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There are others that are more balletic, more stylish, which is nice. Brown grits his teeth and drops his head, providing effective ball control, ball maintenance, and tough yards. So if that is his worst crime, I have also come to admire his ability to recognise his strengths and his understanding of how best to contribute to the side he is playing in. And it is these strengths that you need on a plane to New Zealand. 

In terms of aerial control, he rarely spills a ball. He is in total control, with no one in his side ever in any doubt about who is coming forward to claim the ball, rising high, knees first, and immediately taking the attack back to the opposition. Brown kicks the ball like a mule as well. He has a huge left foot, supremely accurate down a narrow channel, and this is not to be underestimated when you think of the role Jonathan Davies' left peg had in the third Lions test in Australia 2013. 

Brown patrols the backfield like a guard dog, barking orders, filling the huge expanse of field with his authority and knowledge of likely scenarios and kicks. He pulls his wingers around the pitch with him to make sure there is no easy yardage or territory offered up, and heaven help you if you make a one-on-one bust. 

I cannot ignore the one tackle he missed in the Italy game, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Runners who break the English defensive line find themselves faced with a Tommy Lee Jones-style character from The Fugitive. Brown will find his man, floor him, and before the support arrives, more often than not, be back on his feet and either turn the ball over or win a penalty. 

These moments of brilliance should be applauded as much as any Stuart Hogg try, George North charge, or CJ Stander carry. We often overlook these basics and assume everyone can do them; they can’t. 

Brown is also resilient. He has heard all the sledging before, the bumping on the rugby field, or shirt holding. He takes everything personally. But that is what gives him is totally uncompromising nature. Peter Schmeichel used to strike fear into opposition strikers, and they were terrified of being left in a one-on-one situation with him, psychologically pushing it wide before they even cocked their leg. 

Imagine what Schmeichel would have done to his opponents if he could have smashed them in the ribs as well. That is what Brown does, but he is also very much more than a one trick pony. To get Brown’s real value, do not count how many passes he fails to make; count every inch he wins, every high ball he takes, every turnover he snaffles, every tackler he hurts. 

New Zealand will not be an easy place to tour as a Lion. Players need to be ready for a relentless onslaught both physically and verbally from the All Black team, the press and their supporters. If anyone was built for that, and would probably enjoy it, it is Mike Brown. Rate him or hate him, I would want him with me in New Zealand.

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