No fear for new Scotland captain Kelly Brown after tackling his stammer
With a bit of time and effort you might just find someone in Scottish rugby who backs the national team to beat the All Blacks at Murrayfield on Sunday. Go looking for anyone with a bad word to say about the Scotland captain, however, and you will almost certainly draw a blank.
Kelly Brown has had to wait a long time for the honour of leading his country. And as if seven years – his debut was against Romania in 2005 – and 49 caps was not enough, he then had to wait a bit longer.
Named as captain by coach Andy Robinson ahead of last season’s RBS Six Nations, the Saracens forward celebrated his elevation by dislocating his fibula in a club match three days later and missed the entire tournament.
His dignified approach to the setback only heightened his popularity among his fellow players and the wider rugby public. But then, Brown has dealt with a different kind of adversity all his life, suffering a stammer that, at its worst, effectively ruled him out of the running for the captaincy because of the public duties the role involved.
Brown soldiered on, stoically, dealing as best he could with the media duties that any international player has to perform – or, in his case, endure. Then, almost three years ago, he was so embarrassed by his performance in a television interview that he decided it was time to seek help.
It came in the shape of the McGuire Programme, a four-day intensive course that focuses on breathing techniques as well as addressing the negative emotions and other psychological blocks that form in a stammerer’s mind. The singer Gareth Gates went through the programme as well. In Brown’s case, the improvement was marked and immediate.
“Accepting that you are a stammerer is a big part of the method,” said Brown, who will be writing for The Daily Telegraph during the autumn series. “A lot of stammerers dream of being fluent speakers, but you have to accept that when you speak you are always going to have to use the breathing techniques and be disciplined.
“It’s an ongoing thing. I will continue to work on my speech and it’s still improving. One of the mistakes I made when I came off the course was that I thought 'Right, that’s me now’, but you have to keep at it. I need to keep doing breathing exercises and challenging myself and expanding my comfort zones.”
He still has good days and bad days. But the McGuire Programme has a network of coaches who have all gone through the course themselves, and help is always at hand. “A lot of stammerers are frightened of the phone,” he said. “If I want to rehearse a call I can give them a ring and get advice. There is a lot of support, which really helps on days when I’m not speaking well.
“I’m in a fortunate position in that I’m in the public eye. If I can help any stammerers out there I’m happy to do so. I don’t think it should hold somebody back; I certainly tried to make sure it never held me back.
It’s just a part of what I am.
“It’s just a part of what I am. The team understand that there are days when I’m not speaking quite as well, but it’s part of me and it’s a work in progress. I’m working as hard as I can to overcome it and get it under control.”
There is a perverse dimension to the condition. Brown is an outstanding singer who needs no second invitation to get up on stage – he is a regular guest in BBC commentator John Beattie’s band – and belts out a few numbers.
Nor does he suffer many problems on the pitch, as he becomes virtually fluent when he has to assert himself in the heat of battle.
It would be glib to say that Brown will lead by example on the pitch, but it also happens to be true. Few players can match his work rate, and he has been outstanding at blindside in Saracens’ drive towards the top of the Aviva Premiership this season. However, he will be back at No 8 for Scotland against New Zealand, a rare chance to show the ball skills that first marked him out as a talent on his rise through the rugby grades.
The son of a Northern Irish father and an English mother, Brown had the good fortune to be raised in the renowned rugby nursery of the Scottish Borders, an area that has produced close to 200 international players.
Better still, he established an early connection with Melrose, turning out for their under-nine side when he was only six, and acting as a ball boy for the first team during that period in the early-to-mid Nineties when they established themselves as one of the greatest Scottish club sides ever, with players such as Bryan Redpath, Doddie Weir and Craig Chalmers in their ranks.
And maybe the new Scotland captain will think back to those days when he leads his team out on Sunday. “It will be emotional, but you have to keep it under control,” he said. “You have to be in charge of your emotions, not the other way round. So I will just be focusing on my roles and what we need to do as a squad.
“But in the future, when I’m old, fat and grey, I’m sure I’ll look back on it as a special occasion and with very fond memories of the day.”