Update 6th September: There is a happy ending to this story. After seeing this article, an Irish former Aurillac player put Kelvin in touch with the French club's head coach Jeremy Davidson. Kelvin has agreed a contract with Aurillac. You can read more about his move here.
"It's difficult, because you grow up dreaming of playing for Munster, and wearing the jersey, and running out in Thomond Park. Things change, but that's how rugby works. It's a game." - Kelvin Brown
Balls.ie had an exclusive interview with Ireland U20 back-row Kelvin Brown; talking about Ireland's stunning U20 Championships, the heartbreak of not getting a contract with Munster, and the struggles of graduating from underage to the professional ranks.
For many rugby fans, this June was the first chance to see the future. It was the first time to see the next generation of talent, the first opportunity to hear the names of Bill Johnston, James Ryan, or Jacob Stockdale.
For many of the players, it was the last chance to fulfil a lifelong dream. It was the last time to get themselves into the shop window, and the last opportunity to realise their ambitions of being a professional rugby player.
And how they delivered - the Ireland U20s beat New Zealand on their way to the World Cup final. We'll see a lot of the team again - 19 of that squad are already in the academy system.
But there's also been some disappointment. Some of the heroes of June weren't even offered a contract. Ben Betts was lucky - he was able to sign for Leicester Tigers after not getting a Munster deal. Others weren't so fortunate.
Others like Kelvin Brown.
Picture credit- Ramsey Cardy : SPORTSFILE
Playing behind World U20 Player Of The Tournament Max Deegan; Kelvin Brown was going to find it tough to make the starting team. But that didn't stop him making an impact. He was the only replacement on the Ireland U20s team that consistently stood out off the bench.
Brown was someone I thought could make the step up to the pros. But now, left without a contract with Munster, Brown is wondering how to pursue his dream.
Watching him during the World Cup, you saw someone who threw himself into everything. He had a future in this game.
But even then, Kelvin Brown knew that he wasn't going to get that Munster contract.
It was a shock to him back in May when he was told.
Kelvin Brown has been through the system at Munster. He's been to schools finals with Ardscoil Rís with academy back Stephen Fitzgerald. He's been on schools teams with several of his Ireland U20 teammates.
Brown spent 2015/16 slaving away in the Munster sub-academy. It's a slog. Committing the hours that a professional would, without any of the pay. Brown was forced to take on another job just to survive. He needed money to pay for his €6,000 car insurance. That meant long days, starting with training at seven am, and work might not finish until ten that night.
That's the name of the game, and Brown knew it.
Those are the sacrifices you have to make if you want to make it. I wanted to train in a professional environment. I didn't complain about it because that's just a step to get to the next stage, you know?
The year for anyone in the sub-academy was all about nailing down an academy position. That was Brown's main goal, and he was in a great position to get it, after being included in the Ireland U20s for the year.
Picture credit- Stephen McCarthy : SPORTSFILE
Brown was painfully aware of the challenges he faced. It's the same for every player, in every position, in every province.
The sizeable figures of CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony, and Jack O'Donoghue stood in his way. How much did this enter his thinking?
I was just thinking "Am I doing enough?", "Who is in my way? Who else is in the running for an academy spot?" That was my main worry and focus.
In how many years might I get my shot to play at Munster? Will I be playing B&I Cup for three or four years? I look at Shane Buckley more so than Jack O'Donoghue. Buckley would have been in the same year as JJ Hanrahan below in South Africa for their U20 campaign. That must have been three years ago, and this year he's still playing B&I Cup. I feel he's good enough to be involved in any PRO12 team around the place. We're involved in a team with such high calibre players.
Not that Brown wasn't a high calibre player himself. While the Six Nations wasn't particularly impressive from an Ireland U20 standpoint, Brown had proven his quality. He was one of the players that I thought could make the step-up to the pros back in March:
Kelvin Brown was easily the pick of the Munster representatives on show.
He didn't play much, but when he did he jumped out with his carrying. He'll have his work cut out to get game time with CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell, and Jack O'Donoghue - but Brown's versatility will count in his favour.
Unfortunately, Munster didn't agree. In May, Brown was hit with a bombshell. It was the news no rugby player wants to hear. They weren't going to offer him a contract:
They told me there was no academy position for me, towards the end of May. It was quite a hard time. This was very difficult to take. Honestly, I didn't really see it coming. I thought I'd done enough... I thought I'd done enough up to that.
It's difficult, because you grow up dreaming of playing for Munster, and wearing the jersey, and running out in Thomond Park. Things change, but that's how rugby works. It's a game.
They told him their reasons as to why; the increased competition of the younger players behind him, and that they were worried about his height. They discussed a return back to the front-row, but Brown was adamant. His heart was set on being a back-row:
In the meeting I had, I was told that my height might come against me. That I'm not tall enough for a back-row, and they were talking to me about the option going hooking. I'm was just kinda like, this is just not what I want, I want to be a back-row and I'm going to be a back-row.
Personally, I just felt that I had to reset my goals and push on, power on. I had my mind made up a long time ago that I wanted to be a professional rugby player, and this wasn't going to stop me you know.
Sound familiar? Kelvin Brown is 6'1'', and says he's the same height as CJ.
Then, he was given a lifeline. Nigel Carolan named him in the squad for the U20 Championships. A shot at getting his name out there, a chance at putting himself in the shop window. Invigorated, the process of trying to find a team for next season began in earnest. Brown uses his Shannon contacts to get in touch with clubs throughout England and France. But the responses he got back?
"We'll look at you at the World Cup", that's what I got told a few times "We'll look at you at the World Cup". And they're looking at you, but while they are looking at you they are finalising their budgets, and they are picking out their players, and they're done.
Finally, a glimmer of hope. Grenoble, who had previously taken on Irish youngsters like James Hart and Denis Coulson into their academy, get in touch:
Grenoble were quite interested. But the FFR [French Rugby Federation] brought in a rule. They've been trying to stop foreigners, foreign players coming over and coming into their academies. So they brought in a rule that you have to be playing rugby in the country since you were 15 in order to get into the academies. The foreigners can't just come over and go straight into the academies, they have to be playing in France for three years. So, I was going [to Grenoble] up until that ruling came in. I found out that the new rule was going to stop me going over at the World Cup.
That's a huge blow. Not just to Kelvin; but to many Irish players, now and in the future. Another avenue for Irish players to play professional rugby has closed.
If Kelvin was down about this news - it wasn't showing on the rugby pitch. Ireland had shocked the world in the first two games of the World Cup, recovering from 17-0 down against Wales, and shocking New Zealand with Ireland's first ever win over the All Blacks for any male team at any age. How did they manage to regroup from the horrible start to the tournament?
To be honest, the one thing that sticks out, [was] when we played England in the Six Nations. The exact same scenario happened. We got into the changing rooms 17-6 down then. It was the exact same thing, the exact same thing. 17-0 down and when we got back into the changing rooms. I was thinking it in my head, and I knew everyone else was thinking it. Nigel said it, he just said these words, he said: "We've been through this already, and we can do it again." . We just went out, and we did what we did against England, and we clawed back. Sweet, sweet win.
But however sweet that win was, the victory over New Zealand was that much sweeter. In fact, it was a picture of Kelvin at full-time that hit the front page the next morning:
They say a picture says a thousand words #Pride 🔵⚫️☘ pic.twitter.com/7zL49lXg8E
— Shannon RFC (@Shannon_RFC) June 11, 2016
In the lead-up it's all a bit surreal. Going against the haka, it's a dream of mine, I've always wanted to step up against the haka. I was at the Munster game against New Zealand in 2008, it was unbelievable. Unbelievable. I get shivers down my spine even watching it on TV.
Coming on when you're in the lead, especially when against an unbelievable team like that, you just got to keep a cool head. You just fit into the system, and fit into the pattern. Not to be behind the play, or be behind the game. You got to anticipate yourself when you are going to come on, and be able to fit in, and be able to do the right things at the right time. It all just clicked.
See Also: Ireland U20 Player Ratings: Heroic Performances In Historic Win
It felt like a regular game. It did. And the crowd, I'll never forget it. The crowd were just unbelievable. We just knew, we knew we were going to win it. With about ten minutes to go, we knew, we knew.
I've a smile on my face just thinking about that day.
I actually lost my breath. I jumped up once or twice with one of the lads. But I lost my breath, and just dropped to my knees. I just put my hands up to my mouth, and I was on my knees and the rain was pouring down.
And I was just like "Is this after just happening now". Unbelievable.
Away from the field, Kelvin was wondering what he was going to do with himself beyond June. He wasn't the only one. His Munster teammate, friend, and one of Ireland U20s' most impressive performers, Ben Betts, was facing the same reality as Kelvin after also being told he wasn't going to get a Munster contract.
See Also: Confirmed: Munster Lose One Of Their Most Promising Talents After Inexplicably Not Offering A Contract
Ben didn't have a position and didn't he know what he was doing. I remember just thinking to myself that they are crying out for tight-heads all over the place. Back-row is quite a common position, a lot of players are back-rows; whereas tight-head is so specialist, and they are crying out for them all over the place. I said "Ben, you're good enough to play professional rugby anywhere in the world. Look I'll put you in contact with my agent". Luckily the agent was in talks with a number of English clubs, and Leicester needed a tight-head, so they got Ben out there.
For Kelvin, that his agent was in talks with a lot of English clubs wasn't news to him. In fact, he was told that they were looking at him going into Ireland's third game of the tournament. In other words, his only start in June. He knew how important it was:
My agent told me that an unnamed English team were looking at me in the Georgian game. I knew this going into the game, and if I played well they were going to make an offer.
I was actually going into that as it was the most important game of my career.
The gods weren't on Kelvin's side that day. He only lasted 15 minutes before he hurt his leg badly enough to be taken off. He hadn't had long enough to show what he could do.
See Also: Ireland U20 Player Ratings: Bonus Point Win Seals Second Ever Semi-Final Spot
But I didn't get enough game time in the last two games, so they couldn't come back and make an offer. They didn't see enough of me, that's what my agent told me.
It was probably the only thing that was disappointing about the three and a half weeks was getting the injury in the Georgian game just 15 minutes in. For it to be cut short after only three or four carries was very, very hard to take. I wasn't in the best frame of mind that night, and the day after.
Having seen Bill Johnston and Conor Kenny have to go home already, and the likes of Conan O'Donnell and Sam Arnold not even make it to the tournament, Kelvin knew he had to stay. He needed to be able to show something in the last two games to prolong his career. He also had the chance to be a part of something special. An injury wasn't going to stop him.
I wasn't fully right, and I couldn't fully sprint. But there was nothing going to stop me. There was nothing going to stop me. I needed those last two games and - to be honest - I wanted to be involved in the team to reach the final, to make history. I was going to do anything if it meant, saying I was ok when it was a small bit sore, I was going to do it.
Kelvin Brown came home from the World Cup with a runners up medal in his pocket, the knowledge that he wasn't going to get a contract with Munster, French rules had stopped him joining Grenoble, and injury had cost him a spot with an English club.
Picture credit- Ramsey Cardy : SPORTSFILE
Where does he go from here? Kelvin Brown is another promising talent that is forced to fend for himself after Ireland U20s. He is not the first, and he certainly won't be the last.
It's not Munster's fault, and Kelvin is aware of that. They have one of the most competitive back-row stocks in the country. They gave Kelvin a shot, they did a lot for him.
Munster have to do what's best for them, and they were hamstrung by the incredible competition, limits on academy places, and their tight financial situation - they've had to shut down half of their academy in Cork, and move everything to Limerick.
But there should be space for someone of Kelvin Brown's ability in Irish Rugby. Ireland's playing pool isn't big enough for the IRFU to afford talented youngsters to slip out of the system so easily. There are at least 13 others from Ireland's U20 this year who won't play rugby at as high a level again.
Can something be done for these players? Is that as high as they will go?
For Kelvin Brown now, he's continuing to explore all avenues and opportunities. There are whispers of some interest in England. But he's already back in pre-season with Shannon and getting ready to stay on the radar in the Ulster Bank League following on the successes of Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy:
I'm back a week doing preseason with Shannon. That's where I'll be playing my rugby for the year. It's a club I've grown up in. Both sides of my family are Shannon. It's my club. I've been playing there since I was five.
Hopefully for Kelvin, and many other future stars that fall through the net - the IRFU can do something to keep the talent around in future.
I'm currently exploring other opportunities overseas. But it's difficult at this stage of the year as teams have their squads picked, and budgets filled, and plans made.