AFTER ten weeks out dealing with concussion issues, Fraser Brown was called straight into Scotland’s match-day squad for their trip to Dublin to take on Ireland last weekend, which is partially down to the lack of other options currently at Gregor Townsend’s disposal in the specialist hooker position, but mainly a demonstration of how important the 28-year-old has become to the national set-up since establishing himself as a regular starter in the side during the course of last season.
While the Scottish coaching team were clearly reluctant to send veteran Scott Lawson on as a replacement for the in-form Stuart McInally against France and England, the presence of Brown among the replacements on Saturday meant that there was an opportunity to add some real impetus during the final quarter of the match.
Unfortunately for the visitors, the result was already confirmed by the time the bench was cleared, but Brown still managed make his mark by winning a ruck penalty in front of Scotland’s posts just a few moments after his arrival on the park in the 59th minute. The way he got over the ball and wrestled for possession as the Irish piled into the contact area dispelled any suggestion that there might be some sort of lingering psychological hang-up after so long out worrying about the head knock he picked up on 30th December 2017.
“I’m obviously disappointed with how the game went but it was just nice to be back playing again. It’s been pretty frustrating – I had three unfortunate concussion incidents this year and it’s not like a knee or a shoulder injury 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 also reassuring in a way because you know everyone has your best interests at heart rather than trying to rush you back onto the pitch,” he said.
Brown’s experience since banging his head whilst playing for Warriors against Edinburgh is a classic demonstration of how difficult these sorts of injuries are to manage. While there was enough concern about his well-being to prompt a trip south to see a specialist, the player himself says that he didn’t feel like he was suffering any ill effects.
“I went down there because I wanted to be sure there was nothing to worry about. 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,” he explained. “It’s frustrating though because you’re sitting there day after day thinking: ‘I feel fine, I feel100%,’ yet there’s something going on.”
“John Barclay saw the same guy in Birmingham, but it’s different with every player. 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 were 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.”
This graduated return to action helps explain why the Scotland coaching team felt comfortable parachuting Brown straight back into the squad, and he says that if he had been required to take the field earlier in the match then his staying power would not have been an issue.
“Anyone that’s playing an international in the match-day 23 is ready to play 80 minutes. As a hooker, I’m not sure I’d be happy to play 80 minutes, although I know Stuart has done it twice recently and I did it a few times last year,” said Brown.
Number 2 hooker?
Stuart McInally has earned the right to retain the number two jersey in Rome next week, but once Brown gets a run of games under his belt we can expect an intriguing battle between the pair to determine who will be the first-choice hooker going forward.
“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. 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,” said Brown.
“Stuart played well again at the weekend. You look at the work he put in around the pitch – John Barclay made something like 27 tackles, Jonny 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, and play as well as you can as quickly as you can.”
“It is difficult because I haven’t played any rugby for 11 weeks, but it forces me to look at myself and make sure that I am performing from the very first minute I get out there on the pitch.”
The Italian Job
Brown is certainly expecting a stern test of his match readiness whenever he takes the pitch this coming Saturday. Italy are winless in the championship so far, but he says they are more than capable of causing an upset if Scotland are off their game.
“I watched their game yesterday against Wales and I thought for the first 40 to 50 minutes they were the better team on the pitch, because of some of the tempo they were playing at – the speed of ball they were getting at the ruck – and they’ve got some really dangerous players,” he said.
“They’ve got some areas where they will be really strong, particularly their line-out drive, so that will be an area we’ll have to look at.
Cian Healy in a spin
Given Brown’s recent medical history, his thoughts on the Cian Healy incident in Saturday’s match, and the suggestion that the Irish prop was allowed to play on when he should have been taken from the field for a Head Injury Assessment after receiving a pair of blows to the head, neck and shoulder area in the 35th minute. He appeared to be unsteady on his feet but returned to play when ball approached his side of the field.
The player has been cleared to play in this coming weekend’s match against England. An IRFU statement issued yesterday [Monday] read: “Cian Healy suffered a stinger-like injury to the shoulder/trapezius area. He experienced some discomfort on the field and received the appropriate treatment. Cian will train fully this week.”
Brown gave his thoughts on the situation yesterday.
“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 he 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 and that 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 just as I have trust in ours, and the Welsh and English have trust in their medics. It is a dangerous place to be sitting on the outside trying to cast aspersions on what is going on and not having your faith and trust in the guys who have the best interest of the players at heart.”