ON THE pitch, Scotland internationalist Kelly Brown lets his rugby do the talking. Standing 6ft 4ins tall and weighing in at 17 stones, he can power his way through the opposition and, this weekend, a nation of Six Nations rugby fans will be hoping it’s the French who feel his considerable force.
Nothing, it might seem, could rock the 28-year-old giant forward. Certainly not something that comes as natural as talking, surely?
Yet it’s almost exactly a year since Edinburgh-born Brown stood in front of a television camera for what turned out to be one of the most excruciating interviews of his career.
It was the build-up to the Six Nations clash with Les Tricolores and the father-of-one, who on Saturday will earn his 41st Scotland cap, had been called upon to speak words of wisdom and preview the game.
“I stammered all the way through it,” he recalls. “I was so embarrassed that afterwards I called the Scottish Rugby Union and asked if they could please arrange to have the interview pulled.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d been left mortified by the stammer that had plagued him all his life, but it was there and then that he resolved to try to make it one of the last.
Today, his stammer has been at least partially conquered. While he insists “I’m not going to be cured”, an intense help programme – the same one that successfully treated Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates’ stammer – has gone a long way to improving his interview technique.
That fateful interview, toe-curling at the time, turned out to be the spur that helped push him into, at last, finding his voice.
“It was a trigger for me to finally do something about a condition I’ve had for as long as I can remember and which my dad also has,” he explains. “That led me to the McGuire Programme which has also treated singer Gareth Gates.”
Unlike the wildly unorthodox techniques used by Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue in the hit Oscar-nominated film The King’s Speech, in which he attempts to resolve King George VI’s stammer, the McGuire Programme uses gentle breathing techniques and is run by people who have successfully tackled their own stammer.
Kelly signed up last April following that Six Nations interview, spurred on by the realisation that as his game improved – he would soon leave Glasgow Warriors to join English Premiership side Saracens – so he’d find himself in ever more demand to talk about the game.
Such was his determination to tackle his stammer that even though the programme’s sessions fell slap in the middle of the century-old Melrose Sevens tournament – which one-time Melrose player Kelly, who grew up in the town, would normally never miss – he chose it over rugby.
“The only sacrifice was that the McGuire Programme was able to treat me over the weekend of Melrose Sevens, which I had to miss,” he says.
“Looking back, a bit of socialising at my old club, Melrose, was a small price to pay.
“I’ll never be cured,” he adds, “but I have a technique in place where I can control my speech to the point where I can say what I want as opposed to what I can say which is quite a difference.”
Although born in Edinburgh, Kelly was raised in deep rugby-playing country. He was just four years old when he started playing and went on to serve as a ballboy at Greenyards when the Melrose team boasted Scotland legends Craig Chalmers, Bryan Redpath and Doddie Weir.
A supporter of the British Stammering Association (Scotland), he writes vividly on its website of not being certain exactly when his stammering began. “My first real memory was when I came back from a school ski trip in primary seven,” he says.
“I was asked to stand up in front of the school and speak about it to the class. I had a script but, when I stood up, I just couldn’t say anything.”
He had speech therapy, but with rugby dominating his thoughts, he admits he didn’t pay it much heed.
“In fifth year of high school I had a few more speech therapy sessions, which helped, but as soon as I noticed an improvement, I probably thought I’d cracked it and I’d lose interest and then it would gradually get worse again,” he added.
“I just kind of accept my own stammering, too. Ideally, I wouldn’t have it, but it’s just part of me.”
Perhaps taking a lead from his Irish-born father, Nigel, a Borders vet, who, in spite of having a stammer is known in the area as a public speaker, Kelly refused to let his stammer get the better of him.
Instead the flanker, instantly recognisable to rugby fans with his distinctive bushy eyebrows, is known for regularly standing on a stage and belting out karaoke songs.
But that fateful interview, and with his marriage to sweetheart Emily Granfield, 26, looming last summer, the Edinburgh University sports science graduate finally took the plunge to tackle his speech.
Today, Kelly, who played in every one of Scotland’s matches last year, is looking forward to Saturday’s clash knowing that if the rugby reporters want a quick-fire quote, he’ll be more than able to speak up.
“I always have, and still do, treat the whole subject of my stammering with a bit of humour as opposed to letting it get on top of me,” he stresses. “Yes, I have a stammer, but it could be worse and I’d certainly encourage anyone with a stammer to go along to the McGuire Programme.”
As for the game, Kelly can only hope that by the end of Saturday’s Six Nations opener he’s talking to the cameras about another famous Scottish win.
“I expect to face a very, very powerful side with big backs and athletic forwards,” says Kelly, who will wear the number 8 shirt and play a key role in providing Scotland’s strength.
“As a player you want to be starting all the time,” he adds, referring to 18 of his first 30 caps which were earned from starting on the bench. “Especially as we go into the championship having won five of our last six games.
“That counts for nothing this weekend, though, and it is going to take a huge effort to get a win in Paris.”