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'Smoked by Burger and de Villiers': The England debut from hell

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Mike Brown has painfully recalled his hellish England Test debut 15 years ago as a wide-eyed 21-year-old on the receiving end of a 58-10 trouncing by the Springboks in Bloemfontein. With Leicester and Wasps contesting the Heineken Cup final just six days earlier, coach Brian Ashton sent a youthful XV into battle in South Africa that contained five debutants. 

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The outcome, understandably, was rather bruising. The Springboks enjoyed a seven tries to one victory that they stretched out to an eight tries to one success the following weekend in their 55-22 second Test win in Pretoria – another match where Brown was the starting England No15. 

It was a damaging introduction to the requirements of Test match rugby for the rookie as Brown had to wait a full twelve months before he was capped again. However, looking back now as a 36-year-old on what unfolded, he reckons that the South African tour was the making of the international career where he went on to win a total of 72 caps.

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Mike Brown | Rugby Roots
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Mike Brown | Rugby Roots

Brown pulled no punches in his Rugby Roots appearance with Jim Hamilton on RugbyPass when recounting his baptism of fire with England which left him waiting until Martin Johnson’s first summer tour in charge in 2008 before he was recalled to the set-up. 

“It was an absolute tour of hell,” said Brown, recounting his England introduction. “Back then it a lot of Leicester and Wasps players who were in the England set-up, and especially in the forwards. We were missing a load so we were already at a disadvantage (before we left for South Africa) and we were playing the team that went on to win the World Cup.

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“They were quality at the time and a load of new guys like myself were in getting debuts. To add more hell to it, we all had food poisoning – David Strettle was in the hospital with food poisoning. It was bad. He got found on his bathroom floor gasping for air, kind of being sick as well by the doctor and ended up in hospital. That was just before the first Test. 

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“It was quite bad and I ended up getting it a day before the first Test as well, it was my first game and I felt awful. I was dry retching on the field on occasions. Phil Pask, the physio, reminds me of coming on at one point after I had been smoked by (Schalk) Burger and (Jean) de Villiers trying to run a short line which worked during the Premiership season but didn’t work at that level. 

“Absolutely smoked. He [Pask] always reminds me of the moment he comes on, peeling me off the turf and I’m dry retching and he is trying to get me back in the game. This is Test match proper rugby now, welcome. It was tough and we got absolutely battered because they were on a way different level to us. It was a tough introduction to international rugby. I just about managed to be fit for the second Test but that pretty much went the same sort of way. They battered us again and that was my first couple of introductions to Test rugby on the tour of hell.”

Despite the pain at the time, the bruising introduction stood to Brown and his determination to bounce back and make it with England. “It was a good eye-opener on what I had to do to get to the level if I wanted to get back there, just reading of the game, high ball skills, being able to cope with the pressure, skills under pressure, just how quickly everything moves, how strong everyone is, how gaps that would be there normally in the Premiership like the one between de Villiers and Burger close very quickly when you try and run them.

“Everything just moves quicker and it’s a lot harder, the speed of the game is a lot higher so it was just an eye-opener to that. It was perfect for my development, thinking I was good enough for that level and I definitely wasn’t. It was a good learning experience anyway.”

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