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How greater exposure to foreign clubs could rejuvenate English rugby

The Premiership is under pressure from the burgeoning success of the URC and the Top 14.

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'I saw Jonny May in the kit shed and I was like wow, this is cool'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Freddie Steward was all sweetness and light when he took 18 minutes out of his Thursday afternoon to entertain a group of journalists with multiple yarns about England, Leicester and that final-year economics degree he needs to get a start on as, by his own admission, he has been playing far too much golf lately. Set to turn 22 on his next birthday in December, the Tigers full-back has revelled in a dream beginning to his professional rugby career.


Selection to start in every single one of England’s last 13 Test matches. A Gallagher Premiership title winner’s medal in his back pocket just a couple of seasons after he featured in a 2019/20 campaign where Leicester finished a derisory eleventh. And a new two-year contract that was inked just ten days ago. It’s check, check and check again. No wonder he is beaming, his face lit up by a roguish smile.

Steward was just fresh off the Oval Park training ground when he popped up on Zoom, dotting the Is and crossing the Ts on the Leicester preparations for this Saturday’s home Premiership match versus unbeaten Sale. Not since the June 11 league semi-final win over Northampton has the youngster had the pleasure of running out to play at Mattioli Woods Welford Road and he can’t wait to bridge that 17-week gap and start what will be his 40th league game for the club.

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The Academy – Part One
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The Academy – Part One

The feet stomping of the fans in the seats overhead the team’s Breedon Stand dressing room is what jolts him most on home ground, that sense of goosebump anticipation in the minutes before walking out into the packed arena and getting down to business.

‘Bring it’ wasn’t always the defiant Steward emotion. These days he may be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Gloucester’s Jonny May as an England equal, but that very much wasn’t the case when he first walked in the Leicester training ground doors five years ago as a wide-eyed 16-year-old and clapped eyes on the then star Tigers winger.

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“The first time I was there I saw Jonny May in the kit shed and I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool,” said Steward when asked by RugbyPass to put his so far amazing career into context by describing when he first arrived at Leicester as a teenager, taking a massive step into the professional rugby world after joining from Norwich School.

“It’s pretty similar now to how it was as a training ground but I just remember being star-struck by it all. It was an incredible experience to walk through the doors for the first time and see how everything worked and see the facilities – and now I call it home.”

Steward quickly realised he was onto something good, the Leicester academy team he was joining going on to win successive U-18 titles with the likes of Jack van Poortvliet, George Martin and numerous other current professionals involved. That was a heartening development story recorded for posterity in the excellent RugbyPass documentary series on that youths team.

“Early on in training you started to realise what a talented group we had and it wasn’t just the skills and that, it was the environment that we had, the culture that was created in the academy. You learnt about the ethics and the morals of Leicester very early on and we worked very hard. That was evident from day dot really.”


From boy to man very quickly. “I have definitely grown in confidence. I am always cautious coming into a new group, you have to sort of build your way in and earn some respect before you start leading from the front. I was probably quite quiet in social situations to start with and then once I get to know people I get a bit more chatty, but it was definitely a case of building the confidence.”

Steward has made it all look easy, rapidly breezing his way to the top of the game for club and country at such a young age. Yet, no sooner was that description put to him the other day did he beg to differ, quickly scratching the surface of his polished emergence. “I suppose it all looks very glamorous from the outside but day in, day out we work very hard for each other.

“We put the hours in and there is a lot of blood, there is a lot of sweat. Probably the biggest challenge for me has been trying to balance that uni stuff and rugby at the same time. I have got another year of that and then it will be fully on the rugby and that will be nice.”

Tell us more about third-level education. “My finals are in early June, so pre-World Cup. It’s economics at Loughborough. I’ve done microeconomics. I have got macro to do this year and international money and finance. It’s not very exciting. No dissertation, just exams. I enjoy my microeconomics, that is probably the best bit.

“It all starts again at uni on Monday. It will be tough but I have to be clever with my time, trying to manage everything. I have moved back out to Leicester now so I’m a bit closer to the training ground and hopefully have a bit more time to balance the uni work and the rugby.

“I have been playing a bit too much golf lately, I need to focus back on the uni work. I like to keep busy, I don’t like being in the house, twiddling my fingers and doing things that are unproductive. In that sense, it has been good to give me a focus and it is a little escape. Rugby is a big bubble and you can get lost in it if it is all you think about all the time. It’s a nice little release.”

Not that Steward would ever resent being in the rugby bubble, especially the rejuvenated one at Leicester. “It’s the beauty of being here, having so many lads that I have come through with at such a young age, and to be able to run out there with them has been special,” he enthused.

“Jack, I have been playing with and against him since about under-fives back in Norfolk. The relationship we have off the field and the same with the other guys, George, Hendo (Cameron Henderson), Dan (Kelly), it’s a really tight group and when you have those relationships off the field, when you go out there you want to try even harder and that is massive so we will hopefully be here for a while together.”

That sounds a bit like the recently transformed England setup where players have been permitted additional fun time. Just look at the pictures from earlier this week of their watersports high jinks. “I haven’t been involved too long to see too much change but since I have been in it has been brilliant, there has been a big focus on the rugby and then we have time to bond.

“It’s understanding that the better relationships you have off the field really, really helps performance on the pitch and that England group now, particularly the one we had in the other day, is a really tight group of lads. It’s not cliquey, everyone is close to everyone and it has been really beneficial all that time we have had.”

Steward packed in a rich total of 32 matches across all competitions last season, his 20 starts in 21 Leicester appearances and eleven England starts adding up to around about 2,500 minutes of game time. That’s quite a load in this era of increased player welfare vigilance but he wouldn’t want it any other way.

“It was a long old season, plenty of minutes, but I love being out there, love playing rugby. I would have been disappointed if I wasn’t playing that often. We are very conscious of our recovery. It has been something I have had to bring into my schedule and prioritise with the number of minutes. I have been massively trying to increase my recovery and take care of my body as early as I can and it will hopefully stand to me in the long term.”

His Leicester profile has him listed at 101kgs, a heft Steward is very conscious of given he doesn’t ever want his bulk to come at the expense of speed. “Absolutely, it is all about trying to find that perfect balance. I don’t want to get too big and heavy and then take away from that dynamism and speed.

“It’s finding that balance between that power and explosiveness and also being mobile and being able to attack holes and again that goes down to work in the gym, some extras on the field so I am fit to go. It has been a challenge trying to find the right weight to be at and stuff like that but it’s exciting.


“Definitely, I’m always looking at things to improve, always looking at things to work on. I’m only two games back in so at the minute it is trying to find my feet again and refamiliarise with being out there and playing some rugby again.”

Steward has already done that and more. He managed eight tries in 21 club games last term but already has four in two outings in recent weeks, a figure reflective of the greater emphasis he is putting on enhancing the potency of an attacking game where he also scored four tries last season for England.

“It has been a massive focus for me, something I have really wanted to improve on. Particularly at full-back, you get the ball in those positions on the edge where you can cause some real damage so it’s something I have been working really hard on. I’m glad to sort of see that come to fruition but I can’t be satisfied, I have got to keep working on it.

There are lots of extras. I suppose the best thing is just to be out there. We have got some great guys here who have tonnes of experience so asking them questions, picking the coaches’ brains and just being out there working hard. Richard Wigglesworth has been brilliant with the attack we have as have Matt Smith and Kev (Sinfield) as well.

“So it’s those guys and picking their brains, and the players as well, guys like Jimmy Gopperth who have been around for years and have seen the game develop. They have got tonnes of experience for me to learn from so they have been great guys.”

What wisdom has the evergreen 39-year-old Gopperth, a summer signing from Wasps, imparted? “It’s going back to that attack stuff. He has been brilliant in helping me. A big focus for me has been trying to stay square on those edges, I tend to sort of drift quite a bit and go a bit too lateral sometimes so he has been really helping me with that, keeping on at me in training. He has been a really good guy to go to.”


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RUGBYPASS+ One last banquet awaits 'Guzzler' at the Rugby World Cup One last banquet awaits 'Guzzler' at the Rugby World Cup