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Gordon Broon frae Troon: A great player, an even better man

Brown in action against Wales for Scotland. PA Images via Getty Images

Gordon Brown would have been 70 on Nov. 1. That's not the former Prime Minister, although the rugby-playing Gordon Brown was quick to exploit such nominal confusion. Not long before his death, the Edinburgh hotel which happened by coincidence to be accommodating them both on the same night gave him the superior room reserved for the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer.

"They've put me in the wrong room, but the buggers won't be able to shift me once I've unpacked," he told rugby journalist Jeff Connor.

"Broon frae Troon" was that sort of person. Anecdotes attached themselves to him, and he made highly effective use of such stories in a successful post-playing career as an after-dinner speaker so active that he once addressed six separate functions before a single Murrayfield international.

None of his stories was more relished than that of Springbok lock Johan de Bruyn stopping a Test match to search for a glass eye dislodged by a Lions fist, then reinserting it with tufts of grass protruding from behind the orb.

Even allowing for the 'de mortuis nil nisi bonum' effect attached to those who die far too young -- he was 53 when taken by non-Hodgkin's lymphoma -- the affection he inspired was evident at a dinner in his honour less than three weeks before his death. More than 1,400 attended an event which Brown, hauling himself from his wheelchair to speak, labelled with characteristic humour "the last supper."

Presenting him with a trophy featuring the famed glass eye was typically elaborate rugby humour, but what really spoke volumes for Brown was that De Bruyn was prepared to travel from South Africa, 27 years after the event, to make the presentation in person.

It is easy, amid the affectionate anecdotage, to lose sight of what a superb player he was. Clem Thomas, who had seen them all and played against many, reckoned him "one of the best locks since the war."

To David Barnes and Peter Burns he was "arguably Scotland's finest ever forward." John Griffiths, a rare critic whose frame of reference really does stretch to 'all time', in 2003 rated him 19th among all Scotland players, second among locks only to 1920s stalwart Jock Bannerman.

Yet his was a comparatively short career. Older brother Peter won his first cap in 1964, but Gordon's initial sporting ambitions focused on emulating his father John -- who kept goal for Scotland in 1938, and for Clyde when they won the Scottish Cup a year later -- but were diverted at 16 when he needed a police escort after being sent off in a Scottish Junior Cup tie [an infinitely more rugged and adult competition than its title implies] and concluded that "rugby might be safer."

Switching initially to the Former Pupils of his old school Marr Academy, then to the West of Scotland club, he won his first Scotland cap at the age of 22 and his last at 28. There seemed no reason why he should not play on well into his 30s -- as his Lions second row compadre Willie-John McBride did for Ireland -- but he missed the 1977 Five Nations through a bitterly-resented suspension and relations were never really repaired with the Scottish authorities.

At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds he was, in Richard Bath's words "an abrasive steamroller of a lock." Brown won 30 caps for Scotland at a time when prop Ian McLauchlan could reasonably claim in his memoirs that their front five were the best scrummagers in the world.

Jim Telfer, both trenchant critic and connoisseur of quality forwards, won his last cap on the same day that Brown claimed his first -- against South Africa in 1969 -- and reckoned him "very much the cornerstone of our pack."

In particular he formed a fine second-row partnership with the joyously unorthodox Alistair McHarg. His solidity, discipline and all-round qualities making him an excellent straight man to McHarg's multiple eccentricities.

Alan Massie recalled that "Packs that contained him inevitably did better than the same pack with a replacement. He was the supreme working forward, and the most important member of what may be the best front five Scotland has ever had."

That he won neither a title nor a Triple Crown reflected a mismatch between Scotland's form at Murrayfield, where they were an extremely tough proposition, and on the road. Scotland won only two of Brown's 12 away Five Nations matches, although the victory over England in 1971 is, thanks to their abysmal record at Twickenham, remembered to this day -- not least for brother Peter's winning penalty, its trajectory so outlandish that TV commentator Bill McLaren resorted to Hawick patois for the right words.

Coincidentally or not, Scotland with his departure went from being competitive -- winning two out of four in most Five Nations seasons -- to a run of two victories in 19 international matches.

He won six times in eight meetings with England -- including the first in 1970, when he was dropped for Peter. This anticipated Australian cricketer Steve Waugh's parallel fraternal misfortune by a generation, but enabled him to become, in the early days of injury replacements, the first player to replace his brother during an international.

Still more striking is a 100 percent record from four meetings with South Africa, three of them for the Lions.

While it was sometimes the basis for criticism of him in Scotland, there is no doubt that he truly excelled as a Lion. The front fives on his three tours -- 1971 and 1977 in New Zealand, 1974 in South Africa -- may have been the best ever fielded by the Lions, and he was the single point of continuity across them.

In 1971 he was still a comparative novice. Welsh lineout master Delme Thomas and the durable McBride, on his fourth Lions tour, were expected to play the Tests and were chosen for the first two. Thomas did nothing wrong, but by the third he had been displaced -- and it was no fluke.

"He was more than a great rugby player, he was a great man."

Gareth Edwards on Brown

England centre John Spencer, Lions manager in New Zealand in 2017, was Brown's room-mate on the 1971 tour and recalls: "Even though we were amateurs at the time, he approached the tour in exactly the way a top-class player should. He was very competitive on the field, dominated lineouts and was a great scrummager."

He was also, Spencer remembered, "the life and soul of the party on tour." Those qualities were in evidence in 1977 when he won selection for the tour in spite of missing the Five Nations and "though I was probably the worst singer in the party," was appointed the team's choirmaster.

That series is recalled as perhaps the most disappointing of Lions defeats in New Zealand, but nobody blamed Brown -- or any other member of a front five which dominated the All Blacks in a manner rarely seen before or since.

The peak came on the tour in between, to South Africa in 1974. He played the first three tests, all won by the Lions, and only missed the last one because of an injured thumb suffered during one of many brawls in the third. This was the tour on which he added a fresh, unexpected dimension to his game.

While always good in the loose, he did not score a try on any of his 30 appearances for Scotland. But the trip to South Africa saw him cross eight times in 12 appearances, including two in the Tests.

Film of the second Test in Pretoria shows his role in the 80-yard counter-attack launched by Phil Bennett which ended with JJ Williams scoring, first maintaining momentum with a deft pass to Gareth Edwards in midfield, then supporting JJ on his run to the line. That back-row like quality was evident late in the game when he turned up at Edwards' shoulder to take a pass and plunge over.

That match was long won by the time he scored, but the same could not be said of his try in the third Test at Port Elizabeth -- crouching at the front of a lineout on the Boks' 22, then leaping to steal the throw and charge exultantly and unstoppably to the line, giving the tourists a 7-3 lead at half time.

No modern player has won more than his five Lions Tests, while Andy Irvine (9) is the only Scot to have played in more than his eight. His two tries share the all-time mark for a Lions forward.

Brown was neither the first nor the last British or Irish player to reach his peak with the Lions. He responded both to the quality of his teammates and, in the days of amateurism, to the demand that he concentrate fully on his rugby.

Not, by his own admission, the most conscientious of trainers at home, he had no reason not to be on a Lions tour. He, and his teams, reaped the benefit.

On top of it all was the warmth and generosity of spirit which appealed to teammates, opponents and fans alike. As Gareth Edwards said following his funeral "He was more than a great rugby player, he was a great man."