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FEATURE Rudi Brown: From cut and clubless in Scotland to the Top 14

Rudi Brown: From cut and clubless in Scotland to the Top 14
1 week ago

Rudi Brown had two options: wallow as his rugby dream faded, or power through the adversity and find another route to the top. Back in early 2023, the talented back-row was called into the Edinburgh offices and told he would be released at the end of the season. Brown was 19, a key member of the national Under-20s team, impressive performer in the semi-professional Super Series and generally regarded as a young man going places. As far as Edinburgh were concerned, the only place he was heading was the exit door.

“I had a meeting with [former head coach] Mike Blair and [then academy coach] Rob Chrystie and they told me I wasn’t a stand-out ball-carrier, and that’s what they were looking for if they were going to promote a back-row from the academy. It was a kick in the teeth. I pride myself on my ball-carrying.

Rudi Brown played for Scotland Under-20s during last year’s Six Nations campaign, scoring three tries (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“When you’re in Scotland – and I see it with other boys – you think the only way is Glasgow or Edinburgh, and I was definitely in that mentality thinking the only way to succeed is to play for Edinburgh. So I thought, ‘f**k, it’s done, if the Edinburgh coach doesn’t think I’m good enough that’s it’.

“But I did the right thing. I looked elsewhere and managed to get something. I worked on my ball-carrying and I think I’ve had a really good season. Yeah, I was gutted, but I’ve landed on my feet and kept going.”

The ‘something’ turned out to be an intoxicating jaunt to northwest France. Vannes have just become the first Brittany club to win promotion to the Top 14, sparking wild celebrations in the little medieval commune and offering Brown a tantalising crack at rugby’s biggest and most lucrative league next season. Still just 20, he has yet to feature for the first team, instead earning plaudits as captain of the the espoirs (academy) side.

“I noticed straight away how involved the area is in rugby,” he says. “If you wear your Vannes top down the street people are stopping you, trying to buy you drinks and stuff like that. Such a different atmosphere. I began with the espoirs, got a few games under my belt, and was soon playing 80 minutes every weekend. In Scotland with the Super Series, you’d play one week, then get held in with Edinburgh, you go back to Super Series and maybe you’re not starting because you missed training.

“Here the espoirs are really involved and it’s exactly the same system as the pros. So I’ll train with the pros, go back to the espoirs and slot straight back in for the game on the weekend.”

Mike Blair has described how he wrestled with these decisions over player contracts and the burden of breaking such grim news to those affected. Scottish Rugby has only two professional teams, each laden with Test campaigners, and opportunities for meaningful game time is often fleeting for those emerging from its pathways. The Under-20s are habitually whacked by their Six Nations rivals and though this is neither a new phenomenon nor, necessarily, a cause for mass panic, it has prompted the union to scrap the Super Series competition and seek an alternative which better prepares its young talent to step up. Across the board, it is accepted that while Scotland produces fine rugby players, it needs to develop them quicker, and in greater numbers.

Take Ben Afshar, Brown’s long-time colleague at Merchiston Castle School, the Southern Knights and Scotland age-grades. A scrum-half, Afshar benefited from injuries to George Horne and Jamie Dobie and a loan move for Ali Price, and wound up playing eight times for Glasgow this year. From their 2023 Six Nations crop, only Afshar, Duncan Munn (11 minutes), Ruaraidh Hart (four minutes) and Brown (17 minutes) have featured for either pro-team.

“Since there are only two teams, a bit of luck comes in,” Brown says. “Ben is an awesome player. If he was in any other country you’d be seeing him a lot more often. The same with a lot of players in Scotland. But there are not that many chances because we just have those two teams.

“When you’re training with the U20s you’re like, ‘we’ve got a really good team, we can do well’. You can put us all in great training environments with the best coaches but if we’re not playing… it’s all about how good you are at rugby, not how well you train. That’s the problem.

“There are loads of players in the U20s teams who just don’t play enough – never mind whether it’s at Super Series level, just getting minutes. When I played for the U20s I was getting the worst cramp every game because I’d never played that long or at that intensity and I think a lot of players get the same problem. I don’t know what the solution would be. But there’s not enough game time, nor quality of games.”

Scotland’s U20 players struggle to match their rivals, such as Ireland, in the annual Six Nations tournaments (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The hope is, whatever replaces the Super Series provides enough intense match exposure to negate any need for players to look elsewhere. But if not, Brown hopes others are inspired by his path. His time with Vannes has been hugely enriching; it has shaped him as a man as much as a rugby player.

“We’ve seen leaving and going to a different place does work. If you’re not playing with the pros in France, you play with the espoirs, and you are playing every weekend. I actually think that will benefit Scotland – players in the academy system who are not playing, let them go away and get some game time.

“The French do it completely differently. It’s more individualised. I can play at whatever weight I want as long as I’m not too fat or too light. I’m learning bits off the South African coach we have here, other bits off the French boys. I’m becoming a more rounded player, and I’m playing 80 minutes every week comfortably, with more intensity.

“As a person I’m so glad I did it. I didn’t actually finish school – I left at 16. Going to France I’ve been given a whole new opportunity. I’ve just sat an exam to get a diploma in French. I should be able to study in France next year which the club will pay for so I can do university and pro rugby at the same time. I used to hate learning, whereas now I’m challenging myself and I’m really competitive with my learning which is great.”

Brown has not had word from back home since crossing the Channel, but he may have the chance to provide a very visceral reminder of his talents shortly, since Vannes have been drawn in Edinburgh’s Challenge Cup pool.

“Hopefully I’ll be picked against Edinburgh and can show them that, yeah, I was told that about my ball-carrying, but I’ve found a good place and kicked on. Oh, 100% – it put a big smile on my face when I saw the draw.”

Between now and then, there’s a quest for Top 14 action. The list of burgeoning Scots to be trusted at this level is vanishingly small. From being clubless and afraid a year ago, today Brown is gunning for a place in a league the envy of the rugby world.

“The coaches want me to have a bigger involvement with the pro team. I’m hoping there’s an opportunity to play Top 14 at the beginning of the season. I’m already training hard. My plan is to hit the ground running, get picked and make the case that if you pick me, you can’t drop me. I’m going to give it everything because I think I’m ready, and I’m ready to show everyone that.”


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1 Comment
Ed the Duck 12 days ago

Great to see a young talent take the disappointment in his stride and move forward regardless. Fantastic example for others to follow and he makes some real interesting points about developing young talent in Scotland. Then again Scottish rugby have always been a bunch of muppets…

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