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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'I was linked to teams as ridiculous as Saracens... none of it was true'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Mike Brown is meticulously applying the finishing touches to his preparations as he gets ready to finally get back to doing what he did on a weekly basis for 17 seasons – playing rugby at the highest level. Not since a March 12 spin for Newcastle versus Saracens has he been in the thick of it but that will change on November 17 – a whopping 36-week gap – when he plays for the Barbarians against Harlequins, the club where he was an emblematic influence ever since a 2005 pre-season debut.

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Life has changed hugely. Brown and his soon-to-expand family have returned to the greater London area following their solitary year up north, he has enrolled in a masters in sporting directorship at Manchester Met University and all the while is still keeping himself fit, relentlessly ensuring he is ready to go immediately should a call come offering a contract to resume playing on a full-time basis.

That trail has been icily cold, though, despite media speculation to the contrary, particularly over the summer months. The 37-year-old could have bluffed when quizzed by RugbyPass about the delicate subject of suddenly being so unwanted as a rugby player who is without a job for the first time since he left school. However, telling fibs was never his style through a stellar 72-cap England career and he wasn’t about to start now for the sake of massaging his ego.

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“No, none at all,” he replied when asked if there genuinely was truth in any of the rumours he was off here, there and everywhere. “There was a period of about four weeks where I was linked to some teams as ridiculous as Saracens. I mean, they would never have picked me up. One because of my stint with Quins and two because they don’t need me.

“There was Sarries, there was Sale, there was Worcester at one point before what happened, happened [the club’s financial collapse], other people like that, and then it was Agen, but I literally haven’t spoken to anyone. None of them are true, unfortunately. I’m still waiting if one comes but it’s more working towards my transition and then whichever opportunity comes first, if it fits then that is what I will take.”

Team environment training had been his way of life but that was gone as soon as he exited the Falcons. It meant going solo over the summer at Cobham to keep the lungs bursting and the legs agile to ensure he is ready if someone does reach out with an offer in an extraordinary time for the sport in England with two clubs bust and the reduced salary cap biting hard.

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“I still do the running sessions and I’m lucky to have a bit of a gym set up at home, so I have got no excuses,” explained Brown. “I have been on top of all that but I would still do that if I wasn’t a rugby player because I know how important it is to have a healthy living and mindset lifestyle.

“I also believe that if I want to stay in elite sport I need to show athletes or people to be a certain way. I’ll stay on top because if that call does come… Since I left Newcastle I was doing stuff in the summer with Danny Care when he was getting ready to get back into pre-season and Niall Saunders, an ex-Quins teammate who left to play for Tel Aviv.

“I continued to run on my own but that became a bit bleak so I took it more into the gym fitness. But in the last few weeks, I have picked up the running stuff and gone back to seeing (sprint coach) Margot Wells again because I’m going to play for the Barbarians against Quins and Bath in a couple of weeks, so I have picked up training again so that I’m sharp, fit and ready to play some rugby.

“I’m ready to go. I was playing every week for Newcastle. Even though it was tough – without going into too much detail, the coaches reverted back to a type that was their way or the highway sort of thing – I was still playing to a decent standard and being able to do it every week so I showed I was still resilient and durable and the good thing is I have had decent rest (since then). I’m well rested so I’m good to go, but we will see how good in a couple of weeks when I hopefully run out for the Barbarians.

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“I know that Quins will be putting out a full-strength team so it won’t be some sort of festival of rugby. It is going to be a proper game of rugby because they are getting ready for fixtures after a couple of down weeks and there will be people like myself who will want to do the best they can for the Barbarians shirt, especially me as it is my first opportunity.”

Being jobless affects people differently. Some who earned their living in the public eye retreat and withdraw from being out and about, but that isn’t Brown. When he chatted with RugbyPass for more than half an hour last Tuesday evening, he was in his car heading south to Worthing, the National Two South club he has been delivering technical advice to following an invite from Jordan Hall-Turner, his 2012 title-winning Harlequins teammate who is the grassroots outfit’s head coach.

“I just help him out, dip in and out of coaching, technical advice, feedback to coaches, things like that. I’ve been there regularly Tuesday and Thursday nights and it’s a great place for people to cut their teeth. For someone like Jordan, it’s a great platform as it is a lot harder down those lower leagues, especially as a coach.

“I’m not that keen on becoming a coach but it is a good insight and understanding of what it takes to be a coach and the support they need. I’m just trying to drive the energy and the standards of the session and give an understanding that what they do in their limited time together on a Tuesday and Thursday night will replicate what they can produce on the field.

“If they get those Tuesday and Thursday nights right and do it with as much intensity and detail as they can, the game looks after itself. You think because they are a few leagues lower down than the Premiership the quality is going to be way off but it really isn’t. They are good-quality players. The difference is the mindset they have but when they get that application right they have good qualities, the same as the top players.”

Does Brown have an example of getting a marginal gain at this level? “We brought music into the warmup just to help pick up the energy and the mood. These guys have been on building sites or sat in offices all day, so anything that can help give a bit of energy before the session.

“That was something I suggested and they have done that the last few weeks. The boys are really liking it, Jordan liked it and it has helped uplift them. Just little things like that, overseeing that side of things. That is kind of what I need to be doing as a sporting director as well.”

It’s a juggling act, though, with Brown trying to keep fit while doing uni, helping out coaching and also networking with a whole host of various people to pick their brains while he transitions from playing rugby professionally into a new career. “It’s alright. Obviously, the cost of living at the moment isn’t great and the uncertainty of where that next money is going to come in to look after the family and stuff and yeah, trying to keep up the eating.

“I’m not one of those guys who is 110/120kgs and eats the house but I still need to keep the weight up. I have a relationship with Pro Athlete Supplementation. Even though I’m not currently a full-time rugby player they look after me in terms of supplements, so I’m very lucky. It’s just eating healthily as I have done throughout my career and taking the right stuff, but the main thing is the cost of living.

“Without regular income coming in and not having a job at the moment and then spending a lot of time on the road when I go to environments and meet people, spending money on petrol, spending money on my masters which is not cheap I can tell you that. When I go to the uni days I have to stay in a hotel in Manchester as it is about four hours, and I can’t do that (drive) a few days on the bounce.

“There are costs with that but I do believe you invest in yourself. I’m trying to be the same way I was in my rugby career as I am in my transition. Financially I have to invest in it like I did in my rugby career if I want to make it a success. That’s probably the main thing with anyone’s transition. It’s just that financial uncertainty which is the main worry for everyone.

“Everyone goes through it at some point in their lives, whether it is straight after uni or later on in their life or they change any job, any industry. That is just what I’m going through at the moment, but I do believe if you keep working hard opportunities will come. So even when I have those low, uncertain moments I keep going back to what I did in my rugby career, investing in it and working hard at it and then the opportunities came. I believe it will be the same with my transition.”

The upside to this waiting game? Having weekends free after a career where everything was dictated towards performing on a Saturday. “Sometimes I do go to Worthing games to help but I have a great time with family. The last couple of birthday parties with my son (Eliza) I had to miss because I was playing, so this year I got to go. I mean, it was carnage and I was exhausted afterwards but it was great.

“It was also his first day at school, he is five and he started in September. That was on a Monday at a certain time when I probably wouldn’t have been able to go (as a player). He starts at quarter-to-nine, the teams I played in were in at eight.., and I pick him up from school at the moment, spend time with him on weekends, help my wife out, and go swimming on the weekends which I’d usually have to miss. All those things.

“Other things I would never get to do usually in a week having to train is spend a couple of hours in the car going to see different people at different sports clubs and connect with different people. I would never have had the time to do all that I have done over the last six months. When I was in Newcastle we had two uni learning days at Manchester every six weeks.

“I would have only been able to go to one of those two days and that makes the learning quite difficult, having to catch up watching videos and stuff whereas now I get to do both days and it’s a lot better. There are all those positives of the situation I’m in, but I also would love, whether it is playing or not playing, to get my teeth into something now.

“You know what it is like when you are a driven individual who is used to working hard towards something, that is what I want to do now, use that drive and hard work for something significant now.”

Brown wouldn’t change much if he had his rugby career over again. “I’m not one for looking back with regret or wanting to change anything. There maybe would have been a time towards the end with England when I would have wanted to be myself a bit more. I withdrew when I was in the environment, wasn’t really myself.

“I just thought that was the best way, to keep my head down and do things, especially when I wasn’t playing and getting picked as much. I thought I would withdraw a bit, keep my head down, keep out of the firing line and just try and keep working hard and get back in. That may have let me down a bit in the end,” he explained before giving his view on the current England setup which picks up the thread with an Autumn Nations Series opener at home to Argentina on Sunday.

“England have got great talent, great strength in depth and that is experience and new players, I just want to see more consistency in their performance and if they are going to get consistency in performance they need consistency in deciding exactly how they want to play, their playing style and being really world-class at that. Then also the consistency of selection because there are still too many changes.

“A year out (from RWC 2023), I believe Eddie needs to nail down how he wants to play, nail down pretty much his starting XV or at least his 23, 30-ish players. You will get a couple of bolters in the last year that will push their way in or people may drop out through injury but there is still way too much change in selection for me.

“It’s things like Danny Care. We all know what he can do and he does it to a world-class standard, but taking him to Australia and then whipping him off halfway through a game and then he is not even in the squad now, it’s like, ‘What was the point? He is not going to do anything different that Eddie didn’t already know’. Just things like that and nailing down those people that are going to play the way he wants them to play, that will help the performance.”

When Brown does officially retire, how would he like to be remembered? “I always wanted to show passion, commitment, hard work, resilience, never say die, all those things I would want to see if someone pulled on a Quins or England shirt and I was sat in the stand watching.

“I always wanted to show that whether we won, lost or drew. If I was having a bad or good game there were things that I hold in high value that I would always show in the shirt, never giving up so if someone could say I showed those values for the team then you can’t be far off having a good career.”

Brown certainly did. So much so that when asked to nominate his favourite ever game, his answer is three-fold: the 2012 Premiership final win with Harlequins, the 2016 Grand Slam success with England, and his 300th club game running out under the lights at The Stoop with his son. “It shows how lucky I have been with the career I have had,” he beamed, delighted with his vibrant selection of match high points.

We’ll end with his funniest moment, playing Toulon away during the French club’s galactico era and skipper George Robson walks tipping over in the corridor, leaving his Harlequins team laughing their heads off as kick-off approached. “He gives this huge inspirational speech, trying to get us fired up because everyone is a bit flat, we’d been eating baguettes all day in France and the travel.

“French changing rooms always seem to have this slippy surface, he walks out, the live TV cameras are there, the lads who are subs and the staff are lining the corridor clapping us out and we just see George Robson, 6ft 4, supposed to be our talisman, our leader for the day literally absolutely stack it like Bambi on ice, falls over and the guys directly behind him in the tunnel are now pissing themselves laughing.

“The best thing was it was live on TV so that is now on YouTube forever, which is amazing. But also Joe Gray got a picture from the TV of the exact moment when he is slipping, with his face and the lads laughing, and put it on t-shirts and posters that went up all over the training ground in Guildford. That was hilarious. If it was going to happen to anyone it was best it happened to George Robson because he was a bit gobby. That made me laugh.”

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