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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'I'm hoping I haven't changed, fame isn't a massive thing for me'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Davidson/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

If Tommy Freeman is indicative of the level-headedness of the new breed of youngsters flamboyantly making their way with England a year out from the 2023 World Cup in France, then Eddie Jones won’t have to worry about his rookies getting used to the fame game that goes with the territory of being a Test level international player.

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The emergence of the Fab Four – the 21-year-old duo of Freeman and Jack van Poortvliet, the 19-year-old Henry Arundell and the 25-year-old elder statesman Guy Porter – was pivotal to England bucking up their ideas and turning an opening tour loss to Australia in Perth into a Test series victory with rejuvenating wins in Brisbane and Sydney.

It was a life-changing experience for Freeman, two starts on the England left wing seeing him realise the potential that Leicester didn’t believe existed when they cut him from their U16s five years ago. Rejection was a jolting experience but it eventually was the making of him, his Northampton form proving too irresistible for Jones to overlook.

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Eight weeks on from his emotional Test debut, Freeman has enjoyed catching his breath in the Northampton off-season to reflect on the madness of it all. His three-week post-tour rest featured recharging trips to Dubrovnik and Majorca with his girlfriend, and then came the adjustment to life at the Saints with Phil Dowson having succeeded Chris Boyd as their directory of rugby.

So far, so good. Aside from a recent glam photoshoot on the streets of London for a lifestyle coffee table magazine interview, there has been tour feedback from England assistant Anthony Seibold as well as the inking of a club contract extension nearly a full year before his current deal expires.

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Two additional years have been agreed on, taking him through at Northampton to the summer of 2025, and the penny that rugby is very much a business has definitely dropped for the increasingly savvy Freeman, who sat down to chat very amenably with RugbyPass last Thursday at the official Gallagher Premiership new season launch at Twickenham.

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The story of the day, the dire unpaid wages situation that league rivals Worcester had found themselves in, didn’t escape him on a morning of picture posing for the promotional material that goes hand-in-hand with getting the monster that is Premiership rugby back into public consciousness following its summer hibernation.

“Being a youngster I didn’t realise how much of a business it is really, this sport and all of this,” he remarked in a corner of the Spirit of Rugby function room at Engish Rugby HQ. “It is an eye-opener but now I am in, I’m all good.”

So Tommy Freeman, about this coming of age business at such a tender age with England which you made look easy. How has it all sunk in? “The tour went pretty fast now I look back on it. It was a lot of fun with a lot of learning, but it was an awesome environment to be in and good to get on the pitch.

“Just walking out on that pitch in front of how many thousands of people and singing the national anthem, that is something I know a lot of people probably watching on telly will be like, ‘How can he be crying and getting upset?’ But it is the emotion going through your head at that point, it’s just mental.”

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Before jetting out from England, Freeman sensed he had a chance to make a telling first impression. Yet, when the moment of his graduation was confirmed and that he would start the second Test match versus the Wallabies, it knocked him sideways as it caught him totally by surprise.

“I definitely thought when I was selected on the tour the opportunity was there to take. I wasn’t sure if I was going to play or not but I knew if I put my best foot forward the opportunity was there to be taken,” he outlined before putting us in his shoes and taking us into the team hotel in Brisbane when the matchday 23 was announced.

“I was sat down and they put it up on a big screen. I looked at the bench initially to see if I was on the bench and I wasn’t and I went ah… but then I looked at the starting line up and I was, ‘I’m on, I’m starting’. That was it really. It was a wait a minute, a keep your head down kind of a thing. I then called my mum, woke her up at four in the morning because of the time difference and got them on the next plane out.”

Wonderful, but it’s now the even harder work starts. Test boss Jones has often emphasised that the average length of a Red Rose career is a mere seven caps. Freeman has just two and making himself indispensable is the long-term target on his England horizon. “Exactly and that was the first thing he [Jones] said to me. I remember he said, ‘You’re not going to be one of those players that are going to play one game or a couple of games. We never want those players, we want the ones that will get to 40 or 50’.

“For me, that was nice to hear and it will keep me hungry. Obviously, I have had a taste of it. It is special and I want more, I want to be back out there playing again with England and getting more caps.”

It was behind closed doors when Freeman first regularly made the grade at Northampton, stepping up to make a Premiership debut in August 2020 eleven months after a nervous Premiership Rugby Cup debut was followed by a sharp return to the shadows. His tally of club appearances is now 35, a figure 15 short of the 50 games that his old Saints boss Chris Boyd believes should be the minimum for any rookie getting called into a Test squad.

Freeman, naturally, doesn’t agree with that arbitrary Boyd barometer given that he wasn’t found wanting with an England shirt on his back, but that doesn’t mean the advice proffered wasn’t taken on board. “Chris knows the more I am coached the worse I am, the more information I get the more I overthink things… and I remember getting selected first for England (squad training) he was brutally honest.

“I wouldn’t say he was completely right. He said that it was probably too soon but congratulations on it and everything. At that point, I had just had surgery on my knees and probably wasn’t there fitness-wise. But no, Chris was good with his words and he can take a lot of weight off your shoulders before going into a game which is really good.

“He gave us a good platform and that [greater England representation for Northampton players] was always in his sights as well, He doesn’t just want you to be the best player for your club, he wants you to go and push people for England and get involved in amongst that. To see me, George Furbank, Alex Mitchell, Courtney (Lawes) obviously and Lewis (Ludlam), to see a lot more names on the sheet is obviously nice.

“Test rugby is completely different to the Premiership. The Premiership can be very loose and open and Test matches are all about winning different areas of the game, the kick game, the working hard, the kick chase, all of that sort of stuff. It’s a different game. He [Boyd] would have gone, ‘That experience would have helped you understand that’. But no, I was pretty comfortable and happy and I’m hungry to go and get some more caps.”

Has Freeman taken fame in his stride now that he is an England player? “I’m hoping I haven’t changed at all, I like being me. Fame is not a massive thing for me. If I get the attention I get attention and I’m happy but I communicate and have conversations with people if they want. I like that but I won’t go and chase anything or try and be someone I am not. But it is nice to walk around Northampton and be respected by your teammates and by other people as well.”

Give us an example of this new-found fandom. “It’s just youngsters really. I get a lot of young boys saying, ‘You’re my favourite player, can I have some boots, can I have this, can I have that?’

“Obviously, you get tested. I remember when I was on tour actually, being a new lad and an Australian fan came up and said to me, ‘You’re my favourite England player, can I have your boots?’ I said, ‘What’s my name?’ He went… ‘Ah, damn’. But no, it is nice to hear, nice to see young lads looking up to me. It’s how I looked up to the likes of Danny Care and boys like that from when I was young.”

That experience as a wide-eyed kid was abruptly given a hard dose of reality in his mid-teens. Freeman had initially gone down the football route before getting switched on by what rugby could potentially offer, but his body didn’t develop as quickly as his grand ambition and there was a ropey period where he thought his shot at the big-time had escaped him.

“From about ten years old I always wanted to play rugby. Getting to Saints was the first bucket list ticked and to get to England was the next step, but no one ever thinks they are going to get there really.

“Dad always played football and I started off playing football. Dad did also play a bit of rugby but I was introduced to it at my boarding school and I opened up to it. It was a skill I picked up and I was quite natural at what I was doing. U11s as well I was probably a good head high above a lot of people in the game, toured Ireland with our independent school (Culford in Suffolk), which was good fun, and from then on I just thought academies. That was it, that was the inspiration.

“When I was a youngster at Tigers at 16 I was cut from a big group. A lot of us were cut and didn’t go onto the U18 academy, so I started from the bottom again. Went to Moulton, got picked up by Saints in my second year, so I was only picked up in the academy late. That was a bit of a tough one, I didn’t think I was getting going anywhere unless I was in somewhere early, but thankfully I was picked up later.

“When I was 16 I was probably 5ft 5, weighed very little and then in that second year I just shot up. I got my legs, could run fast. I remember I’d make breaks but I’d be so slow, I’d be looking for people whereas now I can back myself a bit more. The other time (when I doubted myself) was probably my first opportunity, my first couple (of games), I probably was in my shell a lot more.

“Nerves and stuff like that got on top of me to start with, which would happen to any youngster getting their first shot of Premiership rugby against grown men kind of thing. I think my first hit out was against the likes of (Chris) Ashton, (Rohan Janse van) Rensburg.

“That was my first game, against Sale, which probably put me in my shell a little bit. Looking back on it I wish I just kind of opened up and played like how I do now but they were probably the lowest times which aren’t too bad.”

It was in January 2021, in his fourth first-team appearance, that things seemed to click and he felt he belonged. “I just knew as soon as I was nervous, that was when I wasn’t playing how I play. I remember (Sam) Vesty said this before another opportunity I got was in my breakthrough during the covid.

“Against Gloucester away, I had to come on after 30 minutes, George got a concussion and I’d to come on and we had to win this game. I just went on knowing people would back me and I’d back them and that was it really. From then on it was just you knew your game and you play to the best you can and no one can ask any more of you.”

Boyd’s Northampton is now Dowson’s, the head coach stepping up during the off-season to the director of rugby role and taking charge of the whole kit and caboodle. Freeman likes what he has so far seen, his commitment to the cause emboldened by his decision last week to sign his contract extension beyond next summer before a ball has even been kicked in 2022/23.

“There was no doubt I was going to sign it, it is a special club, a special coaching staff. Sam Vesty and Phil have been class to me. Vesty has helped me a lot with my defence, which has helped me, and Phil has helped me to get funny and has helped with my contact side of things. I wouldn’t want anyone else coaching me in the league at this moment of time, that is for sure.

“Phil has been class, very funny, he shows a good direction of where we want to go during the week on Monday morning, sets the tone early which is really nice. They won’t be too dissimilar in terms of the way we play but Phil will be a bit more hands-on than Chris was. That is the only difference I can say.”

Winning trophies is definitively the aim following last season’s Premiership elimination at Welford Road. “100 per cent. We should have won that semi-final (against Leicester). But look, these things happen. We will knuckle down and go for it again.”

Freeman Northampton Premiership target
Tommy Freeman strikes a pose at the 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership launch last Thursday (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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