When the lockdown came into force in the UK in March, Freddie Burns’ thoughts were filled with the dread of being left out of contract at the end of the season. The lack of games to show his worth and the inability to get out and meet prospective employers made the soon-to-be 30-year-old fearful he could be left high and dry regarding where to next after Bath. 

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Last Saturday, though, all that anxiety was pierced. He took to Instagram to announce he had been snapped up by the Shokki Shuttles and all was suddenly right in his world again. Gone was the uncertainty of where his next job might be. Gone, too, the frustration at largely being forgotten about this season by new Bath boss Stuart Hooper. 

Burns essentially became a spare part over the winter. He still doesn’t really know why he was left kicking his heels so much. Straight talking – apparently – was best left avoided at the Rec. There is much more about that omerta below. First to be addressed, though, is the frisson of excitement now bouncing around the Burns household as the ex-England out-half and girlfriend Eilidh hatch plans for their new adventure in Japan.

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The RugbyPass Cabin Fever quiz featuring the battle of the Burns brothers, Freddie and Billy

“I’m working out exchange rates, trying to pay mortgages back in England, there’s stuff with the visa, how long this coronavirus will last… it’s going to be an interesting time and you just have to take it as it comes, from mobile phones to bank accounts and all that, you have got to put it all in place,” he told RugbyPass about the prospect of moving to a country he has never even visited before. 

“It’s definitely going to be a growing up stage for me as well. I have always been pretty sheltered in the Premiership and a lot of things get done for you, but now it’s time to sort out myself. I’m trying to stay fit in lockdown, losing a couple of kgs because the game is a little bit quicker over there. It’s just about getting out there and making the most of it.

“With the coronavirus, we don’t know when we are going to get out there at the minute. I’m hoping to be out around August time but that isn’t set in stone. Their season doesn’t start until later, about January it is scheduled for. But I want to get out as soon as I can and make the most of the country and the experience.”

On paper, the Nagoya-based club are no glitzy big-hitters similar to Kobe Steelers or Suntory Sungoliath. They have Tusi Pisi on their roster and previously had Christian Leali’ifano, but they are currently in the second-tier league following Top League relegation in 2019. That status, however, is no deterrent for Burns. Rather he views it as an opportunity to mould an ambitious club in a fashion he never previously got to do. 

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“I always said to my agent and to my family I would like to experience different cultures and different styles of rugby. Things haven’t gone the way I wanted them to at Bath. When I first signed at Bath I definitely saw myself finishing my career out at Bath and winning some trophies, but that isn’t quite how it has panned out. 

“I have played at Gloucester, Leicester and Bath and thought that now is the right time in my career and in my life to go out and get a bit of experience and when my agent mentioned the Japan chat, it was in the pipeline ticking over and it became a realistic possibility about a month ago. Then it became just about sorting out the contractual stuff, trying to find something suitable for me, and Skokki Shuttles were the one. 

“They are a club that are not a top, top team but they have got aspirations to be that. I’m led to believe they are making a few changes next year. For me, also when you play at Gloucester, play at Leicester, play at Bath, these are clubs that are steeped in a lot of history and you almost step into that way of playing. Especially a place like Leicester, you immerse yourself in the way that Leicester play. Similarly at Bath and Gloucester. 

“This is an opportunity for me to go to a club that is still trying to find itself really and hopefully I can be a part of building something special, developing rugby in that region of Japan and making the Shuttles a better and a competitive team. It’s a one-year contract so it’s a chance to experience a culture, help them develop and who knows where it will all end up. I’m just excited about the prospect of being at something that is almost at its infancy of development rather than going into a place that is steeped in history already.

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“I feel like my attacking game has been stifled a little at Bath. The Premiership is a great league and there is a lot of pressure on, but I feel the game now in England has turned into a game where you try not to lose instead of going out to win. I’m excited from seeing the results and the way the game is played in Japan, it seems like you go out there and try to outscore the opposition.

“That isn’t about neglecting defence or not turning up in defence, it’s about going out and showcasing attacking ability. Having the ball in hand, attacking kicks, smart decisions. Hopefully, I can bring a little bit of the English pragmatism to Japan but at the same time I want to go there and really showcase my attacking talent.”

Cooper Vuna, JP Pietersen and Tom Savage were just some of the people Burns leaned on about Japan before he eventually made his decision. It’s a deal that others will surely envy given how the recruitment market has largely ground to a juddering halt with the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s a brutal time. Even if you take the coronavirus out of it, with the World Cup making the season start later and then with this on top of it, it’s a tough time to be out of contract, especially if you’re a non-international. 

“I was worried when the lockdown happened, especially with the amount of time you had to sit around and think. But the Shuttles have been great. They were communicating with my agent and myself and we were able to get heads of agreement signed pretty soon and then the contract followed pretty soon after that. 

“I feel very fortunate and very thankful to the Shuttles for finalising this and giving me peace of mind in an uncertain time. It’s only a one-year contract at the minute so as much as I would like to stay out there and see where it goes and spend a bit of time out there, if it is something that doesn’t work out then who knows where I will be this time next year,” he said, referencing interest from elsewhere before he decided on Japan.

“To be fair the other offers were just more verbal conversations, there was no sort of concrete offers. I kind of felt that Bath was also my time to leave the Premiership for now. Other clubs were having a chat but I just feel like I would love to finish rugby having experienced a different rugby culture and something a little bit different.

“I have loved my time in the Premiership but I just felt like the Japanese route was the route that I wanted to go, so I put all my attention into that. That good thing with Japanese rugby, which you’re going to see a lot of now as well, is players doing two seasons in one year, so Japan might not be my final destination. I was having a chat with a couple of Super Rugby teams which would have been an interesting outcome, so hopefully those chats can continue and who knows where I end up playing my rugby.”

Burns’ prime hope is he doesn’t ever experience a situation like what he has endured at Bath, unwanted and unloved. Matters were by no means perfect under Todd Blackadder but he thought with the New Zealander moving at end of last season, the slate would be wiped clean and he would have a fresh opportunity to stake a claim under Hooper. Not so.

“I don’t really know,” he replied when asked why his face didn’t seem to fit. “That is probably the biggest frustration. With Bath, I sat in endless meetings where the talk was about wanting homegrown talent, people from the city. I sat in meetings where they talked about how we have not scored tries in a game, and I have sat in endless meetings this year where it was said our attack had let us down yet I didn’t seem to get given an opportunity. 

“I don’t know whether I dug my own grave by dropping that ball against Toulouse (in October 2018) and it’s something the coaches have held against me, I don’t know. That was the frustrating thing for me, the fact that I don’t know quite what I have done to warrant not getting an opportunity. I stepped in at full-back a lot this year and thought I played well. It’s hard for me. I have got to bite my tongue a little bit but it’s very hard to piece together why I have been given such a lack of opportunity.

“I’d sit and watch games where I felt like I could have a good influence and it seemed I was left on the bench until Bath had taken it to a score where a team couldn’t come back or a team scoring so that we couldn’t come back. Then it was ‘alright, Freddie, get your trousers off, you can go on now’. 

“I wasn’t too happy with the game time I got under Todd either,” he continued, dwelling on this time last year before the coaching staff change. “There were times at the back end of Todd’s reign where I went in and pretty much begged him for game time, so I actually thought the change of management was going to be very good for me. 

“I sort of felt Hoops [Hooper] rated me but obviously that proved to be completely different. Like I say, it’s one of those things, it’s people’s opinions. These coaches are paid to make these decisions and the decisions just didn’t go in my favour. I don’t really hold any bitterness towards Bath. I’ll talk honestly about how I felt and my frustrations, but it’s just the way sport is now. You just move on.

“It’s been a very tough time, but I will walk out of Bath with my head held high. I have been a professional throughout and always trained hard, knew my detail, knew my stuff, and was always ready when called on. It hasn’t worked out, which is more frustrating for someone who was born two miles from the stadium and dreamed of playing in a Bath shirt, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I’ll look forward to the move that is coming. I will just crack on and Bath will move on as well. 

“I’m not looking for a big send-off. There are players like Francois Louw who have given a lot more than I have and they are the guys who deserve the send-off over me. I don’t know whether I will be back at Bath playing. We’re waiting until Sunday when Boris (Johnson) talks about the lockdown. It’s all up in the air. It would be nice to get back and get a game for Bath and say farewell, but whether it happens I don’t know.

“The video I put up (on Instagram) was more farewell to ten years in the Premiership, to English rugby, and the comments from the people that I have played with and others wishing me well, it was nice to have that little reminisce as I move on to a big challenge and pastures new.”

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