Back in the old days before the commercial genie burst out of the bottle, they played for the love of the game and a free flow of beer. A chosen few even managed to find a fistful of fivers in their international boots from manufacturers grateful for the television exposure.
The better players gravitated to senior clubs and the vast majority tended to stay there, for better or worse. Examples of those racking up 300 appearances came so thick and fast that the modest landmark would have been shrugged off with a dismissive so what?
Far from being a big deal it was no deal at all, not in an era when many endured long enough to play almost twice as many matches and, in one celebrated case, almost three times as many. Bob Penberthy, the ageless Pontypridd lock revered as ‘The Bionic Elbow’, played a staggering 877 games for his home-town club from the start of the Sixties to the mid-Eighties.
The fixture list may have been infinitely less demanding than today’s but what makes old Bob’s total even more staggering is that he built it without any soft matches off the bench lasting a few minutes because the law applying to substitutions did not allow then for six of the pack to be replaced.
Today’s game, of course, bears little resemblance to the one Bob first stepped into in 1961 beyond the fact that it’s still 15-a-side. Coping with its muscle-bound, pulverising intensity is not merely a question of endurance but of survival. And that makes Mike Brown’s triple century for Harlequins the stat of the season hitherto. England’s feisty full-back may not win many friends beyond the Red Rose boundaries, especially come Six Nations time, but no praise can be too high for his achievement.
The fulsome tributes paid by Quins’ head coach Paul Gustard and others do not shine a light on the multi-dimensional scale of Brown’s endurance and survival at the highest level. That requires drawing a comparison with some of the best players of his generation, such as Alun-Wyn Jones, Rory Best and Rob Kearney.
In terms of games played, each and every one lags so far behind Brown that they are nowhere to be seen. Jones, a colossus whose passion for the Ospreys knows no bounds, started his career there at roughly the time Brown began his at Quins, 14 seasons ago.
Last week’s local derby at Parc y Scarlets marked his 232nd appearance. That leaves him 68 behind Brown, the equivalent of three full seasons.
Rory Best, at 36 three years older than Eddie Jones’ favourite last line of defence, has been at it for longer and yet the Ireland hooker’s outing against Leicester in Belfast yesterday brought his Ulster appearance total to 210. That leaves him 90 behind Brown.
Rob Kearney, a mere six months younger than his English opposite number, played his 201st match for Leinster against Wasps on Friday night. Dan Biggar got closer to Brown with 221 for the Ospreys before his summer transfer to the East Midlands.
Taufa’ao Filise stretched his Cardiff Blues appearance record to 255 last season before retiring but it took the durable Tongan until the age of 40 to do it. Another Cardiff prop, Gethin Jenkins, has had two spells at the Arms Park spanning 14 seasons and yet he lingers some way short of reaching 200.
Far from playing out time, Brown is still at the top of his game. Quins prop Mark Lambert, who arrived at the Stoop as the same time as the budding full-back, provides an insight into what makes him tick.
“Mike is incredibly driven, a man whose tenacity has ensured that he has made the absolute most of his natural talent,’’ Lambert wrote on the club website. “Since our first pre-season trip away together to Ulster in 2004 he has been quietly focused on becoming the best he can be.
“He’s been at the heart of the most iconic moments of the club in the last 14 years and is quite possibly the most competitive man I have ever met. If my life depended on someone catching a high ball, I’d certainly pick him. He is loyal and passionate and deserves every cheer he will get.’’
Lambert, no slouch as a loosehead, is edging up towards 250 for Quins. Among current one-club Premiership players, the only man who comes close to Brown, as the table shows, is to be found in the same dressing room – Chris Robshaw.
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