Brown Relishing Canterbury Homecoming
Photo Crecit: Kevin Clarke – CMG Sport
No one was more ecstatic with Manly’s decision to bring an NRL fixture to Christchurch for at least the next two seasons than veteran Sea Eagles utility Lewis Brown.
The proud Canterbury product and Riccarton Knights junior was on hand at AMI Stadium on Tuesday – alongside Manly COO Neil Bare, Walco Events’ Justin Wallace and Vbase’s Darren Burden – for the announcement, and the opportunity to play at the ground for the first time since his teens will represent a career highlight.
Brown trained and served as a ball-boy at the old Addington Showgrounds (ironically, Wallace was one of his first coaches) and was just 17 when he featured in Riccarton’s 33-14 win over Linwood in the 2004 premier grand final at what was then known as Rugby League Park.
He also represented Canterbury Bulls at the venue in 2005 before chasing his dream of playing rugby league professionally, a journey that has taken him to Sydney, then Auckland and back to Sydney over the last decade.
“This is where my dreams begun to play in the NRL,” Brown said.
“To be able come back and play here with my club and play in the NRL is going to awesome.
“Every knows in Christchurch how much the city means to me. To be able to bring back my professional club to play a game here is really exciting.
“Back in the day, Addington Showgrounds was where it all began for me.
“I’d get dropped off on Wednesday nights to be a ball-boy for premier games, have a feed of hot chips and get $5 after the game.”
After stints in the lower grades for Cronulla, Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers, Brown belatedly made his NRL debut as a 22-year-old in 2009 after being snapped up by the New Zealand Warriors.
His versatility, consistency and game-breaking ability became a key facet of the Warriors’ make-up, in the centres or second-row, while he enjoyed a Christchurch homecoming in just his 28th appearance in the top flight, starring in the epic 20-18 win over the Roosters at the former AMI Stadium in Phillipstown in 2010.
A Kiwi Test debutant in 2011, few will forget Brown’s iconic late try after rookie halfback Shaun Johnson’s mesmerising run to seal the Warriors’ place in that year’s grand final with a preliminary final upset of Melbourne.
Brown was lured to Penrith in 2013 by former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary, spending three seasons at the club and featuring in its charge to a prelim appearance in 2014. He was squeezed out of the Panthers by salary-cap pressures at the end of 2015, however, joining the Sea Eagles on a three-year deal.
While the new-look Manly side struggled in the bottom half of the ladder, Brown could only look on from afar with envy as his former teams clashed at the spiritual home of rugby league in Canterbury in 2016.
“It was tough,” Brown admitted.
“(Penrith and I had) talked about doing something together, and obviously at the end of the day that’s how rugby league works out sometimes.
“I tuned into that game – my two old clubs going head to head – and it was good to see a sell-out crowd here, and to see the smile on the kids’ faces.
“I know from coming back to the city at Christmas time, there was people still raving about how good a night it was and how great it was for the community.”
But it has finally come full circle for the 30-year-old, who was presented with a Riccarton Knights jersey by a junior player from the club in a touching gesture after the announcement.
Virtually every NRL player holds their junior club in high esteem, and Brown – whose cousin, Sam Brown, is the Knights’ current premier head coach – is no different.
“It’s been a big part of my career, I wouldn’t be where I am today without them,” he said.
“I remember as a little kid training at Crosbie Park, the home of the Knights, and filtering from under-10s all the way up to winning the premier grand final with them, it’s a club I hold close to my heart.
“For me to come here today and receive a jumper, and represent them more so than bringing a game back here, is really exciting.”
Iron-man Brown, who this weekend will play his 195th NRL game from a possible 214 since his debut, also said inspiring the next generation of potential rugby league stars is a huge motivator.
“It’s pretty crazy to think that I was one of those kids not so long ago.
“It will be exciting for young kids in the community and the whole of Christchurch to rub shoulders with some of the big names in the NRL, with the likes of Cherry (Daly Cherry-Evans), Marty Taupau, Tommy Trbojevic coming back.
“It’s really exciting to showcase an NRL game here. At Manly we play a good brand of footy, it can be quite exciting.
“(We) also want to get a support base here, and give the kids an insight into what it’s like to be a professional rugby league player and hopefully, even if it’s only one or two, give them the dream of playing in the NRL.
“This community has been through a lot, so if we can do something to put a smile on their face I’m willing to put my hand up.”
But the veteran of 15 Tests for New Zealand may get an earlier opportunity to run out onto AMI Stadium ahead of Manly’s historic visit. A front-line contender for the Kiwis’ World Cup squad, Brown is hopeful of lining up in the Christchurch-hosted pool match against Scotland on November 4.
“That would be exciting – obviously it’s dependent on selection,” he said.
“‘Kiddy’ (coach David Kidwell) is from here as well, he holds strong ties and I know how passionate he is about the city.
“So it will be exciting for him, and I’m sure whoever he selects will do the community and the country proud.”
Meanwhile, Bare said Brown’s input was a crucial factor in the Sea Eagles choosing Christchurch as a ‘home away from home’ for the next two years and beyond.
“I certainly had a few conversations with Lewis while the discussions were ongoing with Justin and Darren,” Bare said.
“He was very strong about how well-supported rugby league was in the area and what it meant to the locals and how we really did need to bring a game back.
“He was very supportive, and I know he’s probably got a future beyond (playing) back in the district around rugby league, so it’s great to give him that leverage post-football.”
Bare revealed the club will work with junior players and clubs as part of their commitment to Canterbury region, with the hope of unearthing the ‘next Lewis Brown’.
“We want to establish a pathway in the South Island.
“We came across (to New Zealand) last year and signed two players who are in the Kiwis Under-16s national team, so they will finish their schooling in New Zealand then come across into our junior elite squads.
“To be able to do that (in Canterbury) you need a presence and to be actually playing games in front of these players.
“We’ve always got our eyes and ears around, but it would be great to spend a bit more time here, and having a game here will allow us to do so.”