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."


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine