We caught up with the former England tighthead about life in Toulon
Kieran Brookes enjoying the fire of the French game
We all know the idiom about school days. For top-end front-rowers, there is also an accepted wisdom that you will have to be prepared to learn until that moment you give your back a rest and call it quits.
Unfortunately, right up until that point, you never know when the next humbling half-minute is on its way.
At 31, English tighthead prop Kieran Brookes is enjoying pop quizzes all over France. In his first season in the Top 14, at Toulon, he is right in the mixer for the giant club’s fight to remain in the division. And you better believe there are scrum battles to be had.
“I’d say the scrum is refereed differently!” Brookes starts with a wry laugh. “They let a lot more go over here. You’ve got looseheads coming in on the angle, walking around the corner. You’ve got weight earlier on, on the bind. Things like that.
“I’d say it’s a lot more aggressive. And the way they see English scrummaging is: honest and straight. Get the ball in, get the ball out. Here it’s more keep the ball in and if you have a slight (edge) in this scrum, then everyone tries to take advantage of that and dominate the opposition that way.
“But they love the scrum. That’s one of the cliches about France that came true. Back-rows, second-rows, coaches, they all love the scrum. And I think at Toulon especially the crowd love a good scrum and get on top of that and kind of celebrate it as much as they celebrate some of the tries.”
It has been a surprise to many to see a club of Toulon’s stature drop to near the foot of the Top 14 and begin the process of punching up. We have seen a change of management mid-season, and now the veterans within the club are pulling together.
With a group like this, in a season like this, at a club like this, the scrum can be used as a weapon. Players like Brookes become invaluable for that reason and actually, as some results have tightened, there is a little pleasure to be found in the tension. But as the former Falcon, Tiger, Saint and Wasp tells us, you have to gird yourself on the way.
He says: “I think as a prop you are always learning, every single week, no matter whether you are 18 or 38. Then coming over here and experiencing the way the French scrum, getting exposed to that every weekend, you learn quickly. I think at the start it was a little bit of – not a shock – a noticeable difference, in how strong they are in the scrum. When you’ve got seven guys around you who are all after the same outcome of achieving a penalty or trying to dominate the opposition physically, it’s fun to be involved. And fun when you do come on top.
“But I did have a moment a few weeks ago! We were playing Castres in the Top 14 and we weren’t dominating, but we were on top for 95% of the game. I unfortunately had to play 80 minutes!
“I think in the 80th minute, I hit a scrum just a little bit too high and after having one of the best scrums in my life that game I probably had one of the worst scrums of my life!
“It was just a little bit of fatigue and I didn’t quite get my angles right and it’s little things like that. It comes back to what I’m saying about learning, and they (French forwards) just have a never-say-die attitude. No matter how much you push them back, they are just going to keep coming because that’s what their scrums are all about.”
It’s an anecdote that would have front-rowers the planet over nodding – and perhaps cringing as some memories of their own creep in. Because in this mad sport, you can have the best scrum of your life and the worst on the same afternoon, and no matter how much we try to boil things down to the simplistic narrative of ‘well that scrum is crap and that one is good so penalties for that one all day, please,’ it is rarely that straightforward. At least amongst the biggest beasts of the pro game.
That’s why the athletes who can deliver most consistently, and get torn in, thrive. And are so highly rated.
Which brings us to how Brookes ended up in Toulon in the first place.
Halfway through last season, he caught wind of an opportunity across the Channel. Brookes still had a year to go on his contract at Wasps and says he was hoping to re-sign there, as he was really enjoying his time at the club. But seeing a new country, a new culture, a new competition had always appealed to him. Especially one he kept getting told would challenge his scrummaging.
This is when the financial disarray of Covid-time opened up a lane for Brookes. Amidst a backdrop of contract questions, league-wide negotiating on existing deals and pay cuts, the prop actioned a clause.
He still had the awkward conversation with Wasps boss Lee Blackett, but he laid out his case, that he had always wanted to do it, now was the right time, and after any new deal he might be too old to make the most of a French adventure. Ultimately, though, the choice was his.
Reflecting back on it, Brookes says: “I feel my relationship with them (Wasps) is still very good.
“I still speak to the coaches every now and again. I have always had a really good relationship with Lee Blackett. To tell him was tough, but I think he respected what I wanted to do with my career and I respected his side, in wanting to keep me at the club. Once it was all done and finalised, it was left on great terms.”
An interesting topic arrises around why more young British players don’t head abroad earlier in careers. It’s something one of Brookes’s team-mates put to him recently. He doesn’t have an answer, but perhaps it comes down to personality types and what layers you have to your ambition.
The prop has moved between a few clubs in his career anyway, playing for Newcastle, Leicester, Northampton and Wasps. But, he says, that has less to do with whether he was enjoying it at a club and more being excited about the new. This is a man who in his younger life spent two years in Australia and also had a six-month exchange at a South African school, he tells us.
For those reasons, he wanted to immerse himself in French culture. He’s dug in with the language, and his partner giving birth very early into their stay meant seeing things there from a whole new perspective. Though the hospital’s push to have as many English-speaking staff around the family as possible was a lovely touch, and the family network at the rugby club has helped too.
Brookes also wanted to take the rugby side of life in France as he found it and not assume any cliches were correct. Which is good, because what he found was intensity in training, a strong conditioning culture and a lot of talk about winning away from home.
He describes the start to Toulon’s season as “a bit of a roller coaster”, but says there was a noticeable change in mood once Franck Azema came in as the new director of rugby. But there are also big-name players throughout the squad who should be able to make big differences on and off the field. Players like Sergio Parisse, Eben Etzebeth, Baptiste Serin, Gabin Villiere and Cheslin Kolbe.
“When he came in, everything started to settle down a little bit,” Brookes says of Azema. “We’re getting injured players back. All our internationals are back. And I think as a team, we’re just looking for something to click. Because on paper, I think we’ve got a very good squad, but something was missing.
“I think we’ve pulled together as players, as a coaching staff. Things are just starting to click and I can’t put my finger on it – I don’t know what it is – but the set-piece is going well and our backs are firing, we’re missing fewer tackles and our ruck speed’s faster… There are so many different things. Maybe it’s just a mindset. Maybe it’s a new coach coming in and giving everyone a bit of a kick up the arse, sort of thing!”
The gig doesn’t get any easier. At the time of writing, Toulon are 12th in the Top 14 and face bottom side Biarritz away from home next. Then it’s Clermont at the Stade Mayol before Lyon away.
For Brookes, that means a few more examinations. Just what he was looking for.
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