"Just to clarify, it was an accident" - Mike Brown on Conor Murray incident
"Yeah, I obviously took a lot of heat and stick from your fellow countrymen for that."
Mike Brown is the type of guy who you would love to have on your team, and root against when he is lining up on the opposite side of the field.
Away from the pitch, Brown has been described as 'very quiet' and 'an absolute gentleman' by teammates Danny Care and James Haskell and he devotes a lot of time and energy to raising money for disabled sports and, more recently, for a a Covid-19 rapid-response fund.
The Harlequins and England fullback is one of the fiercest competitors out there and has had many a battle with the Irish provinces and the national side over the years. Once he crosses that white line, he flips to full-on game mode.
"I think that is one of my strengths," he says, "my attitude and maybe my fighting spirit. Never give up, never take a backward step. That’s always how I’ve tried to play, in any jersey and for any team."
For a five-year stretch, Brown was right up there with Dylan Hartley and James Haskell as England players that Irish supporters wanted to get one over on. That was fuelled, no doubt, by Brown's abrasive nature on the pitch and his winning record [5-0] in his first five Tests against Ireland.
When you speak about Brown and Ireland, though, the 2016 Six Nations clash at Twickenham immediately springs to mind. Brown scored a try in that game but he was fortunate to avoid a caution for some reckless swipes at the ball that left Conor Murray needing treatment to a cut to the head.
Brown joined Andrew Trimble and Barry Murphy on the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby and [from 32:00 below] spoke about his battles against Ireland, including that 2016 encounter.
Mike Brown had scored a converted try that put England 21-10 ahead but, with 10 minutes to go, Ireland were pressing for a score that would get them right back in the match.
Brown saw Conor Murray at the base of a ruck and went in hacking for the ball, connecting with Murray three times (twice to the head). TV replays did not look good for the England fullback but he escaped a card of any colour.
Instead, it was England scrumhalf Danny Care that was sin-binned for illegally slowing down the Irish attack. England held on to win by 11 points on their way to Grand Slam glory in Eddie Jones' first campaign as head coach.
Following that game, Jones was unrepentant about the incident. In a press conference exchange with SportsJOE, he declared:
"Look, the referee adjudicated on it mate. He said it was fair. If the ball is on the ground you're allowed to kick it, aren't you? Was the ball on the ground? Yes. Then he can play the ball mate. Are you allowed to play the ball? You tell me what the laws are... the referee didn't think it was reckless."
Jones' take appeared to be vindicated when Brown escaped a citing for the incident. However, World Rugby did change the ruck law a little over a year after that Six Nations clash. Law 16.4 now states - A player must not kick the ball out of a ruck. The player can only hook it in a backwards motion.
During his chat with Murphy and Trimble, Brown reflected on that flashpoint and gave his side of the story:
TRIMBLE: The biggest thing that rugby has done recently is to remove the law where you can score a try at the base of the posts, which was a dumb one anyway. You did, actually Mike, contribute to the law about not kicking the ball at the ruck after you kicked Murray in the head that time!
BROWN: I know, yeah. I do know that! Yeah, and just to clarify, it was an accident. And, actually, I didn’t kick him in the head. It was the backwards motion that caught him, so I would say that his head was actually on the wrong side but whatever! But, yeah, I obviously took a lot of heat and stick from your fellow countrymen for that.
TRIMBLE: But they don’t know. They don’t know the new, rebranded Mike Brown, though. They don’t know that you’ve got a heart of gold and you’re a sweetheart.
BROWN: And I’ve helped change the rules in rugby so everyone’s a winner, at the end of the day.
TRIMBLE: You’re blazing a trail. No, I think maybe the first two might have been accidental but I think the third and fourth kicks to the head probably weren’t!
BROWN: Yeah, I just got too enthusiastic and, yeah, I know!
MURPHY: At the time you’re watching it and, as an Irish person you’re like, ‘My God!’ And a few years later, in hindsight, if I was an English supporter I’d be like, ‘Yeah! Get into him!’ That’s rugby. That’s the beauty of it, right? Whoever’s side you’re on, it doesn't matter as long as it’s going your way.
BROWN: Yeah, look, people seem to love to hate me so I’m always going to get stick for things a lot less than that, usually, so I can understand it. But it was an accident. Like I said, his head was in the way of my boot, so, I’m going to put the blame on him… maybe!
The Brown-Murray incident and Paul O'Connell's unfortunate kick on Dave Kearney at Thomond Park, a few seasons before, helped precipitate the change in that ruck law. While both players would be cautioned for their actions now, they would have felt entitled to play the ball while the old laws were still in place.
Brown, now 34, has collected 72 Test caps for England but has not featured for Jones' side since the 2018 summer tour to South Africa. He is on the road back to full fitness after a long injury lay-off and is eager to get back to it with Harlequins when rugby is given the all-clear to return.
WATCH THE FULL MIKE BROWN EPISODE HERE:
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Harlequins and England fullback Mike Brown joins Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble for the latest House of Rugby episode. He talks about his uncompromising reputation and backing yourself to the hilt.