Freddie Steward rises to take a high ball
Those who have followed Freddie Steward’s understated yet accomplished emergence for Leicester Tigers over the past year will have been decidedly unsurprised with how the full-back fared on his Test debut for England on Sunday.
Amid a disjointed and scrappy occasion, as the hosts were thwarted by backline injuries, handling errors and a dogged USA display, the 20-year-old stayed unruffled and accurate.
In the broader context of Rugby World Cup 2023 – a beacon at the top of Eddie Jones’ priority list – Steward’s assured performance felt significant. England will have to bolster their spine and full-back is a position that could do with another contender.
Having opted for the attacking verve of Elliot Daly over the tenacity of Mike Brown for 2019, Jones appears ready for another rethink. Max Malins was trialled during the Six Nations, then denied another start due to injury. And now Steward has had a turn – an impressive one at that.
Test starts at full-back for England under Eddie Jones
Not content with relying on Steward’s aerial prowess as a defensive safety net, Leicester have used it as a weapon.
Within three minutes at Twickenham, England did the same. Marcus Smith sends up Ellis Genge in midfield following his side’s first lineout…
…and then drops into the pocket with Malins and Steward in an arrowhead behind him:
On this occasion, USA full-back Marcel Brache does well to gather:
Malins’ shoulder injury derailed the balance in England’s backline. It also denied Jones an opportunity to watch the Saracen dovetail with Steward, which would have been interesting.
Even so, Steward’s composure shone through while England were in possession 10 minutes later. He begins between Henry Slade and emergency wing Ollie Lawrence…
…before taking Slade’s deft pass and throwing the try-scoring pass after fixing Brache:
Laying down the Law 💪
What a way to score your first Test try @OLawrence1 👏#ENGvUSA @Channel4 pic.twitter.com/RnSRw5BRHw
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) July 4, 2021
Steward stands 6ft 5in tall, but solidity under the high ball also owes much to courage and technical excellence. From restarts, England deployed him right in the middle of the field:
This one, following Lawrence’s try, was dramatic:
After a few replays, referee Andrew Brace determined that USA openside flanker Riekert Hattingh had not acted illegally because he touched the ball prior to Steward’s tumble. Even so, the latter’s landing was nasty:
How impressive, then, that when Ruben de Haas hoisted a box-kick less than five minutes later…
…Steward simply came forward…
…and secured the ball without fuss:
Regardless of how breakdown officiating may change the way teams attack, contestable kicking is here to stay. A full-back who diffuses bombs consistently is so valuable.
USA fly-half Luke Carty sent his next restart down the centre. Steward was equal to the task…
…and the visitors were clearly persuaded to head elsewhere for the rest of their restarts.
Steward’s has become steadily more dangerous as an attacker. In that regard, a superb outing for Tigers in the Challenge Cup semi-final victory over Ulster just over two months ago resembled a turning point.
His cute grubber for Joe Cokanasiga’s first try on Sunday was just as encouraging. He is on hand as Harry Randall asks Brace to blow up for the penalty…
…and creates the opening with a deft kick as defenders scramble across:
Not your average Joe…@J_cokanasiga just loves scoring against 🇺🇸#ENGvUSA @Channel4 pic.twitter.com/wiFndEnVzq
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) July 4, 2021
This angle illustrates his quick thinking and poise under pressure to find the space that Brache vacates:
As far as distribution, there is more improvement to come. Here, England attempt to bring in Steward from a set play. Jacob Umaga feeds Sam Underhill…
…before Randall changes direction away from Lewis Ludlow and Curtis Langdon. Steward steps up at first-receiver behind Josh McNally and Joe Heyes:
He has Slade as a pull-back option but chooses to cut back, perhaps encouraged by De Haas pressing out of the defensive line:
England’s back-field coverage was an interesting feature of the game. Smith was often behind the front line and, here, Steward is able to launch Genge as England borrow a tactic from Leicester:
Jones will have noted how Steward untangles himself and circles around his centres to give width to the attack. USA respond well, though. Watch Bryce Campbell and Mika Kruse:
Both shoot up and jam in, leaving stand-in wing Dan Robson alone. When Slade feeds his full-back under pressure from Campbell…
…Steward is clattered before he can release a pass. Steward holds on, though:
This pass in the 55th minute, launching a counter following Hattingh’s handling error, started with sound positioning to be on hand in the first place.
Steward then seeks out Randall, the best man to provide width, and locates him with the minimum of fuss:
A try would have capped Steward’s debut nicely. He nearly had one after chasing this right-footed grubber from Slade…
…but the boot of De Haas foiled him:
England are not short of options at full-back. Malins is an intuitive footballer. Tommy Freeman at Northampton Saints is pacey, skilful and exciting. George Furbank is part of this squad. Jack Nowell finished the season well for Exeter Chiefs and Anthony Watson may be moved from the wing again.
Steward exudes a rare dependability, though. Sunday could well prove to be a milestone in England’s preparation for 2023.