The latest census data reveals there has been a 9% spike in Australia’s population since England last toured here in 2016. It is a significant rise but still less steep than Freddie Steward’s career graph over the same period. As recently as six years ago the Leicester full-back was a bit-part member of Tigers’ age-grade academy side and had absolutely no clue how far rugby would take him.
Suddenly here he is, still only 21, preparing to play his first Test in the southern hemisphere having recently been named England’s player of the year. When a high bomb is hoisted his way there are few better equipped to defuse the aerial danger. Is it a bird or is it a plane? In a land that reveres its sky-scraping AFL footballers the soaring Steward, all 6ft 5in of him, could probably do a decent job for Essendon or Collingwood.
He certainly has the right genes for international high society. There is a lot of tall timber in his father Ben’s family tree while his elder brother Harry is another 6ft 7in beanpole. His maternal grandfather, Gabriel Bliss, was once a goalkeeper for Cambridge United when he was not working on the family farm. Stitch it all together and you have a towering modern full-back not dissimilar to the former Wallaby No 15 Chris Latham.
Sitting in the lunchtime sunshine at a Perth bowling green, his bucket hands look big enough to accommodate two bowls each. Perhaps Steward’s key attribute, though, is the inner drive that has propelled him out of rural Norfolk and into the England squad. A fear of potential failure undermines so many fledgling careers but not in his case. “A lot of people when they hit a roadblock or an obstacle they go into their shells. They don’t want to risk it or figure out a solution to overcome it. I guess it’s about not being scared of failing.
“There were times when I was thinking rugby isn’t for me, particularly when I was younger. Early on at Tigers when I was 15 or 16 I wasn’t getting selected for tournaments. I remember not being chosen for one at Newark in particular. At that point I’m thinking: ‘I’m not good enough.’ I was not near the top echelon of players by any stretch. Nowhere near. I was quite tall but so skinny and scrawny. But that’s the point where you either give up or find something extra. I love a challenge, I love when it gets tough. Always have. I love working hard because of the feeling you get afterwards, when you’ve put everything in, is unmatched.”
Without that can-do attitude he would have spent the past year as just another sports-loving student at Loughborough University, picking up extra guitar tips from one of his housemates, Troy, and studying for a degree in economics. If his musical tastes sound old school – “I love the blues” – his mindset is thoroughly modern. “I haven’t been able to live the stereotypical student life. There’s obviously had to be that element of discipline. But it’s been a brilliant blend. It’s not been all rugby, rugby, rugby. This is a very pressured environment, there’s a lot of stress and you’re working very hard. It’s nice sometimes to get away from that, think about other things and spend time with other people.”
From Steward’s earliest days growing up “in the middle of nowhere” in the countryside near Dereham, the middle son of a chartered surveyor and an agronomist has always enjoyed a bit of competition. “I think it’s been in me since birth. My mum and dad are both very competitive and growing up all of us brothers were trying to outdo each other. We’d spend hours playing sport in the garden, probably more football than rugby.”
Back then he would never have foreseen the massive sporting leap he has subsequently taken. “I would have laughed at you. It almost beggars belief.” His latest triumph was Leicester’s Premiership final win over Saracens, when he had a perfect view of Freddie Burns’s last-gasp drop goal. “As he hit it I was thinking: ‘Oh my God.’ Then it just sailed straight through the middle. He’s charged off and I’ve never run so fast after him in my life. It’s one of those where you could win the final 50-0 and you’re still probably not going to celebrate as much as when you win it the way we did.”
Another highlight was his first senior international try against Australia last autumn when he slalomed around Kurtley Beale for a belting early score. “Once I’d got round him and was clean through it was just incredible. It was euphoric to dive over and hear the roar. I’ll remember that for ever.”
The narrow win over South Africa the following week felt similarly sweet for different reasons. “Beating the reigning world champions at Twickenham and seeing the family afterwards … it doesn’t really get better than that. To see the smiles on their faces was pretty cool. They’ve all sacrificed so much so to be able to repay that sacrifice was pretty special.”
All such peripheral thoughts melt away, though, whenever a high ball goes up. “The more you think about it almost the less likely you are to catch it. I think you have to be very narrow-focused. The ball is all that matters. As soon as you start looking at who’s coming towards you, that’s when the element of doubt creeps in. You half-commit and think: ‘I’m going to get whacked here.’ Self-preservation barely registers in his mind. “If you get hit you get hit. That’s the nature of it. You have to be fully committed and just go and get it.”
While in Australia he also has a range of other targets in his sights. “I’ve said to the boys the one thing I want to do is see a kangaroo. And a koala. And I’d love to see an AFL game live.” OK, but what about flooring the Wallabies? “The first Test is always the one you focus on. I could sit here and say we want to win 3-0 but you’ve got to take it Test by Test. It’ll be tough but it’s exciting. I’ve never played a series before, and it’s something I’m looking forward to.” Win or lose, the upwardly mobile Steward is definitely one to watch.