Why Leicester Tigers full-back Freddie Steward embodies the English talent emerging in a post-lockdown Premiership

Charlie Morgan
·5-min read
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Getty Images Europe - Getty Images Europe

For a young man born in December 2000, Freddie Steward has adopted a decidedly quaint pre-match routine.

The teenage full-back takes a bath and listens to music. Prior to the 28-24 win over Northampton Saints on Sunday, he picked a playlist of 1980s tunes.

“I try to keep it chilled out,” explains Steward. “I don’t want to get too riled up.”

The relaxing soaks seem to be working. Selected to start three of Leicester Tigers’ last five Premiership games, and now set to feature against Castres Olympique in Sunday’s European Challenge Cup quarter-final, Steward has exuded calm and conviction.

A 6 ft 5in frame undoubtedly helps, and he has gathered high balls athletically. There has also been tidy passing. Against Saints, Steward was involved in two particularly eye-catching moments.

At the end of the first half, when Tigers were down to 13 men and had forced a penalty from a scrum that contained two backs, he stroked over penalty from 50 metres.

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BT Sport - BT Sport

Later on, his brave one-on-one tackle cut down Taqele Naiyaravoro as Northampton’s hulking wing charged towards the try-line.

Steward is self-deprecating about both incidents, revealing that he has missed plenty of pot-shots in training and describing a crucial piece of defence with a grin.

“I closed my eyes and definitely put my head on the wrong side… which was a bit stupid of me. But I did everything I could to chop him [Naiyaravoro] and managed to get hold of an ankle.”

Steward’s emergence has been aided by unusual circumstances, chiefly a crowded fixture list and the departure of his mentor Telusa Veainu in July following a pay dispute.

Still, after one of the darkest, most turbulent periods in Tigers history, he represents a bright spark.

As pointed out by Geordan Murphy, Steward played in the Premiership last March as an 18-year-old. A graduate of the club’s thriving academy set-up, he has been known to Leicester as a “very talented player” for years. But the sailing was not always plain.

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Getty Images Europe - Getty Images Europe

Jamie Taylor, a former Leicester academy coach who suggested the Norwich School alumnus switch positions from fly-half at the age of 15, remembers omitting Steward from an under-15 squad of 40 potential Tigers.

“Freddie didn’t look like an absolute rockstar of a player,” says Taylor, who now coaches at Loughborough University and works as a senior coach developer at Grey Matters UK.

“He has many positive physical attributes but has never had it easy, put it that way. Him always feeling like he was a little way off, combined with his competitiveness, proved to be really supportive.

“When the next big disappointment comes, which it will do because that is inevitable, I think he will be really well set up for it.”

Generally speaking, the passage between age-group sides and first-team action is immensely tricky. Taylor argues that difficulties arise because the Premiership stands alone and tests players “psychologically, skill-wise and emotionally” far more than any level below it. So far, Steward has found mental aspects of the step up to be most taxing.

“I think it’s the focus and the concentration,” he adds. “That has to be there every second of every game.

“When you’re playing opposite fly-halves like Dan Biggar, if I’m out of position by just a couple of metres, he’ll hit grass and pin me back.

“In other games you might be able to get away with being a bit lazy and creeping out of position but you are just so exposed at this level. You have to be on it the whole time.”

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CameraSport - CameraSport

Murphy, who won most of his 72 Ireland caps at full-back and played both of British and Irish Lions Tests wearing 15, agrees on the tactical trials.

“At junior level it’s all about run, run, run and then the first thing you have to do in the Premiership as a 19-year-old is catch the ball and kick it.

“When you play against world-class fly-halves like Dan Biggar, back-field coverage is always a challenge. That’s why full-backs need to be out there experiencing it, so they can grow and learn how to manage that space, controlling their wingers.

“Freddie is having to communicate with Kini Murimurivalu and Nemani Nadolo, two hugely experienced Fijian international wings, and pull them around. He’s done a good job of that.”

Leicester’s director of rugby is evidently, and justifiably, wary of managing expectations. Murphy says that assertive communication is a trait that must be developed. He describes Steward’s character as “friendly and open but also serious about wanting to get better”. A promising blend.

“There is more to come from Freddie,” Murphy says. “He has a lot more growth potential in him. He’s six foot five, he’s going to be well over 100 kilos and he’s getting quicker working with [head of performance] Aled Walters. He’s got work to do in all areas, but the raw product is pretty exciting.”

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Steward calls aerial security his “super-strength” and prides himself on climbing to pluck restarts, up-and-unders and cross-kicks. Teammates appreciate reliability and Steve Borthwick’s Leicester regime is a meritocracy.

“Freddie’s been absolutely amazing,” says Tigers back-rower Hanro Liebenberg. “One thing about Steve is that it doesn’t matter about your age.

“He’ll give you an opportunity and, if you are worthy of that opportunity, he will back you no matter what.”

A social media video released on Sunday, after the East Midlands derby, showed Ben Youngs receiving a keepsake in the Welford Road changing rooms to mark his 250th Leicester appearance.

Steward was sitting on a bench between Dan Cole and Murimurivalu, and admits that his mind wandered towards the future.

“It is a massive achievement for Lenny [Youngs] to reach that milestone and quite an emotional moment in the changing room afterwards – especially because he is from Norfolk, where I’m from, as well.

“It’s definitely something I will look towards emulating… a long time from now.”