England vs Scotland: Rotten loser Mike Brown returns to give England back the competitive edge

The Six Nations defeat in Ireland a little under a fortnight ago served as a reminder that England can go eerily quiet when shorn of their most profoundly competitive spirits

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The Independent Online

“Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” So said the wildly successful American football boss Vince Lombardi, whose influence on the man running the England rugby team, Stuart Lancaster, touched parts other philosopher-coaches failed to reach. Lombardi also appears to have left a mark on Mike Brown, which may explain why Lancaster was so desperate to reinstate the Harlequins player at full-back for this afternoon’s Calcutta Cup meeting with Scotland at Twickenham.

By his own admission, Brown is the polar opposite of a good loser. Indeed, he may be the worst loser in the current red-rose squad, although the injured outside-half Owen Farrell merits careful consideration in this field.

“It would be a close-run thing between Owen and myself,” Brown acknowledged this week, “but I’m pretty bad at accepting defeat. When Stuart says I have a ‘winning mentality’, I think he means I just get grumpy when I don’t get things all my own way.”

The Six Nations defeat in Ireland a little under a fortnight ago served as a reminder that England can go eerily quiet when shorn of their most profoundly competitive spirits, and that they are not quite accomplished enough to compensate through the technical quality of their rugby alone. Farrell, as tough as old boots, is not available for this game, but Brown has shaken off the effects of the concussion he suffered during the victory over Italy in round two.

This makes his personal contest with the Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg, a Lions tourist in Australia in 2013, something to relish. Brown says his prime motivation is collective rather than individual – “I don’t think I have a point to prove against Hogg; my aim is to put in a performance to be proud of and help us win,” he remarked – but, given the Glasgow player’s sharp comments about a perceived lack of English respect for his country’s rugby, it will be surprising if we get through the entire 80 minutes without a meeting of minds at No 15.

 

All this is hard on Alex Goode of Saracens, who performed the full-back’s role in Dublin and tried as hard as anyone in a white shirt to summon the spirit of resistance. He has a broader range of skills than his rival and, as Lancaster has indicated, he more than holds his own when it comes to the “measurables” of the game. Yet when it comes to the “intangibles”, the coach says it is the Harlequin who makes the strongest case.

Brown watched the defeat in Dublin from the comfort of his own sofa – not that he was comfortable for long. “It was not a good day. I had to have a quiet word with myself at half-time, because I was fuming,” he said. “Unfortunately, my fiancée had to go through it with me, poor lady.”

The lady in question, the fashion designer Eliza Woodcock, is the daughter of Tony Woodcock, who won 42 caps as an England footballer between 1978 and 1986. All things considered, she probably understood.

That familiar mix of angst and attitude, not so much a part of Brown’s sporting make-up as the whole of it, will be much in evidence today. He is not of a mind to soften his approach just because he took a smack on the head against Italy, although he admits he is “pleased we’ve all been made more aware of the implications of concussion,” adding: “In the past I’d probably have tried to bluff my way through it in an effort to play against Ireland and put myself in danger”.

Lancaster believes this implacable competitiveness will give his team some backbone. But can England truly do themselves justice in the eyes of the rugby public against opponents whose horrible record at Twickenham – one draw and 14 defeats, many of them alarmingly heavy, since their last victory on the old cabbage patch in 1983 – puts the home side in “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” territory?

Scotland travel without the Lions lock Richie Gray, although his gifted younger brother, Jonny, is present and correct in the engine room.They are also missing the wing Sean Lamont. Just as woundingly, they have lost the impressive centre Alex Dunbar, who pranged himself in training on Thursday. Their back row, bolstered by the return of David Denton at No 8, has a pleasing sense of balance about it, but despite boasting more than 250 caps in the tight-five department, it is difficult to imagine them laying solid foundations for victory at the set piece. All things considered, England start as overwhelming favourites.

Yet there is no guarantee that Lancaster’s side will feel great about themselves at close of play, even if they continue to shut out their oldest rivals on their own mudheap.

Should the line-out remain as fallible as it was in Dublin, despite the return of the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes as caller-in-chief, one of the key planks in England’s game will be in need of an overhaul just a few months shy of a home World Cup. Ideal? Not exactly.

And then there are affairs at the tackle area, very much a bone of contention for those who continue to question Chris Robshaw’s effectiveness on the floor. The captain has spent a good deal of his tenure making a mockery of these criticisms – there is, after all, more to life in the  No 7 shirt than impersonating a truffle pig – but his display in Dublin was perhaps the weakest of his entire international career. If the Scots really get stuck into England at the breakdown, as they traditionally do, the anti-Robshaw volume could increase.

But Robshaw will have support all around him, not least from his clubmate Brown, a figure so popular with the Twickenham crowd that he received a standing ovation when he reappeared on the touchline on Italy day following his initial treatment for concussion.

“That was a little embarrassing,” he said. “I’d only been on the field for 12 minutes, so I didn’t do much to warrant such a reception. All I wanted was to hide behind the replacements.” Whatever happens today, he will not be in the mood to hide.

If you are involved in rugby, find out more about concussion by completing the RFU’s new online education course

englandrugby.com/head-case

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