Mike Brown goes through his checklist while packing his bag for a trip away. The boots and gumshield were replaced by textbooks and university courses.
With a second child due in January, the Browns have moved back to their family home near London to start a new chapter. The catch is that Brown, who commutes to Manchester for university lectures, still doesn’t know what that chapter looks like.
For the first time since graduating from school in 2005, he has no job. Until now, Brown has opted not to talk about the prospect of retiring from rugby. But while the show goes on without him, it’s time to look to the future.
“I’m in a weird gray area,” he says. “I can still play – and I’d love to have the opportunity to play when everything fits – but there aren’t any gigs out there. I’m driving my transition into life after rugby and I think we’ll see which comes first.
“I’m not going to sit here and wait for one last paycheck. If anything else comes up, I’ll take it. At some point everyone in sport has to go through it and it could be for me now. It’s not what I imagined, but I loved it and that’s life.
During the summer months, Brown has been training alone at Cobham Rugby Club. He was recently joined by ex-Harlequins teammate Niall Saunders. Brown sets his alarm for a 6:30 a.m. start, meaning he’s finished his most important fitness hit before the school run.
“Training alone can be a bit bleak after you’ve adjusted to the team environment for so long,” he says. “When there is no obvious end goal, you have to find a way to motivate yourself. You have your ups and downs.
“Of course I’m sad about it, but over time that feeling wears off a bit. I had help from Craig White and learned coping mechanisms to deal with the bad moments, negative thoughts and insecurity. It’s important to maintain a busy routine.
“I was lucky. Jordan Turner-Hall invited me to Worthing and asked me to volunteer to give me some experience. It’s an opportunity to see things from a different angle, dip my toe into coaching and share my experiences.
“I’m really grateful to Jordy. Sometimes I jump in units when I want to get my hands on the ball and increase the pace. They are skillful players. People like Nigel Redman and Russell Earnshaw went out of their way to introduce me to new people.’
One benefit was the extra family time, which reclaimed weekend time with his son Jax and wife Eliza. He has tapped into contacts, new and old, from his illustrious playing career. He has spent time with Premier League CEOs, taken FA courses and is working on a Masters in Sport Directorship at Manchester Met University.
“As a professional athlete, you have to be so closed off and narrow-minded,” he says. “When you play for England under Eddie Jones, just think about your performance. Now I want to focus on supporting and developing other people. I enjoy stepping out of my comfort zone and into a learning phase of my life.
People have a perception of me in rugby – direct, challenging – so outside of rugby it was easier to show the side that is curious, interested and motivated. I’m looking at Ben Ryan’s role with Brentford. I would like to do something like that. I would love to broaden my horizons in a sport like football and add the value of my rugby career.
“My goal is a high-performing leadership role in top-class sport; build, develop, maintain. I’ve worked with so many coaches in many different settings and you get to know what works and what doesn’t and now I’m learning even more by spending time in other sports.
It can be a scary process at times when there is no job security, no deadlines to work by. I have my family to take care of and we have the new one due, but I’m also enjoying this phase of my life. I would just love to have the opportunity to delve into something meaningful, but I’m also aware that I might need someone who matters to me.
Brown admitted: “When I was dropped by England I stopped watching the games. I would just beat myself up. I didn’t even see the World Cup final. I don’t miss things like selection politics, but I do miss the excitement on match day. Over the summer, I spoke to a friend who said it’s almost like grieving something or someone… you have to face it head-on.
“You can watch games on TV and think, ‘I used to do that’, but there’s no point in running away from it. It’s just something you have to face head-on instead of hiding from, then it gets easier. Now I can enjoy watching the English lads as a support and at some point I will do the same in the Premiership games.
Brown lists the teams and players he’s looking forward to this season: Harlequins, Northampton, London Irish. He singles out Henry Arundell, Tommy Freeman and Cadan Murley as his players to keep an eye on, claiming they must be part of Jones’ plans if England are to challenge France and Ireland at the World Cup.
In many ways, Brown was part of rugby’s financial heyday. It was a stark contrast to today’s emergencies that threaten to put Worcester out of business.
“Everyone knew clubs were struggling so a situation like Worcester was inevitable,” he said. “Others are fighting too. They tried to hide behind Covid. Quins seem to have got it right. Others don’t.
It seems the rising costs aren’t matching the revenue — and have been for some time. I’m not sure owners should hold the majority of positions on the Prem Rugby board. There has to be a shake up in the structure of the Premiership.
Holding club games during the Six Nations and internationals in the fall makes no sense. You need to bring people into a space who are willing to innovate. I feel like there’s too much: ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way’.’
Rugby faces uncertain times. If things don’t improve soon, more players could be waving an inglorious farewell to the sport.