England fullback Mike Brown is hoping to strike it third time lucky on his latest tour to South Africa after disaster in 2007 and personal misfortune in 2012.
Brown is England’s most capped fullback (70 Tests) and is the only survivor in this squad from the ill-fated Tests in Pretoria and Bloemfontein, lost 55-22 and 58-10 respectively against Jake White’s Springboks in that World Cup year and then in 2012 at Ellis Park he broke his hand and went home, missing the drawn third Test in Port Elizabeth after losses in Durban and Johannesburg.
“I started here in South Africa after my first year of premiership rugby and it was a real eye-opener,” the 32-year-old said. “We had a lot of new caps and we learned the hard way what is required to be a successful international player. That was a very tough day.”
The 2007 events were made tougher because the squad was stricken with food poisoning so serious that one player, Dave Strettle, had to be hospitalised.
“We did not all have it as bad as him. But with the nerves and emotion you feel a bit sick anyway, so to have sickness on top of it was very tough,” Brown recalled. “We tried to crack on but it wasn’t easy as a youngster picking yourself up after being knocked flat by the likes of Schalk Burger.”
Brown has equally fresh memories of his second tour here. After losing at Kings Park, the second Test was at Ellis Park and the English had a poor start before eventually losing 36-27.
“The atmosphere at Ellis Park was amazing. Arriving at the stadium left a big impression. Driving in I recall all these big trucks everywhere and people all around braaiing in their Springbok jerseys; then walking out onto the field and seeing these near vertical stands. We again had a young, new set-up under coach Stuart Lancaster and were doing okay until Jean de Villiers scored at the end. That was around when I broke my hand.”
Brown says he did not find altitude to be a problem in terms of lasting the game, but at fullback he had to make some adjustments. “A dry mouth is about the worst thing I can remember, so I coped fine. With altitude the ball goes higher and travels through the ball quicker, so you have to be aware of that in fielding kicks.”
Brown says the latest England tour group to South Africa is far more battle-ready, even with a number of seasoned players left at home with injury.
“This group is much more experienced and we are moving in the right direction in general, despite the recent losses,” he said. “Since the Six Nations we have looked at two key areas where we were found wanting - discipline and the breakdown, and they marry together really,” Brown said.
“We were not accurate enough at the breakdown (in their three Six Nations losses) and got pinged a lot by the referee, and when you get a reputation for being ill-disciplined it rolls onto the rest of the games. So we have worked very hard on the breakdown having also been aware that it is an area where the Springboks will come really hard at us.”