NINE years and 60 caps into his Scotland career, Kelly Brown has long been one of the most dependable and experienced members of the national side.
But there are also a couple of respects in which the 31-year-old has until recently been a relative novice, and in which we could see him graduate with honours in this Six Nations Championship.
One is the captaincy. Brown never expected the honour, and perhaps took some time to settle into the role, but is now sure he can carry out his additional duties effectively.
The other is his position, openside flanker. Not a blindside, not a No 8, not a versatile back-row man who could even at a push play at lock. But a 7, pure and simple, and therefore the potential answer to a problem that has dogged Scotland for the last couple of seasons at least.
Brown may not seem a natural openside flanker, and certainly feels he was not an obvious choice as captain. But in both cases, that choice has been made by head coach Scott Johnson, and is a huge vote of confidence in a player who has never been one to talk up his own virtues.
“It’s a huge honour,” Brown said yesterday of being confirmed as captain. “It’s very special and I’ll never take it for granted. It’s the sort of thing that as a child I always thought would be great, but I never thought I’d get to do it because I stammered and all this sort of stuff. To actually do it is almost more than a childhood dream.
“Yeah, I think as you do it more you gain more experience and figure out what things work and what things don’t. I feel I’ve improved. I know I’ve got a long way to go, but I definitely feel I’m improving all the time.”
Rather than take the credit for that improvement, the Saracens forward explained that he had consulted a number of others about how best to function as captain, among them several of his predecessors as leaders of the national team. “Before the Six Nations last year I made a lot of phone calls. I spoke to lots of guys.
“At Sarries we have Steve Borthwick and John Smit; and I spoke to Jason White, PC Brown and Jim Telfer and all these sorts of guys. You just ask them what they think and what they experienced. It’s great to speak to them because you pick up little bits of knowledge that you can use.
“It’s pretty intense [speaking to Telfer]. It took me back to being a schoolboy, just sitting there when Jim was talking to me. Obviously he’s a Melrose man, he’s someone I’ve looked up to all of my life, and I massively respect what he’s got to say.
“I had a chat with Jason yesterday. And I speak with Steve when I’m at Sarries – I’ll speak to him almost every day. It’s not specifically about captaincy, but we just chat and you’ll pick up little bits and pieces.” Those bits and pieces, he added, were very different from man to man. There is no set formula for being a successful skipper, with no two captains offering anything like the same advice.
“No, no. It’s very, very different. I think ultimately you’ve got to lead as yourself.
“You can’t try and say ‘Okay, I’m going to be exactly like him or him’. That’s what I try and do, but I also try and take the best bits from each of these characters.
“I think [the best piece of advice is] got to be you’ve got to play well. Players want to follow a leader who is playing well and doing the dirty work. Who is not asking them to do things that he wouldn’t do himself. That’s the foundation, then there are all the layers on top of that.”
Brown should certainly be helped to play well by Johnson’s clear definition of him as an openside. In an emergency he can move across the back row, but, with Johnnie Beattie on the bench, such a switch will be far from the coach’s first option. Indeed, as things stand it is plausible that, fitness permitting, Brown will remain in the No 7 jersey and as captain throughout the Championship.
“He [Johnson] spoke to me on the Tuesday and said ‘I see you as a 7, and if you’re in the team you’ll be the captain’. It’s very simple. It’s just up to me to make sure I play as well as I can, and it’s up to the coaches to choose the team.”
Having been chosen, Brown knows his task now is to play a leading role as the team try to build on a 2013 campaign in which they surprised many by ending up ahead of not only Italy, but also Ireland and France. “We finished third last year, which was great – it was our best finish in quite a number of years. But it’s about making sure that we not only keep on improving, but are slightly more consistent.
“What’s exciting over the past year is the number of guys that have not only got a chance, but have taken it – which is great. We’ve got a lot more strength in depth now, which is only a good thing for Scottish rugby.”
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE