"He's Unbelievably Helpful" - EXCLUSIVE: Toby Cousins - England U20s Wing Talks Tommy Freeman Inspiration & Northampton Hopes - Ruck

“He’s Unbelievably Helpful” – EXCLUSIVE: Toby Cousins – England U20s Wing Talks Tommy Freeman Inspiration & Northampton Hopes

If there was ever a team to be breaking through as a young English back, Northampton Saints is the answer. The reigning Premiership champions have contributed six back-line players to Steve Borthwick’s England squad, with the men from Franklin’s Gardens currently enjoying their globe-trotting tour of Japan and New Zealand.

The contingent of Alex Mitchell, Fin Smith, Fraser Dingwall, Ollie Sleightholme, Tommy Freeman and George Furbank are all earning their stripes in the England camp, and aspiring England U20s flyer Toby Cousins can’t speak highly enough of his green, black and gold teammates.

Cousins is one of the latest breakout talents in Phil Dowson’s Saints wider squad, and is currently in South Africa with the England U20s, ahead of the 2024 U20 World Championships. Speaking in a recent exclusive interview with RUCK, Cousins discussed his experiences of training alongside the East-Midlands core of England’s backs, and how Tommy Freeman has been a real mentor to him during the Saints training sessions.

“It’s good, he’s (Tommy Freeman) very helpful. If ever I mess up in training, or if I run a line wrong or anything like that, I’ll always ask him and he will let me know, and take me through what I’m meant to be doing and how to improve it. So he’s unbelievably helpful with me and the younger lads.”

Tommy Freeman of Northampton Saints during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Semi Final match between Northampton Saints and Saracens at cinch Stadium at FranklinÕs Gardens, Northampton on 31 May 2024. – PHOTO: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“We do, we have quite a tight knit group, I’d say we do within the back three. We do a high ball competition every week and whoever drops the most high balls has to buy everyone coffees, like fun things like that to tighten us up as a group. Also, mainly the younger lads will go to Costa and play cards a lot after training, which is obviously good for team bonding, things like that.”

Cousins has not always been a wing with pace to burn, as the green, black and gold protégé has only recently pursued a positional swap to the wide channels. Originally, Cousins was a fleet-footed outside centre, and was for the majority of his school years, aside from also enduring one season in the back-row. A playmaker midfielder who’s accustomed to a well-timed offload, The 19-year-old discussed his move across to wing, and how his brief spell on the flanks improved his abilities at the breakdown.

“I grew up playing 13 and only switched to wing a couple years back. So, I think it’s probably the hardest defensive position in the backline. It’s good for me to be able to switch (position) in the training sometimes, because obviously, like defensive reads and things like that, it’s one of my work ons, (I’m) getting better at doing it. Now this position is going to be beneficial for me. So that’s really what I try and do.”

“It obviously meant that I needed to almost learn how to play on the wing and in kind of, like park my centre’s game, and try to develop my kicking, it’s definitely helped. I also had a season at back-row back at school, which definitely helped my break down skills to no end.”

“I only played back row for one season, it was it was probably 14 or 15 at the time. I wouldn’t say I massively enjoyed it! I played centre before then, and playing in the back row I had to do more of the unseen work. I quite liked running out wide and scoring tries, the more fun things in my eyes, so yeah, it was different.”

Cousins is currently uncapped by the Saints, yet it is not for the young wing’s lack of trying. The 19-year-old was named to make his debut in September of 2022, and was eagerly anticipating a run out in the Premiership Rugby Cup ahead of the new league season. However, the match was cancelled due to a once in a generation occurrence, as all sport was postponed across the United Kingdom following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Cousins has since battled through a handful of injury setbacks, which has kept Phil Dowson from penning down his name into a Northampton Saints match day 23. However, with an attitude that has taken him to impressive heights in the England age grade system, Cousins expressed how he is eager to keep on working hard, and earn his Saints debut in the 2024/25 season.

“That’s right. So it was in my last school year, right at the start of the year, I was set to make my debut when the Queen died on the night of the game. Obviously, it didn’t go ahead. Since then, I was back in school after that, and injuries last year for the Prem Cup. So I haven’t had a chance since.”

“So I tore my hamstring this time last year. I was out for five months. That was back in the end of September. So I’ve been back quite a while now. And I’ve had no problems with it since, it all seems fine!”

For his country, Cousins is quite literally excelling beyond his years. The versatile back-line player can play across both wings, full back and centre, with his adaptable abilities earning him a call-up into Mark Mapletoft’s England U20s squad a year ahead of his expected schedule.

Cousins was just 18-years-old when he made his England U20 debut in last season’s U20 Six Nations, and left a lasting impression upon the coaching staff. Slotting in on the wing, Cousins remained on the pitch for every minute of all five rounds, as England claimed the title following an undefeated campaign and a blockbuster finale in Pau’s Stade du Hameau.

“I don’t know if I’d say it was one of the first names on the team sheet, with the likes of lads in the team. But you know, it was an unbelievable experience. Getting to play with so many of the good players coming up through the age groups and actually winning some silverware as we’ve done is brilliant.”

“They were all good (2024 U20 Six Nations matches). I think probably the France one (was his favourite). Last game, because obviously, it was a big game, we had to win it. And then there was by far the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of. So many, like 18,500 people there, the atmosphere was electric. That was a real highlight for me.”

Cousins is currently in Cape Town, with England’s first fixture of the 2024 U20 World Championship kicking off on Saturday. Mapletoft’s side take on Argentina to kick start their campaign, with pool stage battles then lined up against Fiji as well as the host nation of South Africa.

Prior to jetting down to the land of the Springboks, England had a trio of warm-up matches, as they defeated Championship club Coventry, and recorded back-to-back wins over Georgia’s U20 squad. Cousins believes that these performances has put his side in a solid position ahead of the World Championships, yet has taken plenty of learning curves with him down to Cape Town.

“I think we didn’t get many chances to get our set piece on. So running line out moves and scrum moves. So obviously, it’s something we work hard on during the week. So hopefully, we have a few chances to do that. A few defensive fix ups, around back-fields and things like that. But more just the same again, we don’t want to go too far away from from what we’ve been doing.”