Get to know the Leicester Tiger who looks set to be an integral member of this England team through to the World Cup and beyond
Introducing England full-back Freddie Steward
Freddie Steward’s early rugby memories aren’t of the positive variety. His older brother, Harry, played at Swaffham RFC but four-year-old Freddie wasn’t so keen on the oval ball.
“I used to lock myself in the car because I was cold and hated being there,” he says. “I didn’t want to play rugby at that age. It was a nightmare for my mum, who would talk me out in the end.”
A decade and a half later, he’s thriving in the sport and looks to have cemented himself in the England No 15 shirt for 2022 and beyond. Called into the national set-up last year after delivering top-class displays for Leicester Tigers, he’s produced the same for his country.
There’s his solidity under the high ball (his 6ft 5in frame clearly helps in that area); his command of the backfield (“It’s a really important job for a full-back and you need to work as a cohesive unit with the wingers”); his competitive instinct (no doubt honed playing rugby on a trampoline – yes, a trampoline – with Harry and their younger brother Guy); and his ability to hit a line and power through the tackle (something we saw deliver tries against Australia and South Africa during the autumn).
He earned high praise from England coach Eddie Jones, who said: “I haven’t seen an English full-back as courageous in the air like him since Mike Brown. If he keeps his feet on the ground he could have a great career.”
Half an hour in the 21-year-old’s company makes it clear that he’s not one to get caught up in any hype. He doesn’t want to be one of those players who bursts onto the scene and then fades away; he is planning for longevity and that means putting in the graft.
“The biggest thing is just working hard,” he says. “Like anything in life, more often than not working hard is the way to get somewhere, especially in a sport like rugby where there is so much competition.
“I work hard on effort areas, the things that don’t require talent, I try to learn as much as I can from other players and I’m religious with extras. That’s definitely something you have to do to keep improving; it’s a non-negotiable.”
When it comes to particular areas of focus, Steward points to goalkicking as something he wants to “add to the armoury”. He’s taken a couple of long-distance shots at goal for Leicester to date and is working with Kevin Sinfield at the Tigers on his kicking.
He’s not daunted by the pressure of such situations either. After all, he’s handled everything that has come his way so far with aplomb, from playing in front of no fans to playing in front of 82,000. “I love pressure – it gets the best out of me. When you achieve something in pressure situations, the feeling you get afterwards is so much better.”
He takes his mental preparation as seriously as his physical, whether employing breathing techniques or asking experienced team-mates for advice. Most of his senior rugby has been played behind closed doors due to Covid, while when he won his first caps against the USA and Canada last summer the capacity at Twickenham was limited.
So before playing in front of a full house at England’s HQ for the first time in November, he spoke to Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell and Joe Marler about what to expect. For the anthems, he stood next to Youngs, who has been alongside him at the Tigers; Farrell told him to enjoy it and focus on doing his job; Marler reassured him that he still gets nervous and told the youngster to “drink in” the atmosphere.
“In Covid it was strange because you were playing in front of coaching staff and cameramen. You want to have fans in all the time; it’s special and makes experiences really awesome. To run out to 80,000 and sing the anthem, it was an incredible atmosphere.
“I spoke to some experienced players during the week to get some tips. I was worried it could be a bit overwhelming, with my family there, but it was a really cool experience. They told me to take it in, to give myself a moment or two to appreciate it, what was unfolding and where I was, what I’d achieved.
“You can’t play in a game like that and not appreciate the crowd and the noise, but it’s also about not letting it distract you from your performance. So walk out, take it in, take a deep breath and focus on the job in hand.”
He has worked closely with psychologist David Priestley at Leicester on visualisation and breathing exercises too. “He’s teaching me skills that are really useful in preparing for games or if something doesn’t go my way I use breathing techniques so I’m not focused on what’s happened but stay in the moment. It’s finding things that work for me.
“Before a game I go out onto the pitch and visualise; I walk to each corner and visualise what could happen in a game. I go through taking a high ball, kicking the ball out for an exit and rehearse those in my head. It’s important to familiarise yourself as quickly as possible.
“If I miss a tackle or drop a high ball, it’s about what I can do next. If you’re frantic and panicky because of all the pressure, you could drop the next one, so instead I focus on the next job.”
Steward admits that he will watch rugby even on his days off (he’s also a Norwich City supporter but doesn’t get an opportunity to see them very often), yet he isn’t an oval-ball obsessive. He’s studying economics at Loughborough University, completing the final year of his degree over two years as he goes part-time. He’s also taken up a Spanish module, trying out his language skills on his Argentinian team-mates at Welford Road.
“Economics is a subject I enjoyed at school, it’s something I find interesting. It’s difficult but it’s nice to sit down in my spare time and crack on with something else. There are lots of essays and lots of maths, which I wasn’t really ready for!
“The best thing about the degree is it’s an escape from the rugby bubble, which is an intense environment. It’s nice to get away from that and focus on something else, then switch back into rugby. I really enjoy that mix.”
He’s also a keen guitarist. When in England camp in November, he and Joe Marchant would play a few tunes with Youngs, who was learning the piano as he had one in his hotel room. At Leicester, he was part of a group of players who performed a gig at a team social last year. As well as Steward and Matt Scott playing the guitar, Dan Kelly was on drums, Jack van Poortvliet on base and Guy Porter on keyboard while Jasper Wiese was lead singer.
“He’s got an unbelievable voice – an amazing deep voice. He sounds like Elvis. We did Seven Nation Army (by The White Stripes) as well as a bit of Elvis and Queen. There was a right mix and it went down well.”
Pre-game, Steward listens to a different genre of music, favouring Eighties and Nineties tunes even though he wasn’t born until 2000. “I don’t know how I got into it but I love disco music, groove. I was 16 when I got into it. I like to listen to that before games. It’s chilled out, as I don’t want to get really riled up too early on. I love Tainted Love by Soft Cell and ABBA’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!.”
He’s clearly rounded as well as grounded. That likely goes back to his family. He talks of the emotion of having not just his mum and dad in the crowd at Twickenham but his grandad.
Gabriel Bliss, who used to play football for Cambridge United, has been a significant figure in Steward’s life, so much so that when asked to talk in front of the England squad and give more insight into himself and his story – part of a team-building process that defence coach Anthony Seibold has introduced – he focused on his mum’s father.
“I talked about my hero – my grandad; his upbringing and how he’s a role model for me. He’s the youngest of five, lost his dad very young and when his mum died she left the farm to him. He worked incredibly hard to keep the farm going. My aunt and her husband do a lot of the farming stuff now but he still does bits and bobs and he’s in his seventies. He’s such a role model.”
Bliss was at Twickenham to see his grandson help England to three wins in November. Steward adds: “He’s always said I’d play for England, since I was 14 or 15. I’d laugh, thinking it wouldn’t happen, so it was special to have him there.”
Grandad was right. Steward may have been unsure about the sport as a youngster but he looks assured of a big future now.
This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s February 2022 edition.
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