England's attacking development depends on Freddie Steward

Freddie Steward - Getty Images
Freddie Steward - Getty Images

A fortnight ago, when naming his England squad, Steve Borthwick said that each of his players possessed “one outstanding super-strength”.

The carrying of Ellis Genge and Maro Itoje’s defensive disruption are good examples. But a certain “super-strength” is more conspicuous than the rest.

Freddie Steward only turned 22 in December. And yet, over the course of 17 Test matches, he has settled into England duty in a remarkably assured manner – as quickly and convincingly as anyone since Itoje. Steward’s aerial prowess is probably the most super of the super-strengths available to Borthwick.

This moment, from the wreckage of November’s 27-13 loss to South Africa, encapsulates how his commanding presence can alleviate pressure and inject momentum. Damian Willemse strikes a free-kick into the air and the Springboks chase well, but Steward rises to claim an overhead catch amid the bodies. Not only that, he manages to fight around 10 metres up-field and to give England some rare front-foot ball:

The territorial battle is so pivotal in Test matches that without such excellence under the high ball, which is also valuable at opposition restarts and from attacking kicks, teams can find themselves in awkward positions. That makes Steward an important player. However, his chief attribute is often mentioned alongside a perceived limitation.

These were the words of Eddie Jones after Ireland won 32-15 at Twickenham last season. It should be stressed that the sentiment has been shared by other observers:

“He’s going to be one of the stars of world rugby, Freddie. He is colossal in the air, he’s learning to attack well as a full-back – still making some mistakes but learning really well – and his enthusiasm for being the general of the defence is superb for such a young man with so little experience.”

The implication here, from Jones and from different voices at various times, is that Steward could improve his distribution and link-play. A lack of top-end speed is another criticism that has been levelled at the Leicester Tigers youngster. First of all, then, is that fair?

Willie le Roux of South Africa and Hugo Keenan of Ireland would probably be vying for the accolade of the world’s best full-back, with Georgia dynamo Davit Niniashvili. Le Roux and Keenan are playmakers with pace and poise who pick their moments and ghost into the line, regularly stepping up at first-receiver as well.

They are intuitive, effective attackers that are integral to how their sides operate. As far as attacking output, Steward’s numbers stack up with those of Le Roux and Keenan. He beats more defenders and records more running metres. His rate of offloads and break assists – passes or offloads that have led to line-breaks – is comparable as well:

Here, during the first half of the third Test against Australia just over six months ago, England gather impetus via a Billy Vunipola carry from a goal-line drop-out. Jonny Hill then trucks ahead in a pod of three. On the following phase, Steward stations himself outside of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell with Tommy Freeman to his left:


He surges onto a miss-pass from Smith, bypasses Tom Wright and flips an offload to Freeman out of Samu Kerevi’s tackle:

In an England team that has been struggling to convert openings like the above, and sometimes struggling to create them, Steward also has a respectable strike-rate of six tries in 17 caps. But, returning to the comparison with Le Roux and Keenan, it is clear from these numbers that he is less prominent as a link man:

Since his Test debut, Steward has recorded fewer attacking touches, fewer passes and fewer try assists than either of those two. Le Roux and Keenan will often play uncomplicated passes that allow their teams to attack space.

Steward is not a classical playmaking full-back like Alex Goode, though his attacking kicking is improving and he may develop in this respect. Here, in the first half of Leicester’s recent loss to Newcastle Falcons, he sucks in two defenders before sending Ollie Chessum down the touchline with a well-timed offload. Ben Youngs snipes to score off the next phase:

In fairness, with Smith and Farrell joining forces at 10 and 12, Steward has not needed to be an orchestrator for England. Yet, interestingly, while head coach of Tigers, Borthwick hinted at a preference for deploying two primary distributors at fly-half and full-back.

In the absence of Elliot Daly and Henry Slade, it will be fascinating to see how England’s backline is assembled – especially if Farrell is at fly-half. Saracens are attacking beautifully this season with Farrell supplemented by at least two of Goode, Daly and Max Malins elsewhere in the line-up. Those footballers offer valuable support.

Steward starting on the right wing against Scotland would not be a huge surprise. Borthwick has deployed him there for Leicester. In that role, Steward’s attacking responsibilities are simplified. He was effectively in that position against Australia in November 2021, and tore off his flank on a trailing angle to score this try following an exchange between Farrell and Smith:

During the stirring autumn comeback against New Zealand, Steward held firm on the right wing, where he scored England’s second try. Guy Porter was the man to swing across the field as Farrell, Smith and Slade tied the coast-to-coast attacks together:

Tigers gave him the number 14 shirt for the trip to Clermont and sent him straight through the heart of their opponents for a vital try:

Dan Kelly runs the hard angle from 12 with Steward in the shadow of Handré Pollard:


The defence is rather poor, but Steward slices through on an inside pass and feeds Matt Scott nicely:

Tommy Freeman and Malins are potential full-back candidates if Steward is considered as wing. The problem would be diluting the influence of Steward’s major strength. According to Opta, he averages two defensive catches per 80 minutes when he starts on the wing for Leicester. That swells to just over six at full-back. Against France eleven months ago, Steward managed a single defensive catch from the wing. Across the rest of his Test career, that average is over four.

Borthwick has clearly picked wings with footballing ability. Freeman, Malins, Cadan Murley and Ollie Hassell-Collins, as well as the returning Anthony Watson, have all demonstrated an ability to roam and link in midfield.

Nick Evans will not be able to click his fingers and transform England’s attack into something complex and intricate for the Six Nations. That said, he should be able to sharpen the phase-shape that has stuttered over the past year.

Around the world, backs have been slidng around breakdowns, deceiving defences with the lateness of their lateral movement. Robbie Henshaw’s try against New Zealand is archetypal of this trend:

England are attempting to do the same, but falling down due to a lack of clarity. Ball-playing wings can help them click. This Harlequins try against Sale Sharks earlier this season highlights as much. Murley is on his wing as Danny Care snipes from the base of a ruck and breaks clear:


Murley remains there even as Harlequins pressurise in the opposition 22…


…but then creeps into midfield and sits in a second wave with Nick David, his full-back, the third man in a stack. Alex Dombrandt is ready to cut an out-to-in angle to hold up Sale’s drift. Note the connection between Rob du Preez and Manu Tuilagi in the defensive line:


Murley takes a pull-back from Will Edwards and fixes Du Preez, throwing a dummy to hold Tuilagi as well. Only then does the pass come, allowing David to arc past an unbalanced Tuilagi and score:

This close-up shows how Murley subtly manipulates the defenders opposite him:

Why is this relevant to Steward? Currently, he is probably better suited to the carving role of David than the creative role of Murley.

In order to build a backline that brings out Steward’s super-strength, Borthwick will be bearing that in mind.