We Need to Talk about Mike Brown
Eddie Jones has taken us into to the tragicomedy of the Great One. Hamlet, to be precise. While the fallow week has allowed this low-rent play to quickly disappear from view, the choice to produce it at all is unfortunate. Both England and Jones would benefit from better.
Mike Brown is a fine professional rugby player. From 2012 through 2015, he was excellent on a consistent basis. He has been a loyal servant of English rugby. He has displayed staying power and is one of England’s senior players. By most accounts Brown is a leader among his teammates and vocal in demanding excellence. He despises losing at a level one could term psychotic.
His contributions are valued by Eddie Jones and help England a great deal. Brown is genuinely capable of earning his spot in Japan. I can envision worse outcomes for England going into the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
[Thou] “doth protest too much, methinks.”
Only a few short years ago, Jones the pundit had plenty to say about Chris Robshaw. Yet Jones the coach is hostile to any questions on Brown. While he is perfectly entitled to stand up for his players, his approach is unfortunate because we should talk about Mike Brown.
The questions being asked on Brown are legitimate, even after his strong game against poor Welsh kicking. England need options in the back, and asking if others merit a chance is not out of bounds or disrespectful. Stuart Barnes did just that, though I was unpersuaded Brown is the clear best choice going up against the All Blacks and into the World Cup.
Brown is the only specialist fullback Jones has in the current squad, with Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell, and Johnny May comprising the other back three options. Both Watson and Daly are legitimate options at fullback. Watson has had a few run-outs in the past year, including with the Lions. Nowell also would be a good prospect, and Alex Lozowski has shown promise. None are getting a serious audition, though, which undermines England in its World Cup preparations. Each combination offers relative strengths, and England deserve more intentional exploration of how each could perform. Until they play more, we cannot gauge their potential at fullback. Brown’s inconsistent form makes real competition even more essential.
Modern rugby union demands depth in all positions. While there is merit in stability, such stability has to be tempered by a constant push to improve. England under Jones are refusing to do the same. England want to field the best overall team, but finding that team is hard if some positions remain unchallenged.
What would be a fair rating for Mike Brown?
Brown is not on a short list for a World XV fullback. He was not in 2014, when at his best and the Six Nations Player of the Tournament. The list of fullbacks ahead of him include Ben Smith, Israel Folau, Liam Williams, Stuart Hogg, Israel Dagg, and possibly Leigh Halfpenny. Which back three players for England were selected for the Lions? Watson, Nowell, Daly. Even in 2013, when Brown was in full flourish, did he go to the Lions? No, no he did not.
Brown is safe under the high ball, and brave and intelligent in defense. He is lauded for counterattacking, though that highlights a very real weakness in his passing game, which is that he doesn’t appear to have one. An attacking fullback needs to present a creative threat and do more than come into the line. His strengths do not distinguish him among test-level fullbacks, certainly not to the degree his spiky attitude does.
Can we acknowledge, though, that he acts like an asshole on the pitch? Brown never resists the impulse to mouth off. He chose to celebrate Sam Underhill’s wonderful play by mouthing off in Scott Williams’ face. Brown carries himself like the kind of kid we were taught (or learned) to stay away from, so as not to get too close to the short fuse he always welcomes having lit. His posture is basically “I am ready to throw down” at all times. Pundits (and others?) give Brown way too much credit for this, as if players must act like shits if we are to see them as fierce competitors. This form of leadership is neither exceptional or aspirational.
Come November, Mike Brown will not be a player who offers England an advantage versus his counterpart for the All Blacks. This situation will hold true no matter who the All Blacks have at fullback. By not taking every opportunity to see how to upgrade the squad, Jones is undermining his own mission statement. Is it fair to ask questions about his place on the team? Yes, yes it is.