The Leicester and England full-back has all the ingredients a modern 15 needs – but in a massive rugby year he is keen to leap ever higher. From the January issue of Rugby World


“The for high ball stuff is actually the AFL in Australia,” says England‘s Freddie Steward. We’ve barely begun talking and already the gravity-snubbing star is off with a leap into the notion of cribbing from other sports like Aussie Rules. 

Later he tells us that he wants to be “the best in the world under the high ball” but his appetite for improvement there is already fully understood. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing the England and Leicester Tigers full-back throwing himself upwards at plummeting rugby balls, regardless of the human traffic around him. But then he lets us in on what he has been doing off the park on this aspect of his game. 

“There’s a ton of AFL clips on YouTube and Neil Craig (assistant coach to former England boss Eddie Jones) has an AFL background, so we’ve been through some
of them. Like the way they’re taught to ‘climb’ on top of people and get in the air is just incredible. They are the best at that in the world.

“The nature of their sport means that when the ball goes up there’s six or seven going for it, so there’s a bit more contest compared to rugby, where I suppose it’s often just a one-on-one. But the skill they have in the air, to try and dominate the space, there is still that crossover which can be used in rugby.

“When that ball goes up and you know you’ve got someone running at you and going up in the air, it can be quite scary, so I suppose it’s something I’ve just had to develop over the years. I think the key was to get the skill and the technique sorted first – and there’s still a load of work to be done on that – and then having the confidence to trust that skill. Then throw yourself at it, I suppose.”

An inquiring mind seems a useful tool in the kit of the elite player. And so while the Test end of 2022 may not have felt like the finest of moments in English rugby, with a walloping by the Springboks and Eddie Jones’s sacking still fresh in the memory, you can’t forget the fine few years Steward has had. 

He was an integral part of Leicester’s Premiership title win last season. For England, he has looked almost custom-built for them. Assured under the high ball and capable of arcing runs or smart distribution, it’s no wonder Ugo Monye wrote in The Guardian: “The one thing that makes him a mainstay for England is his rugby IQ. He has just got a really nice feel for the game.” 

He’s juggling a lot you might not realise, too. The 15 is in the final year of an economics degree, a discipline that Steward says: “I’m grateful for but I’m at the stage where I just want to get it done!” With even the briefest of explanations on the calculations needed for macroeconomics, we can sympathise. He has kept up with guitar too, and you wonder if the discipline might be used as the gentlest of escapes. Switch-off time in a world of chords and melody might be the perfect relief for the man whose days are otherwise filled with running angles, soaring trajectories and equations on the page. 

And if all else fails, there’s refuge to be had at the family farm in Norfolk, where 6ft 5in Steward won’t even be bothered to change the lightbulbs, with older brother Harry, a full-back at North Walsham RFC, standing at around 6ft 7in.

Steward’s quest to improve isn’t at a dead end yet, though.  

Asked how life has changed for him since becoming a Leicester starter and then an England must-pick, he tells us after a ponderous sigh: “There’s a bit more responsibility and I suppose there’s a bit more pressure as well. Playing international rugby and then coming back to your club, there’s an expectation on you to perform. But I try to have a mindset where I just do my job. And I feel that allows me to focus on what I need to do and that then takes away that pressure, I suppose….”

Is the beauty and the curse of experience there though, that the higher the stakes, the more pressure there is? “Exactly. And it’s all part of the game. So it’s about working as hard as you can to deal with that pressure. With a lot of stuff over the last year it’s been psyche work – so working on my mindset, how to deal with situations on the pitch where perhaps things can go wrong, to ensure that they don’t become a consistent theme. So I’m not thinking about that error for the duration of the game. That’s been a massive part of my development to (try to) get that maturity and mindset.”

Does that mental approach transfer off the park?

“Absolutely, I suppose it’s about having that resilient mindset. There’s definitely life lessons you can take from it. 

“I think resilience is something that naturally some people have more than others, but it’s definitely something you can learn. You can learn technique, so with past experiences I think you can learn to be resilient. It’s a bit of both really. 

“Work ethic, for me, is something I believe is optional. You make a conscious decision to either work hard or not. I like to be in an environment where that work ethic is non-negotiable. You want to be around people that are working hard and want to be a better team by working hard. That’s massively important in rugby but also in life.”

The coaches (And former coaches) at Leicester get a bowlful of praise here, for helping direct this driven young man down the right line. Of Steve Borthwick, he says: “He’s been massive for me. He’s always helped me to keep developing and keep learning. And he’s always working hard on the next thing, which I absolutely love.” There’s some wry hinting too at the work of physical performance boss Aled Walters, Tigers’ S&C mastermind who helped power the Springboks to a World Cup title and who has become renowned for levelling a room of burly blokes to giggling kids with a quick aside. 

Which lands us at where Steward wants the big gains to come in his game, in the not-so-distant future. We know he wants to be lord of the skies, if he’s not already seen as such. But it’s attacking on the edge that comes up a few times as something the back-three star is really focused on. 

Attack coach Martin Gleeson has been a major voice on this for him on England duty. We ask Steward to explain what he means when he says Gleeson has worked on “turning corners” and “being square on the edge”. It’s about not being too lateral and attacking inside shoulders, to create space for others out wide while developing a lane for yourself. 

Then focusing on the personal playing checklist for 2023, he says: “I want to keep developing those skills, out on the edge. And then to keep working on that high ball stuff – I want to be the best in the world at that, and it’s a challenge I’ve set myself. And to just be as secure as I can back there. 

“It is just about trying to find new drills, new ways of developing. And as I say, it’s about not being satisfied with where I’m at. You should always be looking for that next 1%, That next thing you have to work on and develop…”

Which probably means there are groans at Tigers training whenever the turtle bags come out – those heavy, bulky pads that one person wears on their back so another can safely fly into them, knee-high, as they claim a high ball. 

Steward hastily replies: “Yeah, there are lots of the turtle bags and lots of those (foam) pool worms we use to whack each other to try to replicate (limbs in the air).” The dream turtle bag-wearer in these scenarios, you’ll not be stunned to find out, is coach Walters, who makes light of the job. 

We’re past describing Steward’s career as nascent, so high have some of the highs been already. But as he yearns to find the next few levels to his game, it’s compelling to consider his position within his teams. Reliable and capable of brilliance, and assured of what he believes in too, he could have a number of roles within the sides he represents. 

“It’s a difficult question really,” he begins, tentatively. “I suppose I’m one of the guys who probably leads better with actions than words. I try to let the actions do that in terms of ‘effort areas’ like kick sprints or working hard in the backfield. I pride myself in those areas of security. I want to know that the lads trust having me back there.”

After a summer tour to Australia and a brilliant season with the Tigers, Steward was given a prolonged rest by his club coaches. Three weeks, no league action. It was something of an unusual period for an in-form kid who just wanted to maintain his momentum. Those heels simply weren’t used to being put up on the coffee table. 

But when he returned to the pitch, he was scorching. He scored a hat-trick against East Midlands rivals Northampton Saints in a fixture he already finds special. He saw the benefit, after some initial frustrations at missing the start of the season. It clicked that this was about load management in a long season with a Rugby World Cup awaiting, screaming out at the other end of it.  

Consider it yet another example of absorbed knowledge but also recognising what trust in the system gets you. Trust is obviously an important theme for him. 

And you had better trust that he will be beavering away on the non-negotiables in this hugely significant year.

This feature first appeared in the the January issue of Rugby World magazine

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