The Glasgow forward was stood down at the turn of the year after suffering three concussions in the first half of the season. He had suffered no obvious ill effects from the head knocks but a concerning pattern of being knocked out when heavy contact was made with a jaw prompted the Glasgow coaching and Scottish Rugby medical staff to seek specialist opinion and administer a precautionary sidelining.
Brown hadn’t featured since suffering a third concussion in just a few months in the second 1872 Cup clash against Edinburgh at the start of the year before coming off the bench for the final quarter at the Aviva Stadium.
“It was nice to be playing. Disappointed with how the game went but it was just nice to be back playing again,” he said at the Oriam training base yesterday as Scotland build up to this Saturday’s closing fixture against Italy in Rome.
“It’s been pretty frustrating. I had three unfortunate concussion incidents this year. It’s frustrating because it’s not like a knee or a shoulder where you know how long you’ll be out. A head is different because there’s so much unknown about it. But taking so long to come back is reassuring in a way because you know everyone has your best interests at heart rather than trying to rush you back on to the pitch.”
Brown was sent to see Professor Tony Belli, a concussion specialist at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, who also treated Scotland skipper John Barclay when he suffered similar problems earlier in the season.
“I went down there because I wanted to be sure there was nothing to worry about,” continued Brown. “In all my episodes this year, apart from being unconscious in two of them, I’ve never actually suffered any of the symptoms you usually associate with concussion, such as headache or whatever.
“It’s frustrating, though, because you’re sitting there day after day thinking ‘I feel fine, I feel 100 per cent,’ yet there’s something going on.
“Seeing the specialist I saw in Birmingham was exploratory, to see if there’s something in the mechanism of how my jaw works or to see if there’s a reason. So it was all about peace of mind rather than getting me back on the pitch.”
Brown explained that his condition was not the same as Barclay, pictured below, had experienced.
“John saw the same guy in Birmingham, but it’s different with every player,” said the 28-year-old, who won his 30th cap in Dublin. “John suffered some symptoms in that he didn’t feel quite right, while I felt fine. I wanted reassurance that there was no risk to my long-term health with going back to play. In days gone by, the guidelines for concussion stipulated complete rest, but the most recent advice from a couple of weeks ago was to exercise until someone is asymptomatic. So I was back doing most non- contact training within two weeks of the Edinburgh game. It’s just a question of doing what you can do as long as you feel fine.
“I had a review four weeks after I saw the specialist just to make sure everything was going okay and then I could push on further. It’s all about being smart with what you’re doing and not pushing yourself too hard.”
Concussion remains a hot topic in rugby and the issue was further fuelled at the weekend with the controversy surrounding Irish loosehead Cian Healy, who appeared to leave medical attention and stumble groggily back into the fray.
The IRFU defended the incident yesterday, saying in a statement: “Cian Healy suffered a stinger-like injury to the shoulder/trapezuis area. He experienced some discomfort on the field and received the appropriate treatment. Cian will train fully this week.”
Brown was reluctant to pass any judgment on the matter.
“The biggest concern from a player point of view is that, in the age of social media, it is very easy to look from the outside on something and form an opinion without having the details of what is going on,” he said.
“I was subject of that in the last couple of months with lots of people saying I should take the rest of the season off, my health was at serious risk, which it may or may not have been. I don’t know the details of Cian at the weekend, nobody does. I have complete trust that the Irish medics know what they are doing.”
Now that he is back playing, Brown faces the challenge of dislodging Stuart McInally, who has been the form hooker of the competition, and regaining the No 2 starting jersey.
“It’s brilliant to have guys in the same position as you playing really well and constantly raising the bar, because it means that you have to do the same,” said Brown. “The moment you think you are comfortable, that’s when it’s difficult because you start to get a little bit complacent – not on purpose but it just comes in.
“Stuart played well again at the weekend. You look at the work he put in around the pitch at the weekend – Barcs made something like 27 tackles, Jonny [Gray] made 25 and Stuart made 17 or 18 in 60 minutes – so when you have someone playing that well it forces you to up your game.”