THE role of Scotland captain has taken on a new transient nature recently but, having regained it, Kelly Brown insists that he suffered no mental scarring by having it swiftly taken from him.
Brown has seen many things in a career stretching back 13 years to his early days at Melrose and with his first professional team, the Borders, which was disbanded as the flanker shifted to Glasgow. He flourished under Sean Lineen at the Warriors and has become one of the stand-out performers in the Aviva Premiership with Saracens, so much so that there was an outcry south of the border when the 31-year-old was dropped by interim Scotland head coach Scott Johnson after the opening Six Nations defeat by Ireland.
Johnson insisted this week that he had explained to Brown that he would not be retained as skipper if his performance level dropped. Now, with new cap Chris Fusaro having played well but not done anything to suggest he was a better bet than the Borderer at openside flanker, Johnson has turned again to the experienced campaigner for this week’s clash with France – confident that Brown will not have suffered for missing two Tests.
The man himself seemed to back that up when returning to his usual Wednesday captain’s media conference, insisting that his focus has always remained on what was best for the team, rather than himself.
“As I have said in the past, to play for Scotland and certainly to captain Scotland is something that I would never take for granted,” he stressed.
“So, obviously, I am absolutely delighted to be back in the side.
“I felt exactly the same as any other player would feel [when dropped]. Naturally, I was very, very disappointed but, in saying that, Scott [Johnson] has been very good – open and honest with me the whole way through. As a player, that’s all you ask for.
“It was just up to me to go back to Saracens and to work hard on my game and I did that. Saracens is a fantastic environment to go back to. We won the three matches while I was back there, and I feel I have been playing pretty well.”
Brown was aware of the backlash Johnson faced for dropping the man he had chosen to be the face of Scotland in all the pre-tournament media, however, and admitted that he was touched by the many supporters who insisted he should have remained in the team, without going as far as to state that he agreed that Johnson had got it wrong.
“I was humbled. I got one or two tweets, which is always nice to hear, but it is about so much more than me. It’s about the team and I thought that the way the boys played in Rome, under pretty intense pressure, was fantastic to see.
“There is no doubt that when I’m not playing, yes, I am very disappointed not to be involved. It is such a huge honour whenever you are asked to play for Scotland. But all of the Scotland boys and the Scotland management are very good friends of mine, so I wanted to make sure that I worked hard in training to give them the best possible chance to be successful.
“It has been said in the past, but I think in Scotland we have a leadership team. Myself and Greig [Laidlaw] are constantly speaking and constantly bouncing ideas off each other. That’s what we have been doing over the past month.”
The answer to the question “did he consider walking away from Test rugby?” was, therefore, redundant, but he gave it anyway.
“No. Simple as that. To play for Scotland is something that I would dream of as a child, and to captain Scotland was almost more than that because I never really thought I could do it. I was never going to walk away from that. What I did was that I went away and I saw it as just one more challenge.
“As rugby players, we are very, very lucky. We’ve got an incredible job and the only two downsides are when you’re injured or when you’re not picked. It was a challenge, but I focused on myself and went away and worked as hard as I could, and I’m thrilled to be back.
“But, throughout the whole time, Scott has been very open and honest with me. He has given me his reasons, and I accept them and he always said that if I was in the starting team I’d be captain, which is an immense honour. All I can do now is focus on myself, and that’s what I’ve done.”
Johnson has been a supporter of Brown’s, but as an open side flanker rather than in his more familiar six and eight positions. Intriguingly, that is how the French like to play the game too, with big, athletic men across the back row. This weekend they are without Louis Picamoles, one of the best players in the world in recent years, and Yannick Nyanga and, this morning, coach Philippe Saint-Andre will reveal what he has decided on for his new-look trio.
Clermont’s Damien Chouly and Bernard le Roux, the Racing Metro flanker, are both in the frame to start but the No 6 jersey – traditionally the openside in French rugby – remains in doub, as do a number of positions in the French side with a series of injuries depriving Saint-Andre of his first and second choices at hooker, scrum-half and inside centre.
Brown, fittingly, shrugs. He plays rugby, or he doesn’t. He captains or he watches. He wears a 6, 8 or a 7 on his back, but little gets under his skin. There were more questions about how he really felt at being dropped, the skipper joining the Scotland camp for training and then departing to watch the team play without him against England and in Rome, but he provided similar answers to them all. Disappointed? Sure. Demoralised, crushed, sticking pins in a Johnson doll? Waste of time.
“When I wasn’t playing I was thinking about the team and, when I am playing, I am thinking about the team,” Brown added. “The way the guys played in Rome, under pretty intense pressure, was fantastic to see and we’ll take a lot of confidence from that, but we know it will be another notch up for the French this week.
“They [France] clearly had a poor game against Wales, but Wales were very good that day. After the first two matches, I think everyone was tipping France for the championship, so they are a tough side and it’s going to be a really good test for us.
“Wins certainly help [lift confidence], but we know that when we get it right we are very good side. It is just a question of making sure we are more consistent and that we get it right more often than not.”
That is a worthy sentiment, for players, captains and coaches.