England tour of New Zealand: Toughest test awaits Freddie Burns on the road to redemption
While he is in a better place now, his journey of self-rediscovery is by no means complete
It is 18 months since Freddie Burns, one of those rare rugby players more attracted by the power of ideas than he is to the idea of power, made his England debut at Twickenham: a 16-minute cameo off the bench that could have gone horribly wrong – his opponents that day were a wounded band of beaten All Blacks eager to inflict some pain of their own, just for the hell of it – but in fact it went better than anyone could have imagined. His display was a triumph of mind over muscle, brain over brawn, and it set the heart racing.
While the New Zealanders have not lost a game of rugby since that record-breaking defeat in south-west London – the reigning world champions went through the card last year, winning 14 straight games between early June and late November – the outside-half from the West Country lost pretty much everything: his form, his confidence and his reputation, not to mention his place in the Gloucester starting team.
A significant proportion of this misery was self-inflicted, although it is hard to believe that he was not badly handled by "advisers" keen to promote him as English rugby's new hotshot hero. While he is in a better place now, his journey of self-rediscovery is by no means complete.
All of which makes his return to red-rose colours at Eden Park on Saturday the most fascinating of developments, not least because he will find himself opposite a rival cut from similar cloth, in instinct as well as physique: the ever-inventive Aaron Cruden. Six months ago, Burns might not have relished the prospect. Now he sees it as another step – certainly the biggest and, he hopes, one of the last – on the road to redemption.
"The greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity," he said, after beating another tormented soul, Danny Cipriani of Sale, to the No 10 shirt. "We all know the scale of it, but I really don't see this as something to get nervous about – to be daunted by. It's about getting out there and giving it a go, isn't it?
"This has been a tough season for me and, looking back, there are 101 things I'd have done differently," he added. "But I don't want to look back. It's behind me and I'm leaving it there."
When the Gloucester pack slipped effortlessly into reverse gear at the start of the Premiership campaign last September, everyone knew it was bad news for Burns, who was not put on this earth to play back-foot rugby for weeks on end.
Yet there was no immediate indication of a serious decline in fortunes: even with his forwards in full retreat during a derby meeting with Bath in October, he played the highly rated George Ford clean off the park and went within a gnat's crotchet of winning the game on his own.
But shortly afterwards, rumours started circulating about an end-of-season move to Leicester, and while Burns did not confirm it in so many words, he made the mistake of agonising over his future in public. Gloucester were not best pleased at this baring of the soul, open and honest though it may have been, and the relationship between player and club deteriorated.
By the start of the Six Nations in February, a new England pecking order had been established: Owen Farrell of Saracens was still at the top of it, but Burns had slipped behind both Ford and the Northampton playmaker Stephen Myler.
"I should have kept things closer to my chest," he admitted. "By going out and talking to the media, I brought more pressure on myself. It felt as though it did, anyway. It turned more eyes in my direction and left me with more questions than answers. And yes, it was a hard time: it's always tough when you're not playing well and the other 10s around the country are having exceptional seasons. But there again, you expect international-class players to perform. In the end, you have to work it out for yourself and come back stronger."
Burns found solace in a positive, wholly supportive England environment. Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, continued to include him in his training squads and often took the trouble to praise him publicly for his efforts.
Not that he was being nice for the sake of it. Burns may have been a long way out of favour in his final weeks at Kingsholm – his switch to Leicester was formally announced last month – but as Lancaster kept on saying: "Whenever Freddie is with us in camp, he delivers."
When Farrell was declared unavailable for this Test because of the Premiership final at Twickenham and Ford dropped out because of impending shoulder surgery, the boss knew there was a viable alternative.
So what happens on Saturday when Cruden, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith – hardly the worst midfield trio in the history of the union code – start tearing into Burns and his inexperienced partner, the Bath centre Kyle Eastmond? What can we expect to see if the first kick at goal slips by the post or, worse still, ends up somewhere near the corner flag? Are the confidence levels sufficiently high to prevent a meltdown?
"I'm a tougher person now, 100 per cent, and I feel I'm back to my old self confidence-wise," Burns replied. "If the first kick goes wide – which it won't – I'll just move on to the next job. I've learnt how to deal with certain situations over the last few months and I'm going into this game with a clear head.
"Everything I do will have to be on the money if we're to win, but that's a thought that excites me. All I want to do right now is get stuck in."
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