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Freddie Steward interview: ‘I felt like I let people down after England dropped me’

Freddie Steward interview: 'I felt like I let people down after England dropped me'
Freddie Steward is determined to win back his place in the England team - PA/Adam Davy

Freddie Steward’s heart rarely slips far from his sleeve. On the pitch, the 23-year-old epitomises commitment and courage; especially when soaring above flailing limbs to claim high balls. Off it, the 23-year-old is admirably authentic.

He radiates infectious enthusiasm for Leicester Tigers and England in all interviews, which could make this one, his first since a difficult Six Nations, slightly delicate. But Steward does not shirk it.

Leicester’s campaign is hanging by a thread after Saturday’s 40-17 loss to Northampton Saints. As Steward admits, accuracy has deserted Tigers in big moments of games decided by fine margins. On a personal level, Steward’s season has been shaped by the significant setback of being dropped by England. He never gave a trace of taking it for granted – quite the opposite, in fact – yet his standing in Steve Borthwick’s squad seemed about as secure as possible.

From his Test debut in 2021, Steward started 28 consecutive Tests before being rested for last year’s World Cup pool match against Chile. He was omitted for the quarter-final against Fiji, with Marcus Smith fielded at full-back, yet returned to face South Africa in the semi-final and retained that berth to begin the Six Nations. And then, on the back of an impressive individual display as dogged Wales were ousted at Twickenham, Steward was informed that he was not in the match-day 23 for Scotland. George Furbank would wear 15, with Smith on the bench.

The decisive chat with Borthwick – “it was such a small conversation but it created so many emotions” – occurred on the Monday before England travelled to Murrayfield. Nine days previously, Steward had been among the hosts’ best performers in a 16-14 victory over Warren Gatland’s men. In round one, his decent showing helped England escape Rome with a win. Borthwick’s decision was less to do with form than a desire to move in a tactical different direction. Was that even more painful?

“Playing for England means everything to me,” Steward states. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and every time you pull on that shirt is special. When you don’t get that opportunity, it hurts. That first week in particular, and the following week were difficult. I did struggle.

“But as much as I was deflated and upset – because all you want to be is in that 23 and playing – I still had that responsibility to help the team. My role was just different and I didn’t ever want my disappointment to ebb into the team or to take away from the environment.

“It was really challenging; up there with the most challenging weeks of my career, definitely. For me, it was understanding that this is sport and it happens. I was certainly not the first for it to happen to and I definitely won’t be the last. It was a case of dealing with those emotions.”

Freddie Steward interview: 'I felt like I let people down after England dropped me'
Freddie Steward found it challenging to lose his place - PA/David Davies

David Priestley, the England team psychologist, was a “brilliant” crutch and Steward describes Kevin Sinfield, another valued confidant, as “always a rock for me”. This is no pity party, rather a raw and vulnerable account of the feelings involved. Claustrophobia was part of the cocktail.

“It is hard because you can’t escape from it,” Steward continues. “You find out the news and you can’t just go home and be around your family and spend time away. You’re in camp and you still have a job to do.”

Ultimately, despite an error-strewn false start in Edinburgh, England’s stirring win over Ireland vindicated Borthwick. Furbank was excellent in the latter game and collective attacking verve almost landed England a victory in France as well. Although he did not feature, the 6ft 5in Steward was conspicuous over the last three rounds in his unfamiliar job as a travelling reserve. He joined the warm-ups before running shuttles with a few others on an otherwise empty pitch before kick-off. Although it must have been a humbling experience, Steward was not overly concerned with any dents to his pride.

“Probably pride not so much, it’s more – and this is the way I’ve always been – you feel like you’ve let people down,” he admits. “Family is always a key driver for me. It’s been my motivation throughout the entirety of my career. And it may sound stupid, but you do feel as though you’ve let people down because I want to make them proud when I play for England. When that doesn’t happen, you take it on yourself, probably more so than is healthy.

“You just have to find joy in other things… it’s obviously different, but doing your sprints after the warm-up and those sorts of things. You just have to enjoy it. You can’t be in a position where you’re disappointed and upset and you let that seep into the team.”

Freddie Steward interview: 'I felt like I let people down after England dropped me'
Freddie Steward insists he has a good relationship with Steve Borthwick - Getty Images/Seb Daly

Out of what seems a genuine desire to put the team first, Steward nudged ego aside and refused to mope. His “very good” relationship with Borthwick, he feels, “certainly wasn’t damaged”. Steward was presented with areas to improve which, politely, he would prefer to keep private. “Yeah, if that’s alright?” he says. “I do apologise but that’s a conversation that I’ll leave between me and the coaches. I’ve got things I need to work on and that’s on me now.”

A reasonably safe bet, given the strengths of Furbank and how Smith returned as an auxiliary full-back, is that Steward has been asked to focus on his distribution and linking. In reality, this is an all-consuming task. And one cannot neglect existing strengths, either.

“From the outside in, you’d probably assume that it’s all on the pitch and it’s skills and stuff,” Steward explains. “Behind the scenes, it’s picking up with coaches, it’s watching a lot of rugby – too much rugby at times, probably – and fine-tuning these little things.

“I had great conversations with players here [at Leicester]. I had a good chat with Ben Youngs, and the first thing he said was that ‘of course you want to work on the other things and make your game more rounded, but don’t forget what got you to this spot – keep hammering home those strengths and get better at those’.

“You can always get better. I’ve never been a player who has been happy with where I am or happy with my skill-set. I want to keep developing.”

‘I’ll stick to the back three for now, but you never know’

A stint on the right wing, with starts there against Leinster and Northampton, is furthering Steward’s education: “You get to see the game from another perspective on the wing and there are so many transferable skills there that it will help me become a better player. I’ve told Dan [McKellar, the Leicester head coach] that I’ll give 100 per cent wherever.”

Several observers, including Sir Clive Woodward, have wondered how a more radical move to inside centre might go. “It’s been mentioned here and there,” laughs Steward. “And it’s never been something I’ve given much attention to. I’ll stick to the back three for now, but you never know.”

One would not expect Steward to duck a challenge, and he knows he can “put my hat back in the ring” for England, who take on Japan and New Zealand this summer, with some assured Tigers outings. McKellar’s men must mount an immediate response, because their loss to Northampton was chastening. The scoreline blew out after Solomone Kata’s red card as Leicester trailed 18-17.

“You sense in the changing room that everyone is devastated,” Steward says of that derby defeat. “It’s not something you can get over in a matter of hours and minutes. On Monday morning, we were probably still a little bit p----- off with our performance. Very quickly, you have to park that and understand that you’ve got a four or five-day turnaround to perform again.”

In a typically bright tone, Steward stresses that Leicester can reach the play-offs and salvage a play-off spot by beating Bristol Bears, Sale Sharks and Exeter Chiefs: “We’ve just got to win our next three and let the rugby gods sort out the rest.”

Control the controllables and work hard to change your fortunes; a tough, old lesson that will have been reinforced to Steward in recent months.

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