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'Do I have to say I like the surface because I play on it?'

By Liam Heagney

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Mike Brown was full of devilment this week at his first media assignment as a Newcastle player, especially when it was the turn of RugbyPass to ask some questions. What is it like working again with Dean Richards? “I never see him, he is always out fishing. If you do see him let me know.”

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Has what Richards told Brown about life in the north of England before he signed stood up to scrutiny? “No, he told me it was 30-degree heat all year round…”

What is it like doing some media work, especially writing player ratings where a low number can infuriate guys he might have to play against? “I don’t have many friends so it doesn’t really matter if they don’t like it. I’m joking, I do have some friends I think.”

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Mike Brown and Matt Dawson on their favourite rugby memories
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Mike Brown and Matt Dawson on their favourite rugby memories

We’ll focus first, though, on an issue made topical this week by World Rugby. Amid concerns over abrasions on artificial surfaces, the game’s governing body gave the go-ahead for players to wear tights or leggings as a preventative measure. Given that the ground at Newcastle has a synthetic surface, has Brown anything to report from the Falcons’ inner sanctum?  

“Can you imagine the northern guys here wearing leggings! It’s not been spoken about. You can’t be wearing leggings. Surely not? Maybe I am too old school. I’m not going to be wearing leggings and I can’t imagine a lot of other lads will be… Maybe Radders [Adam Radwan] will be wearing some.”

Seriously, though, having forged a stellar career on supreme grass surfaces at rugby cathedrals such as The Stoop and Twickenham, it must be a leap for the 36-year-old to suddenly adjust to training and playing on the Kingston Park synthetic surface? Cue hesitation, Brown leaning back in his chair, turning his head to the side and asking an adjacent Newcastle media handler: “Do I have to say I like the surface because I play on it? 

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“Look, if I am honest I don’t really like the surface but it is what it is. Clubs have it for certain reasons which you can understand, maintenance of the pitch, the community side, all of those things which I get and it is what it is, so you have to adapt. The good thing here is we train on this pitch all week and for me being the age I am and the knee surgery that I had a couple of years ago means that if I try to change between surfaces then that would be a problem.

“But because we are on here the whole time all week and we don’t change the surfaces, I have been absolutely fine. It does take a little more out of your body but, as I said, it is what it is. You have to adapt, don’t you? I have yet to play on a normal pitch since I got banned (at Harlequins), so it is a long time and I am quite looking forward to going on a normal pitch. But I am just looking forward to running out at KP this weekend because I have not done it yet in the black jersey, so I am desperate to do that.”

It was early April, following months of speculation that he was bound for Newcastle, when it was confirmed that Brown would indeed be leaving Harlequins, the club he first played for in the Premiership in October 2006. The parting sucked. He said so at the time, criticising the Londoners for the way his long stay there was terminated by an apparently brief discussion. 

Then came his red card shocker the following month which resulted in the suspension that meant he was left watching from the stands when Harlequins won their second-ever Premiership title. It’s all past tense now, however. “Sport moves on quick, life moves on quick. It happens. There are worse things happening in life than what happened to me. 

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“At that moment in time it was devastating but as you sit back and take yourself out of it you put it to the back of your mind and see it for what it is and lucky I had this new challenge to look forward to and look ahead to and get my head around. It was just focusing on that and the moving, everything that goes with that once that ban happened. It was devastating at the time but life goes on.”

It sure has. Brown is chuffed with his newfound freedom in Newcastle. He doesn’t say the northeast is better than what he knew living in London, just that it is reassuringly different and he is embracing all that this brings. “It is very different to my old club, quite different living up here than in London. I don’t know if it is better or anything like that, it’s just been good to have a change. Enjoying the change, enjoying the new environment, new players, new characters, different styles of play. It has been good.

“There is definitely not as much traffic. Everything seems to be ten minutes away so getting loads more done in the day and the family enjoy it. Ten minutes and you are on the coast, ten minutes you are in town or in the country as well, so I’m enjoying it.”

The first day at Newcastle, though, was understandably weird for Brown. “It was a bit like the first day back at school, not really sure where I was supposed to go, not really sure what I was supposed to be doing, not knowing everyone’s name, trying to learn 50 names and then you get calls and schedules chucked at you, different ways of doing things, trying to find your way around the stadium, what rooms are what, things like that, learning stuff, staff names. I guess the best way to describe it was the first day at school. It was interesting.

“I was lucky that a couple of ex-Quins lads had joined as well, George Merrick, Nathan Earle. You gravitate towards them first and I knew Mark Wilson from England. You gravitate towards those guys and slowly work out from there the group you are going to be in, people’s names and all that sort of thing and do your best from there.”

That initial awkwardness aside, the ex-England full-back has been putting his treasure trove over rugby experience to good use. “One of the things I wanted to do moving clubs was to contribute way more off the field. When you are at one place for a large amount of time you are just seen as that guy who has come through the academy, seen a certain way. 

“I don’t think people take into account as much the growth you have made as a person, as a player, things like that. So coming into an environment where no one really knows exactly what you are like I was just really keen to be a leader as much as possible, use my experience, contribute as much as I could off the field and I have done that. 

“You’ll have to ask the players, ask the coaches if I have done that but that is what I have tried to do, lead meetings way more than I did before, speak way more than I did before, really embrace that side. It’s something I want to work on for when I transition out of the game in a few years into certain roles. That is something I wanted to work on, leadership and things like that and speaking to people in different ways and using different methods.”

While the arrival of Brown at Newcastle generated its fair share of headlines, a fair few more have been instigated by the burgeoning talent that is Adam Radwan, the winger who scored a hat-trick on his England debut last July. “He’s an interesting character, kind of like Jonny May. These fast wingers seem to have very different characters from other people. 

“He’s a top guy. He takes every bit of advice and assistance that he can take on board from all players. He’s a hell of an athlete so all I have to do is catch the ball and give it to him and let him do his magic. He is a special talent and has got way more in him in terms of potential. If he keeps his head down and keeps producing, keeps working hard at his game, I can see him being a superstar on the wing. I’ve no doubt about that.”

Who would Brown fancy in a Radwan versus May sprint? “Adam is the fastest but the most random would still be Jonny May. I don’t think anyone in my life will ever beat Jonny May in terms of things I have seen him do.”

We’ll finish up back where we started with Brown, the revived Richards link, the Newcastle vision that his old Harlequins coach sold him, and breaking into the media while still a player rather than someone who has stepped away from the game and has a bit of distance from those he is running his critical eye over. 

“Dean has actually probably softened a little if I am honest. Hopefully, he doesn’t hear that and then changes but he has softened a little bit since I was a 20-year-old, young academy kid who used to dive out of corridors into whichever room was open and try to get out of the way of big Dean Richards. He has softened a little bit but the job he is doing here with what he has got to work with is incredible. It’s great to be back with him, work with him and learn from him as well. He is good.  

“How he put it to me was players with loads of potential. Newcastle haven’t got the all-singing, all-dancing facilities that some people do and they have the long bus trips that other people don’t have to do, they have the brutal winters to deal with and all of that sort of thing, but you can use those things as a strength. 

“The surrounding areas are beautiful, the villages, and there is so much to do with family which is what he said. You have got the countryside, you have got the city, the coast as well. So it is as exactly as he said and it has delivered so far. But like I said, not looking forward to the winter.”

The final word goes to Brown’s fledgling media work. “Look, with my column and ratings, I just try to be as honest as possible. I don’t slam players I don’t think. I try to have a reason for what I am saying if I don’t think they have played as well as they could or if they have played well I have to have a reason for what I have chosen. I am sure some players don’t like it but it is what it is, pays the bills doesn’t it. It’s fine. If they don’t like me because of that then… it is what it is.”


 

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