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Freeman's rags to riches rise

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'If you think suddenly for one moment this is normal, give yourself a little slap of reality'

Toby Freeman is pinching himself. Rugby is about to get itself all caught up in the wonderful festival that will be Japan 2019, but the unheralded Harlequins second row is gearing up to claim quite an extraordinary personal achievement on the same weekend as the World Cup quarter-finals – a possible Premiership Rugby debut just eight days before his 32nd birthday.

If patience is a virtue, Freeman is its patron saint having spent his entire career until now slogging it out on the Championship circuit. So established a veteran is he of the Discover England second tier that he started out at Exeter at a time when the Chiefs were operating in the shadows with the clubs he went on to represent, Rotherham, Nottingham and Cornish Pirates. 

It would be quiet fitting then if Freeman gets the nod from Paul Gustard to run out for Quins when they open their Premiership season on October 19 at Sandy Park. “Yeah, it’s mad,” he said to RugbyPass. “The league starts at all places Exeter away where my professional career began. 

“I’d very much like to be involved in that game, just to get back down there and play a bit of rugby. It’s just mad. I’m looking at the fixtures list and I can’t wait for the season to get going… I confess to being a bit of a rugby nause. I would have happily sat down and watched Premiership Rugby and enjoyed it over the years. You would look at it and see how things are done differently. 

“I know it sounds a very rugby nause thing to say but it’s true, you have got to look at the best to learn how to be the best. You have got to take as much as you can from the rugby that you watch, learn how to be at that level. Hopefully, I can go and compete with these boys here.”

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Harlequins is taking quite a bit of getting used to as everything is so brand new. Even their home ground at the Stoop was somewhere Freeman had never visited before until a few weeks ago. The wonder of finding himself in very different surroundings to what he was accustomed to doesn’t sound like it will wear off any time soon. 

“I have never played there,” he confirmed. “I had my first visit there a few weeks ago. I was absolutely buzzing and it was empty. I was saying to the lads that I can’t wait to play when this place is full because this place is buzzing and there is no-one in it right now, so imagine what it is like when it is bouncing on a Friday night.

“I’m boring the lads here, especially the first couple of weeks the number of times I go, ‘Lads, the facilities you have here are incredible, the food is incredible’, just going on and on and on about how great everything is.

“A few other lads appreciated seeing someone come in and saying, ‘Look what you have got here is world-class’ and it is. If you think suddenly for one moment this is normal, give yourself a little slap of reality. It isn’t normal. 

“This is a very privileged club to be a part of and I’m well aware of the opportunity I have been given. I’m working hard every day to make sure I’m becoming the best player I can be. Even at 31 I’m loving learning new stuff, I’m loving getting fitter and stronger. 

“It’s a great club to be a part of… I won’t talk about breaking fitness or breaking gym records. I’m in a place where I’m competing with the lads here and I don’t feel like I’m out of place coming from a Championship side.

“Training with these boys I certainly feel I’m holding my own. Now I have got my foot in this door I don’t intend to walk out for a wee while. I have been given the opportunity for one year and I’d like to think I can get my hands on a shirt and prove a point.”

The irony about it all is that Freeman – whose broken thumb shortly before the summer switch left his wife doing much of heavy lifting as they packed up the van for their new life in a village near Guildford – was in the frame of mind to knock rugby on the head completely before his big break came.

After so many years plugging away in the wilderness, he became resigned to never getting the opportunity he craved and he was all set to call it quits only for his game to suddenly prosper for a very poignant family reason. That improvement led to the offer of a lifetime finally materialising. 

“You would get phone calls from you agent around the classic February, March, April time saying such and such is interested, but interest unfortunately never turned into ‘here’s a contract’,” he said, explaining how he regularly had his dream dashed in the past.

“Especially when I was younger you would think, ‘Oh, this club is interested’. You would get carried away and get your hopes up but nothing would ever come through. That is why last year I was just enjoying playing rugby for the first time in many years. There was no pressure, it was the last year of my contract. I just needed to go out and enjoy playing my rugby, play how I felt. 

“I thought towards the latter stages that was it. I’d put my best foot forward and was fortunate to put a string of good performances together playing for Cornish Pirates, but I said to my wife, ‘Look, if this isn’t enough for me to get noticed then this isn’t for me’. 

“I also told a few people funny things come along when you least expect it and then a phone call comes in, the offer came through and I couldn’t take it quick enough,” he added, going on to explain exactly why his rugby so suddenly broke free of the shackles. 

“The weight came off my shoulders. I was unlucky to lose my mum at the start of last season and I went in and spoke to the coaches after I strung a few decent games together and they were like, ‘Where has this suddenly come from? You didn’t play like this last year’.

“I went, ‘No’. At the end of the day, I had seen arguably one of the worst things you can see, watching your mother die. I went, ‘Right, what is the worst thing that can happen if I make a mistake on the rugby pitch?’ 

“It’s not saying I have got a disregard for what I’m doing on the pitch and I don’t respect what my team-mates are trying to do, but I think once you get to a moment in your rugby career where you can play without fear it’s a great feeling. That is what I had last year for the first time in my career. 

“I was, ‘Right, mistakes happen but go and do something better after it’. It was a great way to approach that year and it led to me putting together a string of decent performances. That is how I ended up catching the eye of the Harlequins coaching staff.” 

It was March when a deal was announced, Freeman’s contract being the fruition of Gustard taking a genuine shine to the standards the lock was setting on the second tier circuit with Pirates. “He said there is a work ethic in me that he was very impressed with.

“I’d been playing Championship rugby for the best part of 10 years, grinding away, and sometimes people overlook Championship, but it is certainly not an easy league. You build up a level of resilience playing Championship for that amount of time. I can’t speak for Paul, but he certainly said to me he had seen something in me that I can bring to Harlequins as a player.

“Going forward this year I don’t know how I will be viewed by the players in the Premiership, I don’t know what will be expected of me by the coaches of other teams but on the flip side of that, let them think what they want to think. 

I’m here because the coaches have put their faith in me and I’d like to think that when I put on the shirt I will give them justification for why they put their faith into me and brought me here.

“I have not achieved anything by just signing for Harlequins, I want to make sure I have an impact on the field and I want to make sure I get my hands on the shirt and make sure I’m playing rugby here.”

If Freeman succeeds he will become another example of the Premiership benefiting from the talent that earns its stripes in a lower league which doesn’t get the same level of respect that the Pro D2 competition in France receives from its Top 14 big brother. 

Freeman can’t understand the prevailing attitude in England. “It’s hard really to explain why it doesn’t get the respect it deserves some times. I would say to anyone that questions the level of rugby that is being played, go and watch a game, go and watch the lads training on a weekly basis because lads are at the grind, they are going into work and are grinding away every day to try and get the opportunity. 

“You ask every player in the Championship, ‘Do you want to play Premiership?’ 99.9 per cent of them would say yes. It’s just case of the interest needs to grow. It’s not for me to say how that needs to be done. 

“There are appropriate people in the appropriate jobs to make that happen and it’s not for me to comment too much, but I do feel the Championship needs to be given the respect it deserves with the level of players who come out of it and end up playing in Premiership and international rugby.

“There is not a lot of glamour involved when you play Championship rugby. If you just want to have the title of a professional rugby player and be happy with that then so be it. But it certainly wasn’t the reason why I was playing Championship rugby. 

“I was very honest with the lads I played with, I wanted to play in the Premiership and I would grab it with both hands if my opportunity came along. On the flip side, no one forces anyone to play Championship rugby, no one is saying, ‘You must do this’. 

“If it’s not for you then don’t do it to be brutally honest. If you’re not happy doing it go and do something else. But if you’re willing to do the grind, keep your head down, get the work done and coaches will look at you. I can testify to that. If you go and get your work done someone will look at you.”

WATCH: The RugbyPass Foden: Stateside documentary lifts the lid on why former England full-back Ben Foden left the Premiership for Major League Rugby in New York 

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'If you think suddenly for one moment this is normal, give yourself a little slap of reality'