A less than cordial parting of the ways with Bath sees former England fly-half Freddie Burns waiting to embark on a new chapter in Japan with the Shokki Shuttles. He talks to NEALE HARVEY about ending his time in England – for now.
After 11 years in the Premiership, how does it feel not being involved?
It’s certainly strange sitting at home watching games, especially when you’re fit and could still be doing a job. But I’ve got a great opportunity ahead so that counteracts any frustration.
Would you still fancy a winner’s medal if Bath take the title, though?
I might like one as I do feel I contributed to their season. I came on and made an impact in games. But at the same time, would I claim that I helped them win the Premiership? Probably not.
What chance have Bath got?
They’re doing very well and recent results speak for themselves, and I’ve been impressed with their forward pack and defence. For me, the question mark remains around their attacking game when it comes to the bigger sides that you can’t just steamroll over.
They rely so heavily on their forward pack and defence but I want to see guys like Semesa Rokoduguni and Ruaridh McConnochie involved more with ball in hand in attacking situations.
You look at Exeter and see how guys like Olly Woodburn and Stuart Hogg are involved in attacking situations and there’s a little more inventiveness there, so that’s the big test for Bath.
Girvan Dempsey’s influence as Bath’s attack coach doesn’t appear that obvious, why?
‘Girvs’ is a good coach who has great ideas, but I don’t know whether he’s being overpowered by the forward pack and the way Stuart Hooper and Neal Hatley want the game played.
When I look at that Bath squad, if I was the opposition I’d be petrified of giving them broken field because with guys like Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and the wingers I’ve mentioned, they could be devastating.
They’ve got Joe Cokanasiga to come back and guys like Cameron Redpath and Tom de Glanville are great broken-field players, so much more needs to come from Bath if they’re to beat sides like Exeter and Sale, who also have dominant packs.
As a Bath boy, how sad are you to have left under a cloud?
I’m happy to be out of there because I did feel I was unfairly treated at Bath. I didn’t feel like I was given a fair crack and that’s clear for everyone to see.
I don’t want to talk too badly of Bath because when I went there from Leicester in 2017 I was desperate to do well and lead them to a Premiership title, but there were times when they’d change every position in the backline bar the fly-half (Rhys Priestland) and I was just stuck on the bench.
To have not started one Premiership game at No.10 before Covid-19, especially with the way the attack wasn’t really firing, was pretty disappointing. I played full-back a couple of times and played well, and when I did come on at fly-half I felt my tactical kicking game was up to scratch, so it was hard to take not playing.
But when the club’s got no interest in developing you as a player or giving you an opportunity, you’re better off out of it. That’s how I feel and there’ll always be frustrations. I’m someone who always puts their heart and soul into every minute I’m on the pitch so to not have an opportunity to give an account of myself was disappointing.
Do you think some of it stemmed from butchering that try against Toulouse in October 2018?
I don’t know. I don’t know if something came down from (owner) Bruce Craig and that was the black mark against my name that sealed my fate.
Rhys Priestland signed a new two-year deal, though, so if they’d re-signed me as well the financial side might not have allowed them to go after the top, top 10 that they’re obviously going after. The fact I never got a chance to prove myself as that top, top player was disappointing and the lack of communication from Stuart Hooper and the way the club went about their business left a sour taste in the mouth that there didn’t need to be.
I worked under Richard Cockerill at Leicester and he always spelt things out straight, but that’s not how it happened with me at Bath.
When did a move to Japanese side Shokki Shuttles come into view?
I had some interest from around the Premiership but the fact is I’d gone well down the England pecking order and my stock was dropped further by Bath, so when you’re not playing and then start talking to English clubs, you’re looking at taking massive pay cuts.
I’d still back myself to do a job internationally and believe I’m one of the better 10s in the Premiership, but realistically I know my England opportunity is very, very slim and I’ve always wanted to explore new things and take in different cultures so I can get to do that in Japan without taking a huge pay cut.
I’m 30 now so it’s also about trying to set myself up for later life. I’m competitive and it’s a rugby move I want to succeed in and give my all to Shokki – try to make them a better team and win games. I didn’t want to take a pay cut and just sit on the bench for another Premiership team, I want to be in the thick of things and be part of something special and earn good money to set me up for life after rugby.
What’s the deal with Shokki?
It’s just for one year at the minute, just because it’s such a big change. I wanted to make sure I’m enjoying it first rather than be stuck in a three-year deal with no way out. That suits me fine because as much as I don’t have the security of being tied in if I pick up an injury, that freedom is something I’m looking forward to.
My career at Bath was pretty frustrating from the get-go and to be tied in for three years was difficult as there were potential opportunities to go elsewhere and be valued as a player that I couldn’t pursue. That will no longer be the case.
Tell us a bit about Shokki Shuttles?
They’re in between Tokyo and Osaka, just on the outskirts of Nagoya, and have just been promoted back to the top tier, so that’s the thing that excites me more than anything. Having played for Gloucester, Leicester and Bath, clubs that are steeped in history, Shokki is a club that is looking to create some history and I want to help turn them into a decent team.
How realistic that is I’ll find out when I get there, but it’ll be a refreshing challenge and I’m doing Japanese lessons to try and get myself ready. It’ll be a shock to the system and people tell me Japan’s a crazy place, but I’m pretty crazy myself and I’m an outgoing person so hopefully I’ll fit in well. I’ll go there and just get stuck in and I’m sure it will be a good life experience.
How are you keeping fit?
I’ll admit motivation has been a bit difficult, especially with not having a start date yet because of Covid-19. But I’ve been lucky in that I’m able to train with the sixth-form boys at King Edward’s School, in Bath, and I’m also training with Combe Down Rugby Club.
I’ve really enjoyed working with both and Combe Down is great because you’ve got guys who’ve been working on building sites or in offices all day who then turn up to have a good run around. It’s been good to touch base with the grassroots again and be part of that, then as soon as I get a confirmed start date with Shokki I can come up with a programme and step things right up.
What’s your assessment of England’s fly-half situation right now?
I think George Ford and Owen Farrell will be England’s No.10s for the foreseeable future, although I do like Jacob Umaga. I trained with him a bit when he was with Leicester’s academy and he’s come on loads and really stepped up. If he’s keeping Lima Sopoaga out of the Wasps side he must be doing well and then you’ve got Joe Simmonds and Marcus Smith, who are good candidates as well.
I think with England it’s more about the style of play and a problem Simmonds might have is that Exeter have a very set way of playing which is not necessarily how England play under Eddie Jones. Exeter are very structured but Joe’s fundamentals and goal-kicking are outstanding so Eddie has got to get him into a squad and have a good look at him.
What do you make of Owen Farrell in light of his five-match ban?
It was a terrible tackle and he’ll be the first to admit it, but you’re asking players to play on the edge and sometimes things tip over it. People should lay off him now and let him work things out. He knows he messed up but he’ll take his punishment and bounce back.
What’s your best 10, 12, 13 combination for England?
England function better when Farrell’s at 10, so I’d go with Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade. Farrell runs a game and gives you that physical edge you need at the highest, highest level and Slade gives you that bit of finesse at 13, so with Tuilagi at his unstoppable best that’s a pretty potent combination.
Watching England at the World Cup when they played New Zealand, the Kiwis kept the game open which suited having Ford at 10, but when it came to South Africa – a team that box-kicks a lot, chases hard and strangles teams – England lacked that physical edge. That’s probably why England come unstuck against the Welsh and Irish now and again as well, so for those games I’d go with Farrell at 10 and have Ford’s extra play-making ability off the bench if needed.
What do you make of the Premiership right now – and its physicality?
It’s a great competition but very attritional because no team is a pushover. I’m struggling at the minute with these short turnarounds because the integrity of the competition is being compromised by so many weakened teams, but the flip-side of that is young lads are getting games.
Long-term, though, player welfare has to be looked at and I feel like all the compromises are coming from the players. They’re asking them to take less money but there seems to be more and more rugby over a shorter space of time and the next 12 months looks horrendous. You will see more injuries and a lot of that comes from fatigue and the scheduling, which gets more intense by the year. We all want rugby to survive and players needed to take pay cuts, but there must be proper rest periods to allow bodies to repair, not more games or ten or 11-month seasons.
I’ve played with players who can’t hold their babies or need to have their food cut up for them because they’ve got nerve damage in their necks that goes down to their hands – some of those things are horrendous. Rugby gives a lot, but it takes a lot as well and players always seem to come second behind finances.
Would you recommend fewer games?
I think so. The international game is huge and its physicality is intense, but those guys get paid good money to play at Twickenham in front of 80,000 people, whereas you have guys in Premiership squads who go through all the same attrition for a fraction of the money.
From a mental side it’s just as hard to keep churning it out in training and club games week after week, but they don’t have the incentive of an extra £20,000 or a week in the Maldives when it’s all over. I’d like to see more breaks scheduled to recover mentally and physically because the season is too long and there are too many overlaps in the club and international calendar.
It’s difficult, but when you look at someone like Joe Marler retiring from international rugby for a while, mentally it can be a dark place where guys are just getting by day to day.
You’re a trustee for DFY (pronounced ‘defy’) which aims to help young children. Tell us about that?
We’re still at the foundation stage but it’s something my agent, Nick Robinson, set up and it’s about getting ten or 11-year-old kids that are starting to be influenced by negative things – gang violence or whatever – and using sport to guide them and instil certain values so they can avoid the pitfalls and crack on in later life.
We ran a pilot project at the Ark in London in 2019 and we’re taking things to the next stage. People like Joe Cokanasiga, Elliott Stooke and other sports people like Zoe Smith, the weightlifter, are involved and it’s something I’m really keen to be involved in. We need more donations to reach a target that would unlock some additional funding, so if anyone can help the websites are natwestbackherbusiness.co.uk/dfy or dfy.org.uk/donate. There’s good info on both of those.
Is coaching or mentoring something you’d look at post-rugby?
If I’m at a club and a coaching opportunity arises, it’s something I’d look into – maybe skills or kicking – but it’s not on top of my list. I’d love to go into the media. I feel I’ve got a decent knowledge of the game and enjoy talking about it.
Finally, how proud are you of what kid brother Billy, left, is doing at Ulster?
He’s doing a terrific job there. There always seems to be a tipping point in people’s careers and if he’d stayed at Gloucester in 2018 he’d probably have been second choice to Danny Cipriani, his stock would have dropped and he’d now be looking for a new club, whereas he’s gone to Ulster, helped take them to a PRO14 final and a Champions Cup quarter-final and he could be knocking on the door for an Ireland cap this autumn. I’m so proud of him.