No England player has scored more tries, made more breaks or beaten more defenders during this season’s RBS 6 Nations than in-form full-back Mike Brown.
The 28-year-old has also been his side’s official Man of the Match twice in a row – only the fifth player to do so in the history of the RBS 6 Nations – and played every minute of their 2014 campaign.
One of the most influential players in the tournament so far – these are heady days for the Harlequins player.
But if Brown’s international career has reached overdrive, it is easy to forget that it has not always been smooth running for a player who made his debut back in 2007.
It was former coach Brian Ashton who handed Brown his debut, in a 58-10 defeat by South Africa, and the 67-year-old has watched the player’s recent performances with some satisfaction.
“Mike’s ability to beat the first and often second defender has added an extra dimension to England’s play,” Ashton, who led England from 2006 to 2008, tells O2. “He’s looking a pretty complete player.”
Brown was given a baptism of fire in South Africa seven years ago, having to contend with illness, a depleted squad and fearsome opponents.
“Mike was a youngster and it certainly was a tough tour, but we knew he would go a long way,” Ashton remembers. “He always backed himself and had this great attacking ability.
“He was also aggressive and confrontational, which isn’t a bad thing if harnessed in the right way.”
When Ashton was sacked as England coach, Brown was part of a difficult tour to New Zealand and then subsequently fell out of favour.
He had gone nearly four years without an appearance for his country when Stuart Lancaster handed him his fourth cap in the coach’s first match in charge – a 13-6 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield.
Over the last two seasons Brown has become key for England though.
“Mike has stepped up another level or two and grown in confidence,” Ashton explains. “The opposition have to be very careful when they kick the ball to him. I know he’s done a lot of work with sprint coach Margot Wells. That work is painstaking and it can take several years to reap the benefit.
“We’re seeing that now. Stuart Lancaster has also been asking Mike to get more involved in the play, not just counter-attacks.
“Now we’re seeing him linking up with the players around him and scoring and setting up tries.”
Brown scored his first England try in the opening match of this season’s RBS 6 Nations against France – in his 22nd appearance – and got another in their win over Scotland.
After England beat Ireland, opposition coach Joe Schmidt described Brown as “the difference” and the “complete package”.
Ashton says it is too early to describe the player as the best full-back in world rugby. That accolade should go to either New Zealand’s Israel Dagg or Australia’s Israel Folau, he argues.
“It’s a bit early to put him up with those guys,” adds Ashton. “They are game changers and Mike probably lacks their out-and-out, sheer pace.
“But he has very good footwork and, pound-for-pound, is stronger than either of them.
“If he keeps improving, he could become the best. That could be a fascinating little sub-plot at the World Cup.”
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