"Could Be England's Breakthrough Star" - Chris Ashton Gives Verdict on Tommy Freeman Ahead of Six Nations Opener - Ruck

“Could Be England’s Breakthrough Star” – Chris Ashton Gives Verdict on Tommy Freeman Ahead of Six Nations Opener

England begin their 2024 Six Nations campaign this Saturday, as they travel over to Rome for an opening round match against Italy. There is an excitable buzz around this fixture, with the expectations being that head coach Steve Borthwick will select some of the England squad’s younger talents for a Six Nations break-through.

Borthwick has certainly embraced the ‘new era’ of England rugby, as he leads his men into a fresh Rugby World Cup cycle. Seven uncapped players were called up into the initial training squad, who have been spending the last training week out in Girona, Northwestern Spain. Despite not being amongst the uncapped group, England fans are delighted to see the return of Tommy Freeman to the squad.

Tommy Freeman of Northampton Saints looks dejected after losing during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Semi Final Match between Saracens and Northampton Saints at Stonex Stadium on 13 May 2023. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

The Northampton Saints man has three official test caps to his name (not counting his debut vs Barbarians), yet has not featured for England since the 2022 Autumn Nations defeat to South Africa. Freeman has been in inspired form for the Saints this season, and has excelled across the back three with eleven tries in all competitions. A versatile athlete who can play at fullback, on both wings and even outside centre, Freeman could well be set to be the breakout player for England for the 2024 Six Nations.

Former England wing Chris Ashton certainly backs this view. Ashton has been more than impressed by Freeman’s performances this season, and praised the 22-year-old’s red-hot form. Speaking with Gambling Zone, Ashton also confirmed to have been interested with the idea, of a coaching or advisory role to the likes of Freeman. He said;

Leicester Tigers player Chris Ashton, Gallagher Player Of The Match, after the Gallagher Premiership rugby game between Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on April 16th- PHOTO: Steve Bond/PPAUK

“England have a lot of talented youngsters, but I really like the look of Tommy Freeman. He’s had a couple of caps and, sometimes, what happens is that you realise where you’re at in terms of your own level and you have to go back to your club and work on a few things to make the jump to international rugby.

“Tommy has definitely done that this season. He’s gone back to Northampton and taken on board everything that he needed to put himself in a position where he is ready to have an impact for England. His performances this season for his club have been excellent – he performs every week. He looks like he is ready to settle into international rugby and I hope he gets the game time at the Six Nations to play in the team, either on the wing or at centre. He could be England’s breakthrough star.”

Tommy Freeman of England during the Match between England and Barbarians at Twickenham Stadium on 19 June 2022. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“I mentioned to Steve Borthwick that I would be happy to help the wingers if there was an opportunity. I would have liked to have worked with the back three lads, but it’s difficult because if you’re going to play a coaching role, then you need to be in and around the team all the time. You can’t be in and out.”

“Some of the lads that are in the current Six Nations squad have done really well for their clubs this year,  I would have liked to have helped them understand when to go and look for the ball and when to stay on the wing. The margins are so fine in international rugby, players don’t get plenty of opportunities to impact the game, so you have to take them. You have to make them count. You have to get your timings right and be in the right place to score a try, so that would have been something that I would have wanted to pass on.”

Jack Goodhue of New Zealand is held in the tackle by Maro Itoje of England and Chris Ashton of England during the Quilter International Match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on 10th November 2018. – PHOTO: Gareth Davies/PPAUK

Ashton then turned his focus to his former Saracens teammate, as Jamie George gets set to captain England for the first time in his career. George has previously captained the British & Irish Lions’ mid-week non-test matches, and Ashton has experienced his leadership quality whilst at the StoneX.

“I think Jamie is the right choice for England captain.” Ashton continued. “I think it’s a little bit different to what we’ve had before and it’s definitely a change in style of captain personality-wise, and how England captains have historically operated.”

“Every England captain brings their own style to the role, and I think Steve Borthwick has thought about how he wants his team to be represented in the media, and how he wants his captain to communicate with them. Jamie is always open and honest in interviews and is relaxed in that environment. 

Jamie George of England during the Summer Nations Series Match between England and Wales at Twickenham, London on 12 Aug 2023 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“He’s got the experience required for the role. He’s been there and done it. He’s captained The Lions midweek teams, he’s been vice-captain at Saracens for years. We had limited options at hooker at the Rugby World Cup, so Jamie played nearly 80 minutes in every game and he did it with ease; that is one of his strengths. He does it week-in, week-out. The set piece is so important to English rugby and the style we play with Jamie will be central to that.”

England are certainly not short of leaders in the forwards pack, despite the loss of former co-captain Courtney Lawes following his international retirement after the Rugby World Cup. Bristol prop Ellis Genge was rumoured amongst the viable replacements for Owen Farrell’s vacancy, as was Ashton’s former Saracens teammate Maro Itoje. Ashton believes that either of the two men could step up and take the armband, should George be out of action throughout the upcoming Championships.

Ellis Genge of England during the Guinness Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on Saturday 11th March 2023 | Photo: James Fearn/PPAUK.

“Ellis Genge has captained Leicester (Tigers) before under Steve, so he’ll form part of the leadership group and is expected to play a leadership role in the team. Maro Itoje would have been in Borthwick’s thoughts and will play a big leadership role in the squad too.

“All of these players have been in the team for a while now and are influential members of the squad and importantly understand how Steve likes to work. These guys will set a fantastic example to some of the younger players in the squad.”

“I think there would have been a number of players in contention for the captain’s role when Steve Borthwick appointed Jamie George. It would have been close, George Ford, Ellis Genge, Maro Itoje all must have been in the conversation. George Ford hasn’t had the game time leading in to the tournament after being great for England in the World Cup and he’s always really important to the way the team trains with the standards he sets.”

George Ford of England during the Summer Nations Series Rugby match between Wales and England at Principality Stadium on August 5, 2023 in Cardiff, Wales. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

England have not won the Six Nations since the pandemic-disrupted 2020 Championships. The last three competitions has seen England finish fifth (2021), third (2022) and fourth (2023), with a top two finish being the minimal outcome from Ashton’s point of view. However, the Six Nations are amongst the toughest competitions to predict, with the margin of error so small within the top Northern Hemisphere sides. Ashton cast his two cents on how he thinks the tournament could play out over the coming weeks.

“What does a successful Six Nations look like for England? It’s a good question because we don’t know where Ireland are going to be at, and we don’t know where France are going to be at. Scotland could go on a run. They’ve got some good home fixtures and will fancy themselves against all of the teams. When you think about the other contenders, a lot of teams in transition, then this tournament could represent the best opportunity that Scotland has had in a long time to do something special.

Leicester Tigers player Chris Ashton waits to see if his try is awarded, a penalty try is given, the Gallagher Premiership rugby game between Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on April 16th- PHOTO: Steve Bond/PPAUK

“England in my mind should be top two or three in the Six Nations every single year, without doubt. That is something that we haven’t had in recent tournaments, so we should be aiming for that as a minimum. Ireland have lost a lot of experienced players.

“France will be without Dupont and Ntamack who is still injured so there is an opportunity for England, but with so many teams in transition, I don’t think we will know who will be challenging and what England should be looking to achieve until after round two.With the resources that England have, the minimum objective for us should always be top two.”

Before England begin their Six Nations campaign against Italy, there is a colossal fixture set to open the competition on Friday night. France host Ireland for a blockbuster clash in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, which could well play out to be the decisive fixture to determine any potential Grand Slams. Ashton is equally as excited for the tournament to get underway, and will be watching on as Andy Farrell’s men battle Les Bleus.

Thomas Ramos of France celebrates with Ethan Dumortier of France having scored a try during the Guinness Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on Saturday 11th March 2023 | Photo: James Fearn/PPAUK.

“This is a game I can’t wait to see. I’m really looking forward to this fixture on Friday night and I think both teams will be going into this one with plenty to prove.”

“Losing the likes of Johnny Sexton, it will be a difficult challenge for Ireland, but I think they have more than enough quality at fly half to still be an amazing team. When you see what Leinster are throwing around week-in, week-out in the URC then there are reasons to be confident if you’re an Ireland fan. They all know each other inside out and have amazing chemistry. They just need to find a way to cover or find a way to replace Johnny’s experience because he has dug Ireland out of so many holes over the years.”

Andy Farrell, Head Coach of Ireland and Johnny Sexton, Captain of Ireland pose with the Guinness Six Nations trophy during the 2023 Guinness Six Nations Media Launch at County Hall, Lambeth, London on Monday 23rd January 2023 | Photo: James Fearn/PPAUK.

Ashton explained why he thought France had the edge in this match, despite not having their two leading halfbacks in the line-up. Dupont is busy training with the France Sevens team ahead of the Paris Olympics, whilst Romain Ntamack remains side-lined with an injury. Despite the set-backs, Ashton labelled Fabien Galthie’s France as “the team to beat at this championship”.

“It’s going to be hard playing the French in Marseille. They will be playing this game with a new captain and without Dupont, so they have their own challenges but the new captain Gregory Alldritt is one of the best number eights in the world right now so they will be lead by a great replacement. I think that France are the team to beat at this championship. Both teams probably don’t want to be playing each other first of all, but for the fans, this is going to be an incredible way to start the tournament. It will be amazing.”

Gregory Alldritt of France is tackled by Jack Willis of England during the Guinness Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on Saturday 11th March 2023 | Photo: James Fearn/PPAUK.

“Matthieu Jalibert has been having a phenomenal season playing for Bordeaux; the Bordeaux team has been incredible this year. Jalibert has been instrumental to that success at fly half and I think the French team looks really settled. They were so disappointed with what happened to them at the World Cup and will want to give the French fans something to cheer about. The first game at Marseille, which is a different as France usually always play in Paris,  they love their rugby down on the south coast. I think that could also give them a bit of an edge. I think the French will nick it on Friday night.”