Sometimes you need to go back to go forward and when Mike Brown joined Newcastle in the summer, in a sense he went back to the start.
It was Dean Richards who gave him his debut at Harlequins in 2005, and Richards who persuaded the full-back to move to the north-east after Quins told him, to his disbelief, that his services were no longer required.
“Devastating” is the word Brown chooses to describe the impact of that decision, and it is not difficult to understand why. He played a record 351 matches in his time at the Stoop, collecting 72 England caps on the way, and was convinced he would end his career a one-club man.
But as Brown says, life goes on, so he focused on uprooting his family from London, and embarked on the 300-mile journey from Twickenham to Tyneside. The 36-year-old’s good humour in half an hour chatting on Zoom demonstrates he is relishing a new challenge, a new environment, and an uptick in quality of life.
“He told me it was 30-degree heat all year round,” Brown jokes of Richards’ sales pitch enticing him north. “The family have settled in well, it’s a great place to live, loads to do. You can definitely get around quicker than London, not as much traffic … 10 minutes you’re at the coast, 10 minutes you’re in town.”
Asked if Richards is the same person now as at Harlequins, the senior player isn’t afraid of a deadpan gag at the expense of his notoriously uncompromising boss: “I never see him, he’s always out fishing, so if you see him, let me know … No, he’s still the same old Deano.
“He’s probably softened a little bit since I was a 20-year-old, young academy kid who used to dive out of corridors into whichever room was open, trying to get out of the way of Big Dean Richards,” Brown says. “The job he’s doing here, with what he’s got to work with, is incredible, ek dink. It’s great to be back with him, work with him and learn from him. It’s someone you always have that bond with, that close relationship with.”
Richards, who left Harlequins in 2009 in the wake of Bloodgate, shaped the player Brown is today, and Brown identifies a grounding in rugby’s old-school values as significant. “He helped us experience the other side of rugby [at Quins], especially in the Championship … Going over to the local pub after games, making sure we spoke to supporters from both sides, which is all brilliant learning for a young lad. He made us experience a different side of rugby you don’t really see as a professional.”
Brown now has a clear idea of what he brings to this Newcastle squad including players such as the searingly quick wing Adam Radwan. “One of the things I wanted to do moving clubs was contribute way more off the field,” Brown says. “I think when you’re at one place for a large amount of time, you’re just seen as ‘that guy who’s come through the academy’. I don’t think people take into account the growth you’ve made as a person.
“I was really keen to be a leader as much as possible … Before I joined Newcastle I always thought there was a lot of potential here. It would be special to be part of it, if we can move this team up the table and give those supporters something to get excited about.”
There are encouraging signs. Premiership victories this season against Bath and Wasps are set against defeats by Harlequins and Saracens, and Brown crossed the tryline last weekend for a sniping score against Sarries on his competitive Falcons debut. Bristol visit Kingston Park on Saturday and with offloading, exciting rugby seemingly all the rage, that must be good for the backs?
“It seems this defensive phase that Eddie [Jones] kept banging on about has kind of switched a little bit,” Brown says. “But as a fan of rugby I don’t want it to turn into sevens. There needs to be a balance, that’s the thing I love about rugby: attack and defence.”
Of the Falcons’ future, hy sê: “There’s a lot of potential here and if we want to push on, if we put the work in, there’s no reason why we can’t do that. We’ve got a brilliant squad here, great young talent, good experienced players, so it’s a good blend. We’ve put it out on the pitch at times, but there’s still way more we can do if we keep working hard.”
Hard work is a given under Richards, as Brown knows, and the decision to lure the full-back to Newcastle looks set to prove typically shrewd.