Last week the former Melrose man Kelly Brown announced his plans to retire at the end of the season and take up a coaching position with the Saracens Academy. Is it just me or was it approximately a week past Wednesday that the young breakaway first broke through at the Greenyards? He always seemed destined for great things and he didn’t disappoint.
Brown’s career includes Calcutta Cup wins, finishing third in the Six Nations, helping Saracens to three Premiership titles and one Champions Cup (and counting) and, perhaps the highlight of them all, captaining Scotland, one ambition he never expected to fulfil for very personal reasons.
“Looking back as a kid I never really thought it was something I could do,” says Brown as he contemplates the end of the road. “ I always felt that I could play for Scotland but as a consequence of my speech I never even thought I could be Scotland captain so that was one of the highlights.”
Brown references his stutter which, incidentally, is much improved and at times in our conversation disappears altogether. The flanker is now 34 years old but has been lucky with injury for the most part and he feels physically capable of playing on for another season or two so why stop now?
“I am still in good shape but I was offered an opportunity coaching with Sarries but I would have had to leave [to continue playing] and there’s a good chance that in a season or two I’d have been in the same situation. For me it’s the right time, I have had a fairly good stint and been fortunate with injuries so in one sense I am sad it’s over but in another I am excited about the future.
“I think it [Saracens Academy] is a good place to start. Ultimately I want to coach to the highest possible level that I can but I am very aware that I am only just starting out and I have a lot to learn.
“I always had a sense that I might like coaching but I wasn’t sure. Over the last two seasons I have done a fair bit of coaching. Last season I coached the Royal Navy and a club in St Albans and this season I have been 50-50, a part-time player and a part-time academy coach, and it’s something I have enjoyed. It was really last season that I thought that this is what I want to do.”
Brown has been lucky to have been coached by some of the best. His career started at the Border Reivers under Steve Bates, he was Andy Robinson’s choice as Scotland skipper, he played for Sean Lineen at Glasgow and the Ulsterman Mark McCall at Saracens. The breakaway insists that he will take snippets from everyone he has worked under but if there was just one coach he could emulate it would be South African Brendan Venter, formerly of Saracens, now with Italy.
“It’s just the pure conviction with which he coached, you couldn’t fail as a player to be swept along by his enthusiasm,” Brown added.
His move to Saracens in 2010 was an audacious and entirely unexpected move. It also proved the making of him as he jumped from a successful team to the club that currently sits at the very pinnacle of the club game in Europe. Brown landed on his feet but reveals that he almost did a U-turn at Gretna after suffering second thoughts.
“It was very much a turning point for me,” says Brown. “I loved my time in Glasgow, there was a fantastic culture and I very much enjoyed it. I was thinking about Saracens but as it came down to it I was getting slightly cold feet, saying to myself ‘it’s a big old change’. And actually it was my wife who said to me, ‘this is a chance to step up and challenge yourself’, and she was absolutely right.
“I think that at that stage of my career I needed a change, I needed to experience something different. I was very fortunate that a club like Saracens wanted to have me.”
You imagine that Saracens would return the compliment since Brown has repaid their faith with 101 league appearances over the term plus another 77 in Europe.
He may or may not be involved in next Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Munster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin but it remains a mouthwatering tie, worthy of the final itself. The question on everyone’s mind is can Saracens succeed where Eddie Jones’ England failed?
“It’s going to be a cracker at the Aviva,” agrees Brown. “ It’s still a home game for them. For the whole season they have been looking very, very strong. With the added emotion after the passing of Anthony Foley and it seems to have inspired them. It’s inspired the players and it’s inspired the fans and you get the sense that they think it’s their season, that they want to win it for him. We understand that and it’s going to be tough but we as a group do enjoy that challenge and we have a lot of good players within the group.
“We will go over there with a plan and let’s see what happens. We fully understand that we are stepping into the lion’s den but, in a funny way, we kind of like that.”