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FEATURE Freddie Steward: 'I wouldn’t say I've had it easy'

Freddie Steward: 'I wouldn’t say I've had it easy'
1 month ago

When Freddie Steward bounds out of the plush annexe at Pennyhill Park, England’s luxurious base camp, days before leaving for Japan, he cuts a relaxed figure. Now, it would be easy to make assumptions about the full-back. Tall, handsome and talented, his trajectory to England international at 20 was seamless and he was almost instantly being feted as the best 15 in world rugby. The casual observer could easily pass off the Leicester Tigers man as someone who had glided through life without wasting so much as a bead of sweat. Hard graft was for mere mortals. In the months that followed, plaudits rained down on him, even as England went through a sticky patch, and he played 28 consecutive Tests.

Steward wasn’t so much a regular, as an airborne commander. He ruled the skies at Twickenham and the England fans loved him for it.

Then came his first public jolt. The first slipping of his crown, in public at least, as George Furbank was preferred to him for the final two Six Nations games as England changed tack tactically. Not, it must be said, because Steward’s sky-high standards had dropped. Far from it, Steward continued to deliver. As England’s form soared against Ireland and France, he sucked it up, got on with his job and continued to be the consummate team man, but his professional pride must have been dented.

Steward, lest we forget, is only 23. He still has a decade sweeping England’s backfield ahead of him, and as his potted rugby history is relayed to him – Swaffham, then Holt RFC, Norwich School, Leicester Tigers Academy, and England, his smile, which is never far away, slips, his eyes narrow and he takes on a more earnest disposition, when asked to dip into the well and speak about disappointment and the R-word; resilience.

This is where breezy assumptions are dangerous, and usually misplaced.

Freddie Steward
Freddie Steward scored against Japan last Autumn in an entertaining World Cup Pool match (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“I wouldn’t say I’ve had it easy”, he says, when his rap sheet of achievement is levelled at him. “Even at school, we’d have these Barbarian camps where they’d gather boys from all these different schools and pick squads for regional games. I’d never get picked,” he says, eyes widening. “It happened on three consecutive occasions. Even at Under-16 level with Leicester Tigers, I didn’t get picked for the big Academy festivals. I was an early developer height-wise, but I stalled physically from 13-15, where I was very skinny and wiry. I struggled in that period.”

Indeed, such was the inner turmoil about whether he would make it as a rugby professional that Steward felt compelled to read economics at Loughborough, so he had a safety net if rugby spat him out, as it does with thousands of broken-hearted, rugby obsessed youngsters every year. His degree wasn’t wasted, and in the throes of a never ending election campaign, he admits to following the economic arguments of each candidate. He is an advocate for education. “You know you can be axed at any moment in an academy at 18. Perhaps back then, I didn’t have  enough belief in myself. University was my fall-back option if rugby didn’t go to plan. Fortunately, I started to kick on, but I loved having something outside rugby. Having mates outside rugby really benefitted me. I could switch on and switch off to my studies. When you’re in camp, it’s all consuming, you need a release.”

We had an academy coach called Jamie Taylor. He didn’t just teach us about rugby, he taught us about life. You know, attitude, how to deal with outside noise, punctuality and hard work.

This level-headedness is reassuring to hear. A dose of disappointment in one’s youth can be a bitter pill to swallow but is a precious lesson to learn. Steward, it seems, has his size 12s planted firmly to the ground. There is no Conor McGregor-style swagger, hanks in no small part down to the club he chose to play for. “We had an academy coach called Jamie Taylor. He didn’t just teach us about rugby, he taught us about life. You know, attitude, how to deal with outside noise, punctuality and hard work. That will always be number one. Of course, talent, skill and physical size are important but you have to have a capacity for graft. That’s what he instilled in me.”

Even so, despite his humility, woven in from a young age, for any young athlete thrust into the public eye nothing can quite prepare you for fame, even if it’s rugby fame, and not the megawatt scrutiny the England football team, and wunderkind Jude Bellingham, are subjected to. “The public profile didn’t really hit home until I made my debut for England. It was the Autumn internationals in 2021 when I started getting recognised outside rugby circles. I was still studying at Loughborough, just a normal student, where I enjoyed going incognito. I don’t find it especially difficult to deal with, I just try to carry on being myself.”

Alluding to the last few months and the first public blow to a sportsman’s ego and Steward is sanguine. “I’ve always said you need to experience failure. That teaches you more about yourself than when things go well. Speak to players like Ben Youngs, England’s most capped player, and he’ll tell you all players have their ups and downs. I remember Jamie (Taylor) showing us an illustration of a mountain but with cracks and crevasses. The lesson was there’s never a smooth progression to getting to the top. Never a straight path. Understanding that was very important.”

Speaking of his formative years wearing the Red Rose, when he seemingly could do no wrong, Steward can now reflect on how column inches and hype around players can weigh on young players’ shoulders. “When you come onto the scene, you’re this bright young thing and everything is blown massively out of proportion. You’re expected to maintain that upward trajectory and in international sport that is very difficult. You just try not to be affected by outside variables, deal with what’s thrown at you and with any luck, you’ll emerge the other side.”

Guys like Lenny [Ben Youngs] have been so important to setting the culture and values of a club like Leicester. As soon as you came through the door as a youngster, he’d put his arm around you and you’d feel like you’ve known him forever.

Steward very much seems like he’s mentally intact, and that’s a glowing endorsement of life at Leicester. “Guys like Lenny [Ben Youngs] have been so important to setting the culture and values of a club like Leicester. As soon as you came through the door as a youngster, he’d put his arm around you and you’d feel like you’ve known him forever. Those stalwarts make a real effort with the young guys. It’s so important because when we’re the older generation, we’ll do the same with the academy boys coming through. You don’t last long at Tigers if you come in with an ego.”

I wager it must be difficult as a player finding the balance between showing a coach you’re full of confidence and yet willing to show humility and even vulnerability to learn and take the knocks. When the more attack-minded Furbank was selected ahead of him, for the only time in the interview, Steward straight-bats the question about what was discussed between him and Steve Borthwick and declines to answer. “I’ve been asked this many times and my consistent message is I’d like to keep it between myself and Steve,” he smiles, apologetically.

Freddie Steward
Steward has had to grow up in the public eye, with its ups and downs (Photo Seb Daly/Getty Images)

Fair enough. Keeping his counsel on private conversations is his prerogative, and that maturity to know his own mind and decide what information to impart and what to keep confidential is to be admired. Regardless, surviving in the pressure cooker of international rugby can play upon a young athlete’s mind. Steward doesn’t mind admitting he’s worked with consultant psychologist David Priestley.

“In rugby you have to grow up very quickly. I probably disregarded the mental side of professional sport early on. I didn’t value it. Having that professional maturity in those high-pressure situations, which Test rugby is, is incredibly important because you’re thrown in at the deep end. David has been a massive help, first with Steve at Leicester and now with England. I wanted to learn more about the mental side of elite performance and I now see him as a mentor. I don’t just speak to him about rugby, I speak to him about all sorts of things in my life, dealing with emotions. He’s been fantastic for me.”

I love Browny [Mike Brown]. He’s knocking on but I’ve never met such a competitive man. He’s achieved so much in his career and yet he still has the hunger and fight to compete.

Another inspiration for Steward has come in the shape of 72-cap England full-back Mike Brown, who at 38, and 15 years his senior, is still pushing him every step of the way at club level. “I love Browny. He’s knocking on but I’ve never met such a competitive man. He’s achieved so much in his career and yet he still has the hunger and fight to compete. He’s so selfless, not everyone knows that. Sometimes when you have older and younger guys in the same position and there’s friction, but it tells you everything about Browny that he was so keen and eager to help me.”

As a Leicester fan, it was another classy operator who captivated a young Steward, when club legend Geordan Murphy patrolled the backfield. They say never meet your heroes, but Steward wasn’t disappointed. “I was fortunate enough to have Geordie as a coach for a year when I turned professional, which was surreal. As a coach, he was a massive part of my development. He trusted and believed in me and gave me an opportunity when many others wouldn’t have, so I owe him hugely.”

Freddie Steward
Steward will venture to New Zealand for the first time in a matter of weeks (Photo Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Given the raft of experienced full-backs in the last decade, Steward’s admiration is, perhaps surprisingly, saved for a Welshman: Leigh Halfpenny. “Having watched him studiously in Six Nations games, I really rated him. It was his bravery on the pitch. We’re very different in stature but his high-ball skills, positioning and ability to turn defence into attack was brilliant. I managed to swap shirts with him at the Principality Stadium a few years ago, which was really special. It’s sat at home and mounted on the wall. He’s such a lovely guy.”

Currently in Japan, awaiting a Test at the National Stadium in Tokyo, before heading to New Zealand for the first time since 2014, Steward is relishing a chance to add to his 31 caps. “I love touring. I went to Australia two years ago and I’m excited to be out in Japan trying the sushi. You’re able to delve into a culture while doing something you love and facing a top professional side. Then obviously, you want to play against the best sides in the world, and the All Blacks in their own backyard are certainly that.”

My favourite part of any game is after the final whistle, finding my parents and seeing them smile no matter what.

Whether Steward is selected to start or not, you know he has the tools to deal with whatever is thrown at him. What ultimately gives him satisfaction is making his family proud. “My favourite part of any game is after the final whistle, finding my parents and seeing them smile no matter what. They’re a bit bored now because all their boys have moved out but they’ve worked incredibly hard. Seeing what they sacrificed for us makes it all the more special when I can give something back.”

With that, it’s a firm handshake and he’s off, back onto the paddock to work on his game. England fans needn’t worry about Freddie. He’ll be just fine.

You can watch Japan versus England live and free on RugbyPass TV here https://rugbypass.tv/signup

Comments

1 Comment
j
john 30 days ago

Did nothing wrong but when England wanted to run there possession ball looked as though he had never been asked to do that.

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