Kieran Brookes is a bull of a man, with the same look and physique as a young Phil Vickery. The Newcastle Falcons tighthead is the heaviest unit in the England elite squad (124kg/19st 7lbs and 6ft 2ins) outside Billy Vunipola (126kg), and although his first steps at international level, coming on as a replacement in the second and third Tests against New Zealand this summer, were more exploratory than raging, they confirmed that, at last, England have some depth on the right side of the scrum.
With the 2015 World Cup now on the near horizon, Brookes’ arrival could not be more timely, because tighthead remains the axis on which forward power tilts. Without these mighty men you are, putting it bluntly, stuffed.
England go into the new season with a pecking order for the No.3 shirt in a state of flux, with the prop in pole position, Dan Cole, still recovering from an operation to a bulging disc in his neck. The Leicester strongman has not played since the Scotland game in the last Six Nations, and is not expected back until after the autumn series.
With David Wilson stepping into the starting position on the New Zealand tour, Brookes was presented with a window of opportunity that currently puts him second in the tight-head pecking order – although Kyle Sinckler, Henry Thomas, and Will Collier are stacked behind him, waiting for the chance to press their case as the next big thing.
However, after his five minute bit-part in the 28-27 loss in Dunedin, and 25 minute cameo in the 36-13 reverse in Hamilton, there are signs that Brookes will take some shifting. The Newcastle man’s first taste of action in the Red Rose jersey saw him under fire at a five metre scrum, with the All Blacks putting-in at 28-20 ahead and aiming to send England packing with a late try.
Brookes not only stood his ground, but got the nudge on Wyatt Crockett and, as the NZ loosehead popped-up, won the penalty that saw England clear their lines. At the next scrum in midfield he had Crockett going backwards again, and that scrum penalty preceded the move that ended with Chris Ashton’s last-gasp try.
The 23-year-old Falcons prop still sounds as if he is only just getting up to speed with the rapid advance he made on tour, and the fact that he could have missed it after a disciplinary incident in which he was judged to have “recklessly pushed over” referee Greg Garner while trying to make a tackle on Leicester’s Ed Slater in a Premiership match in March.
He explains, “I didn’t think I’d get on the tour after that. When I went to make the tackle the ref got in the way. It was a reflex – in slow-mo it looks bad, but it was just second nature. Even so, it was wrong, but because I had no previous it was reduced from the minimum of 20 weeks to six weeks.”
Brookes adds: “Once I got on the tour my hopes were to get a Test cap – but I thought I’d probably only get a game against the Crusaders unless there was an injury or an accident. The competition in training was so intense that to put your foot forward for selection was quite tough, and the coaches gave very little away, so when the team for the second Test was announced I was over the moon.”
Brookes says that his dad, John, made sure he was there to see his son’s debut, with a flying round-the-globe visit to New Zealand’s South Island.
“He had planned to fly over for the Crusaders game on the Tuesday after the second Test, but when he arrived that weekend he got straight on a bus for six and a half hour ride from Christchurch to Dunedin to see me make my debut.”
So, what are his memories of running onto the pitch at the Forsyth Barr Stadium? “I was unbelievably nervous, with my heart beating out of my chest. However, I got two scrums in, and we got two penalties from them so at least I made a contribution. I’m a patriotic Englishman, and that Saturday was pretty much a blur, but it was the proudest moment of my life so far.”
However, Brookes says that it also left him with mixed feelings. “In the changing room afterwards it was weird. I had won my first cap, but we are the England team, and we’d lost. In those circumstances the cap kind of comes second.”
He says of the second-half damage limitation exercise in Hamilton the following week, “I was conscious of the 29-6 half-time score, but you still think, ‘we can win this game’. That attitude is never in doubt when you’re playing for your country. I had some positives with a couple of carries and a couple more scrum penalties.”
Brookes’ pro rugby journey began when he joined Newcastle straight from Kirkham Grammar. With his family based in Lancashire he learned his rugby at Fylde from the age of nine, but he had Australian, South African and Irish influences – his mother is from Londonderry – as well as English.
“When I was 14 we emigrated to Australia for two years, and lived in Perth. My mum’s a nurse and my dad’s a teacher. After that we came back as a family, and I went to sixth form at Kirkham Grammar. During that time we went on tour to a school in South Africa (Grahamstown), and then I arranged to go back there on my own as an exchange student for a few months.
“I played rugby in both countries. The South Africans are massive and very physical, but they also have good skill sets. Their whole upbringing is rugby. In Australia with the good conditions you require a different skill set based on throwing the ball around. This autumn, if I’m included in the England squad and get the chance to play against either of them, it would be a dream come true.”
Brookes is also eyeing an even bigger prize: “To be involved in a World Cup in your own country is huge. To play in front of your own family and friends in 2015, to represent them, would be emotional.”
The Stoke-on-Trent-born prop played for Ireland U18 and U19 before opting for England, and four years ago, after only 40 senior matches for the Falcons he was selected to play for an England XV against the Barbarians. By the time he played for the Saxons he had attracted the attention of Leicester, signing for them in 2011, before being re-signed by Newcastle in April 2013.
Brookes says he finished his injury-hit stint at Welford Road with more pluses than minuses. “I had a good run at the Falcons, but then you get an offer from one of the best clubs in the world and it’s very hard to turn down. You get to work with the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni, Dan Cole, Boris Stankovich and a coach like Richard Cockerill, and it’s a great opportunity.”
He continues: “Leicester was a step-up in physicality and intensity, and in the toughness of pre-season training. Looking back, I learned a lot about standards and professionalism, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. I played my first three games for the Tigers but a Lisfranc foot injury (a ligament tear) – ironically against Newcastle – which had to be pinned put me out of action for 10 months, and also put me down the pecking order.”
However, Brookes says that the arrival of Dean Richards and John Wells at the Falcons has brought the same rigour.
“Coming back, it is much more like it was at Tigers. Training as a whole has changed, and so has the culture. Dean has given me confidence…he told me that I was capable of playing international rugby, and that it was time to get capped. He’s a very good player-manager, and understands that I play my best when I’m enjoying it. At the same time I’ve learned, because you get different styles of coaches. I work very well with Dean. John Wells’ input has also been massive. He doesn’t mince his words, and he’ll tell you straight if you slack off – but he gives you plenty of encouragement.”
As a result, he believes Newcastle will avoid the drop-zone this season: “I can’t see it being a relegation battle. Last season our aim was purely to stay up, but Dean has built a good squad and added to it with players like Josh Furno and the Tuilagi brothers (Alesana and Anitelea) joining us, so this season we might surprise people.”
For now Brookes’ main focus is on getting all the tighthead nuts and bolts in place, but he says he brings an added extra. “I’ve concentrated on scrummaging, mauling, and lifting or blocking at the line-out. The rest is a bonus for the moment – but one of the attributes that I can give is carrying.”
Brookes has athleticism to go with his size, but he says with the installation of a fast new 4G artificial pitch at Kingston Pitch he is going to have to work harder still, and lose four kilos. “Size gives you an advantage, but it’s no good being heavy enough if you are not fit enough or mobile enough. I’ve always had a battle with finding the right balance. This season, especially with the new pitch, I’ll be about 120kg (18st 9lb).”
However, ask Brookes what part of the game gives him most satisfaction, and he goes back to basics: “Nothing beats pushing another pack backwards – it’s a confrontational one-on-one battle, but it’s also doing it altogether as eight against eight. When that happens it’s hugely rewarding.”
It’s also the mantra of a true tighthead.
*This article was first published in The Rugby Paper on August 3.
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