Wednesday 13 December 2017

Quick action over Brown shows lessons learnt at last

No chances are taken as full-back is stretchered off after clash of heads, writes Andy Bull

Mike Brown receives treatment on the pitch during yesterday’s match
Mike Brown receives treatment on the pitch during yesterday’s match

Andy Bull

An uneasy silence fell across the ground, the roars were cut short as the same spectators who had been cheering England on, exhorting them to hold fast against the Italian attack, realised there was a man down. It was Mike Brown. He was stretched out on his front, arms out either side of his head, ominously inert. His body was back in the wake of play, which had surged on up the field.

Brown took the blow to the head as he rushed up to try to tackle Andrea Masi, who was chasing Kelly Haimona's cunning little chip over the top. Masi made it to the ball but caught Brown with his shoulder as he kicked on towards the English line. Clattered, he crumpled. Checked, Masi was overwhelmed and the move broke down. "It was a try-saver," said Stuart Lancaster.

England's support staff, all 13 of them, gathered around Brown. Play stopped for eight long minutes, while they assessed his condition, then hooked him up to an oxygen mask and strapped him on to a stretcher so they could drive him off the field on a buggy. After the mess the medics made at Cardiff the previous week, when George North was allowed to return to the field to be hit a second time, England's team seemed to be taking particular care to get Brown's treatment right. Time was - and not so long ago - when the few people campaigning to raise awareness about concussion in rugby felt like pariahs. They were spreading news that no one wanted to hear. It was only two years ago, for instance, that the Irish doctor Barry O'Driscoll felt obliged to resign from the IRB's medical advisory board, in protest at their concussion policies.

Here, in the silence of the 80,000, and the meticulous ministrations of those 13 medics, was evidence that the culture of the game is changing. It has taken too long, and is still moving too slowly, but it is, at least, and at last, underway. No one at Twickenham was in any doubt about the seriousness of the situation, anymore than anyone had been in doubt that the system had failed North.

The RFU's recent audit of injuries in the 2013-14 season showed there had been a 59% rise in concussions that season, proof not only that the problem had been more serious than the authorities had let on, but also that their education programmes are working. Players and doctors are now better equipped to recognise, refer, and treat concussion when it occurs.

In the immediate moment, Brown's injury left Lancaster with the pressing problem of how best to rejig his backline. Danny Cipriani was on the bench, but it has been a long while since he played full-back. Lancaster opted instead to switch Anthony Watson back, move Jonathan Joseph to the wing, shunt Luther Burrell over to outside-centre, and bring Billy Twelvetrees on to play inside him. It was a complicated solution to what should have been a straightforward problem.

"A big shift," Lancaster said. "In an ideal world, we wouldn't have gone down that route." But England adapted to it. For the second match in a row, they managed to wrest back control after a poor start. This time they were 5-0 down after five minutes, the peerless Sergio Parisse having hauled his way over the line, though he was trailing Dan Cole from one leg and Billy Vunipola from the other.

England were poor for the first quarter - they missed five tackles in the first 10 minutes. And Lancaster was equally irritated by the way they played in the final 10 too, when Luca Morisi burst through a weak tackle from Jonny May to score what the coach conceded was "another soft try".

In between the errors, though, England played some wonderfully entertaining rugby. The backs look a world away from the moribund bunch who struggled through the autumn. Joseph, as Lancaster said, "still found a way to influence the match from out on the wing". He scored two fine tries, one made with a side-step around Haimona, a couple of dummies that fooled the wing Leonardo Sarto, and a neat step away from Sarto's attempted tap-tackle. The second following on from Vunipola's pass through the legs to Ben Youngs, some smart passing from Twelvetrees and a cute dummy from George Ford. This was rugby worth cheering.

There was a roar, too, for Cipriani's appearance as a replacement, his first run-out for England at Twickenham since November 2008. And, of course, he scored, with just his second touch. Whoever writes his scripts, they're doing a fine job. England's squad has impressive strength in depth. You can see the hunger felt by Cipriani, James Haskell, and Nick Easter, men who may have felt they'd had their last chance, and were going to miss out on the World Cup. That competition for places is one reason Brown will be anxious to get back playing as quickly as he can. It is England's duty, of course, to make sure he doesn't before he is ready.

England may have scored six tries, but Brown got the loudest cheer of the day when he reappeared, wearing his tracksuit, on the touchline in the second half.

Brown will now have to prove he is symptom-free before his graduated return to play. As Lancaster said afterwards, it will help that there is a fortnight before England's next match against Ireland in Dublin. Brown, Lancaster, said, had seemed fine in the dressing room afterwards. Except that he "was grumpy he had missed so much of the game."

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