Foden vs Brown remains hard to call

Off the pitch they couldn’t be more different. One is engaged to a member of a girlband and is himself known as “pop star” to the Franklin’s Gardens regulars, the other is affectionately known as ASBO by his club’s fans in Twickenham.

But it is on the pitch where Northampton Saints’ Ben Foden and Harlequins’ Mike Brown find a common ground, with both playing starring roles for their respective sides for the last few seasons. And now they find each other preparing for a battle to win the England full-back jersey after Delon Armitage disposed of himself following a host of disciplinary actions which would make even the likes of Mario Balotelli blush. If current form is anything to go by, this scramble for the 15 shirt could continue for a while.

It’s hard to argue against Brown’s inclusion in the EPS given his run of form at the current Aviva Premiership leaders. With 10 tries in 17 games so far this season, the 26-year old from Southampton has been a central character, playing the full 80 in every match for his club this season. A regular face for the London side since 2005, he cut his teeth with the team in what was then National League 1 (now the RFU Championship) before returning to the Premiership. Since then he has been known as an aggressive player, never shy of an opinion on the pitch, but some would argue that it is that aggression that could have been the reason as to why his England honours never went further than the three caps he won in 2007 and 2008.

However, his game has matured over the last few seasons, unsurprisingly following the introduction of former Ireland full back Conor O’Shea as Director of Rugby who Brown admits has helped him come on leaps and bounds. Additionally, Brown has used the assistance of Olympic 100m champions Margot Wells, increasing his speed dramatically with her help which has given his counter attack a ruthless edge, adding to the mammoth boot he has.

However Ben Foden has been making similar impressions further up the country at Northampton for the last few seasons himself, and his efforts saw him welcomed into the squad in 2009, albeit at scrum half and wing early on. He is now a stalwart of the team and, with 22 caps, is actually one of the more experienced members of the EPS for this year’s Six Nations.

His move from Sale in 2008 came just a season after fellow Saint Chris Ashton moved to the East Midlands club and since then they have formed an attacking partnership which has helped the club become one of the most elusive and powerful attacking forces in the northern hemisphere, himself scoring six tries in the last five games for his side, including one against Brown himself in Northampton’s 24-3 drubbing of Quins just a few weeks back. It’s safe to say that both are currently on top form, making the decision on which of the pair to pick all the more difficult.

Stuart Lancaster said that he wants options for players as well as a core group of leaders. This puts Ben Foden ahead in the pecking order, especially as Ashton is likely to start on the wing meaning the two can feed off each other well. Stability under the high ball will also be key against Scotland in the opening match and although Brown has rarely faltered, the melting pot that is Murrayfield is a different creature from any other stadium altogether. Finally, and most importantly, Foden hasn’t done anything of note that would suggest he has lost the form that won him the shirt in the first place meaning there is no reason to drop him.

The sensible bet will see Foden start against the Scots with Brown maybe making a cameo from the bench late on before getting his real chance against the Italians seven days later. It goes without saying that Brown deserves his shot, but it is likely to come in Rome a week later. In a similar way to the eternal city, a rugby team can’t be built in a day, so the man to push England forward from the back is far from decided.

by Nick Winn

23 thoughts on “Foden vs Brown remains hard to call

  1. It’s a bit hard to agree with the conclusions of this article. Despite his try, Brown was distinctly mediocre against Gloucester the other day while Foden pretty much beat the Scarlets single handedly on Saturday.

    For the sake of argument, if we say they are both playing equally well then it seems hard not to pick Foden at the moment on logical grounds alone- they are both the same age, yet ‘Popstar’ has 22 caps to his name while ‘ASBO’ has just 3 (which were somewhat unfairly tarnished by off the pitch allegations). People have been complaining about the lack of leadership capability within the England side (see all the moaning about Nick Easter being dropped), yet people are proposing to start a player who is still fairly wet behind the ears in test terms over a proven quality test player. Judging by Stuart Lancaster’s talk about ‘leadership groups’ within the EPS, I think that he is thinking similar things.

    Moreover, the need for forwards on the bench means that you cannot have two dedicated fullbacks in a matchday squad (where’s Delon Armitage when you need him… forget I said that), so unless Foden gets injured or suffers a drop in form, then he seems surely the only option at FB for the time being.

  2. I tend to agree with Matt. Mike Brown has been playing very well, particularly in the early part of the season when Foden was caught up in all the bad England press, but Foden is fairly well established as the number one.

    I actually think he’s England’s best player. Solid in defence and under the high ball, elusive and deceptively strong in attack – and his experience is a big tick in his column given the lack of caps in the line-up that will probably take to the Murrayfield pitch…

  3. I’m fully agreeing with the two above comments, Particularly like their new nicknames! But its nice to have this dilemma for a change, rather than the back line picking itself!

    With 22 Caps I believe “Popstar” he will be the most capped England back who could play against Scotland (bar Hodgson who is a stop gap who I’m not taking into account).

  4. its not a hard call, foden every time.
    and its actually fodens defensive work that edges it for me.
    he reminds me of josh lewsey in that respect.

  5. Very poorly argued piece. Brown’s best performances of the season came against the under-strength Premiership teams during the World Cup. The confidence that gave him continues to see him put in solid performances in a team playing very well. But, let’s be honest, Foden is a genuinely world class performer who would be pushing for a place in the starting line-up of any of the Tri-Nations sides. Can you say the same about Brown?

    1. Whilst I would agree that Foden is still number 1, I hope Brown gets at least one start in this tournament. Yes he played very well during the world cup – he’s played very well all season, particularly in the away win at Toulouse.

  6. Nonsence to compare them Fodenis by far the superior player.
    What about the 15 for the Lions tour in 18 months time.

  7. Browns best performance was against Toulouse away in Dec and he was also named Premiership Player of the Month for December so to say all his best performances were against weakend teams during the World Cup is just wrong.

    He’s not good enough to displace Foden though but he does deserve his position in the EPS.

    1. Yep, no problem wth Brown being in the squad but just don’t see him as having the absolute top drawer quality of Foden.

  8. Good points Hutch – I agree that he is probably England’s best player, in fact I think he ranks up there with Kurtley Beale in fullback terms. The difference between Northampton with and without him is just massive – I think that’s both down to his ability as a player, and leadership in the backs. He also brings the best out of Chris Ashton, which I think Sarries may find to their cost next season!

    1. Agreed Matt i’m pretty worried about Ashton having to convert to being a kick-chase winger. I swear thats all they do at Sarries.

  9. Foden is world class, and even if that’s a touch optimistic, he will be soon. He’s one of the few, if not the only one in the England squad who could be considered that. Do we really expect Mike Brown to scare the Tri-Nations teams? Or even the Six Nations teams. An intelligent footballer but nothing more, Foden is on another level, and I’m not even a Saints fan.

    Also, form in the Aviva Premiership really shouldn’t be considered, we’ve all seen how pathetic the quality is this year.

  10. Foden has to start. In a team half filled with new caps, Foden will be one of the most experienced players at this level. The question is do you put Brown on the bench. Farrell starts at 13, with Hodgson at 10, so Farrell can cover 10 as well. Trinder on the bench to cover 13, this leaves space for whoever the scrum half is going to be and Brown. But Brown and Foden are very similar in their style of play, so will they be tempted to go for the subtle option of Goode as cover for full back? Goode is temporarily in as cover for 10, but I wouldn’t be surprised if featured, it’s at 15. He brings something different to the position, and it could end up as a three way battle.

  11. I think Brown is playing well at the moment and deserves his place in the EPS but Foden is the man in possession and has done nothing to lose his place. I think any player would be pretty hacked off if they were consistently turning in good performances and got dropped. I totally agree with the leadership comments as well as Foden was my choice for captain. Having said that, I hope Brown gets a shot in the summer as to have two quality players in any one position is a luxury England could well do with!

  12. Foden to start, Brown is in good form but i dont think hes a better full back than Foden, or for that matter Armitage.

    If Armitage wasnt such an idiot he would probably be in the squad at Browns expense

    1. Hmmm…whilst you are of course entitled to your opinion, I couldn’t disagree more. Brown is and always has been a better fullback than Armitage.

      He is deceptively strong and difficult to bring down, has a huge boot, off-loads extremely well, regularly pulls off try-saving tackles for Quins and runs very good lines.

      Now that he has added a yard of pace, he is performing better than ever

      Armitage is probably quicker in a straight line, but he has no idea how to tackle (witness his constant high tackling and shoulder-charges), does not have good vision and does not run good lines. Add his discipline issues in and he’s a liability

      Between Brown and Foden: Foden is a better counter-attacker than Brown and is probably slightly quicker, they are are both pretty even on defence and the high ball, Brown has a better boot and for me runs better lines than Foden in general play.

      Foden edges it at the moment for his experience, but it is very much a close-run thing. Such competition can only be a good thing for England

      1. I disagree Paulo I’m siding with R120. During the 09 six nations (and the previous AI series) Armitage was our best player. There were some really good highlights reels of him on youtube but i can’t find them anymore! All i get is “Armitage ban” results.

        Armitage was genuinely world class for that season but since then his stupidity and injuries have cost him a great international career. Compare that to Brown’s pervious performances in a white shirt.

        The only reason he didn’t make the lions tour was because Byrne and Kearney were in such good form as well, we had ridiculous depth at full back. And the ridiculous decision to take Keith Earls.

        Brown could become as good as Armitage was at that point. Armitage for me has already proved that when on form he is class.

        However Brown is clearly (at least) the second best full back in the country atm and deserves his place ahead of Armitage now.

  13. You have to judge a player as the whole package, you can’t just forget about the qualities you don’t like, particularly when the negatives start outweighing the positives and Armitage clearly has character flaws which at present are outweighing his strengths. He seems to do something ridiculous in every game. Back in 2009 you could forgive the immaturities (eg celebrating a 3rd minute drop goal like he’d just scored the try of the century) because he was playing well and had time to mature. Instead he seems to have fallen back in all respects.

    Brown is playing very well but I think Foden is in a different class. Brown has added an extra gear to his game and put himself right in the picture but full back is the one position in which we had a player who looked something approaching World Class atthe World Cup. Great to have options but Foden has to be in there.

  14. Additinally, re Brown playing in Rome, gone are the days when you could rest a few players against Italy, especially away from home. It’s a bloody hard place to go and in the Six Nations we should play our strongest team in every game

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