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