It is a matter of record that Mark van Gisbergen, the Wasps full-back, played himself out of the England team before he had fully played himself into it. Alex Brown was not afforded that opportunity, although it might be argued that the Gloucester lock tackled himself out of the red rose starting line-up for the Cook Cup Test with the Wallabies at Twickenham last month - an unusual situation, to say the least, given that second-row forwards were not put on this earth to put other people flat on their backs with anything more lawful than a bunch of fives.
"I remember it very precisely," he said this week, wincing once again at his lamentable sense of timing. "It was during the Powergen Cup game with the Ospreys at Kingsholm. I made a fairly routine tackle without too much trouble, but I somehow found myself in an awkward position after completing it and felt a lot of weight coming down on my neck and shoulders. My chin was slammed into my chest, I felt something pop and immediately thought to myself: 'This is not good.' It turned out to be a prolapsed disc in my neck. I couldn't believe my luck then and I still can't quite believe it now."
At that point in the season, Brown had only to stand up to be certain of winning his first cap. His productivity levels in the ball-winning department had been characteristically high in the early part of the campaign, his ability to reach parts of the pitch wholly unfamiliar to most of his rival locks even more striking than usual. Andy Robinson, the England coach, had decided a good month before the meeting with Australia that his fellow West Countryman would both perform the middle jumper's role and call the shots at the line-out. Brown knew that Robinson knew, and was understandably elated. So elated, in fact, that he continued to make himself available for Gloucester after the calamity against the Ospreys in an effort to play through the discomfort.
A fortnight later, in front of the watching Robinson, he took the field against Bath at the Recreation Ground - a Premiership fixture that pitted him against his principal rival for the England jersey, Steve Borthwick. Gloucester lost and Brown ended the game in considerable strife. Advised to undergo a precautionary scan, he quickly learnt the worst. There would be no Twickenham in November. No white shirt, no cap, no fulfilment. Just a pain in the neck and the misery of watching Borthwick play out of his skin in all three autumn internationals, which amounted to much the same thing.
Not only Borthwick, either. Danny Grewcock's run of autumn performances, beginning with a display of pure majesty against Brown and company at the Rec, placed him among the best two or three locks in the game, right up there alongside Bakkies Botha of South Africa and Nathan Sharpe of Australia. By way of rubbing an entire ocean's worth of salt in a gaping wound, Louis Deacon of Leicester won the first cap Brown should have had when he turned out against Samoa, while Simon Shaw, for whom Robinson had always had a soft spot, reclaimed his international status in the same game. With Ben Kay beginning to find some form at Leicester after a long spell on his uppers, Brown has gone from tête de la course to peloton quicker than a Tour de France cyclist with two flat tyres.
"Did I find it difficult, watching those Tests on the television? Of course I did," he confessed. "I wanted England to win those matches, but I can't say my heart didn't sink when Borthwick took his chance in the way he did. For some reason, a lot of people assumed I was up against Grewcock in terms of selection, but Steve was my direct opponent. He's a specialist middle jumper, he calls the line-outs, he does what I do. I can't take anything away from him, because he did his job extremely well. One way or another, though, I felt pretty miserable. It didn't help that it was my first serious injury. Had I experienced that kind of disappointment previously, I might have felt slightly better about it."
For all that, it could have been worse. Far worse. If prolapsed discs are no one's idea of a good time, they are more hellish for some than others. "It sounds serious and it can be serious," Brown said authoritatively, sounding like a man more at home in a white coat than a cherry-and-white rugby shirt, "but the implications are relative to who you are and how your body happens to be put together - how tight your spinal cord is and the way it holds the fluid. It's completely person-specific.
"Some people respond to intensive rehabilitation, some do not. Those that don't need surgery. I was in the 50-50 category, so I opted for the rehab. It was real balls-ache having to drive to Lilleshall three times a week, especially as there was a chance it wouldn't do anything for me. But it did, thankfully. I have to say Gloucester were brilliant. Some clubs will do anything to get a player back on the pitch as soon as is humanly possible, but this club isn't one them. They could have urged me to have the operation, on the basis that I would have been back in three months, guaranteed. But they allowed me to go the other way, even though they knew that if it didn't work out, I'd need the operation anyway."
Over the last fortnight, Brown has played almost a game and a half of rugby against the rough-and-ready Frenchmen of Toulon in two European Challenge Cup pool games. He had half a mind to turn out a week earlier, when Gloucester returned to Bath for a decisive Powergen Cup tie, but wisely, he resisted the temptation.
"That was a fierce old contest," he said. "I'm not sure I'd have been right for another meeting with Grewcock and Borthwick at that stage of my recovery. The Toulon games, on the other hand, were absolutely right for me. I'm completely confident now that this thing is behind me."
He must hope so. In common with a number of Gloucester colleagues - James Simpson-Daniel, Andy Hazell and James Forrester spring immediately to mind - he is thereabouts in the England sense, but not quite there. In a position as competitive as the second row of the scrum, the last small step is the most difficult to negotiate. The world champions may be struggling for scrum-halves and in Old Mother Hubbard territory when it comes to inside centres, but with Grewcock, Borthwick, Deacon, Shaw and Kay all fancying themselves at Test level, and top-notch line-out providers like Tom Palmer of Leeds and Craig Gillies of Worcester muddying the waters still further, Brown cannot afford to miss a trick, let alone a match.
"When you look at the way someone like Grewcock is performing, you realise how much these people are raising the standard," he admitted. "It just so happens that there are a number of high-quality locks in the Premiership, and that makes things difficult when you're trying to catch the eye of the England selectors. But in all honesty, I wouldn't want it any other way. I want to play for my country because I'm considered the best of the bunch, not because there's nobody else to pick."
Today, he plays a big domestic game for the first time in more than two months, against Wasps at High Wycombe. The contest should provide firm evidence of his state of mind, as well as the state of his body, for the Londoners, who tend to up the ante after Christmas, are capable of playing with a dynamism beyond any other side in England, with the single exception of Sale. Typically, Brown sees the contest in a collective context, rather than an individual one. "We need a big scalp," he said. "We beat Sale early in the season, but that was at home in the rain. A win at Wasps would do so much for our self-belief."
At Wasps, he is likely to come across Van Gisbergen, alongside whom he trained at the England squad session at Loughborough in October and who was also a dead cert for a Test start against Australia until he went to pieces at the death like some rugby-playing Devon Loch. "You may think you're in the side, but it's never a done deal," Brown said. "Mark found that out and so did I, albeit in a different way. I can't speak for him, but I'll just keep on doing what I do and trust myself to get back up there."Reuse content