DESPITE the six caps in his sock drawer, Fraser Brown has yet to start a game for Scotland but all that may change next weekend when the squad travels to Twickenham more in hope, you have to think, than expectation, writes Iain Morrison. But the former Merchiston hooker is a little like Dr Johnson’s dog walking on his hind legs: never mind how well he performs, just wonder that he made it on to the bus. After all Brown has been through, it is a wonder he is still playing the game at all.
He captained the same Scotland U21s team that boasted Richie Gray but dislocated his shoulder during an age-grade international. He returned to action too soon and did the same thing again. That was followed by problems with a disc in his neck and that was followed by Edinburgh showing him the exit sign after just one frustrating season.
He had barely laced his boots in anger over a two-year period when he returned to the family farm near Biggar – for his mental health as much as his physical well being – after an unsuccessful loan period at Sale Sharks. Many assumed that he would never play rugby again, at least not to any level. Standing on the verge of a Calcutta Cup appearance marks a reversal of the bad luck that saw him without a contract or a club just four years ago.
“When I left Edinburgh it was quite difficult for me,” he admits. “Early on in my career, I worked hard but I never had to fight for my position. It was an easier path for me to get into the Edinburgh set-up. I wanted to play rugby, whether it was playing for Scotland or playing for Heriot’s seconds. I wanted to play rugby because it was something I loved doing so much and I missed the camaraderie. Once I joined Heriot’s, I played for the club international team and I got picked up for sevens and, on the back of that, I got a phone call from Gregor [Townsend].”
Not long after, he got another call, this one from Scotland manager Gavin Scott, who told the hooker to get off the beach and get on to a flight to South Africa; this after a season playing flanker for fun for Heriot’s, a position he filled with distinction against Bath just months ago. Scotland found themselves short-staffed in South Africa and Brown was recalled from a holiday with his girlfriend to make his first international appearance off the bench against Italy in the summer of 2013, just two years after Edinburgh handed him his jotters.
Another year went by before he was once more named amongst the replacements, against the All Blacks in November, and he has deputised for Ross Ford in every one of the Championship matches to date. The back seizure that afflicted Ford against Italy last weekend was painful enough to halt the veteran in his tracks so Brown has hopes of starting, although he is playing it cool.
“The England game is a long way away so we are taking it as it comes. We’ll see how he is and if he’s fit then great. If not then I am more than happy to step into his shoes. I obviously want to start and I want to play but, for the team, the most important thing is that 23 guys go out and play. We are always trying to put the strongest 23 out for any game.”
Scotland could have done with some of their walking wounded for a trip to Twickenham that is daunting enough with a full-strength squad. Brown seems pretty much immune to all the hype and the history, suggesting that, since he wasn’t born when Scotland last won in West London, the long losing run didn’t prey on his mind. “I don’t remember , I wasn’t born when it happened. So I think for people of a certain generation who can remember Scotland last winning at Twickenham, it’s maybe a bigger thing. For me, it will be the first time I play England at international level, if I’m playing, and it’s just another game. Every international away game is going to be daunting, it’s a big test.”
He is right about that, although you wonder if he recognises the full scale of the task. At one point in proceedings Brown suggests: “We will need to play close to our very best to come away with a result next Saturday.”
Scotland will surely need to play at their absolute best just to give themselves a shout.
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