Northampton Saints became the first side to book their spot in the last 16 of the Champions Cup, as they dismantled Aviron Bayonnais 61-14 last Friday evening. The Saints ran rout a resounding nine-try statement of intent, with plenty of potential England candidates starring under the lights at Franklin’s Gardens.
England head coach Steve Borthwick is set to name his squad for the 2024 Six Nations on Wednesday, with this past weekend being the last chance for the aspiring Saints to impress ahead of the selection deadline. A hat-trick for Tom Pearson elevated the back-rower’s international stock, and customary line-leading excellence from fly half Fin Smith further staked his name for the halfback vacancy, that has opened after Owen Farrell’s step-down.
However, the one-sided scoring was commenced by Tommy Freeman, who dotted the ball down for a first-minute opening try. With lightning fast reactions, Freeman was fastest to gather and ground Rory Hutchinson’s neat chip into the Bayonne back-field, for the immediate break-through against the visiting French opponents. Freeman is eyeing up a return to the England fold for his first test cap since 2022, and spoke after his Player of the Match performance, on how he has grown since his test match break-out against Australia.
“I think my mindset going in to Australia and previous camps, I still felt very young. Everything kind of coming my way I was taking it just as it came. Whereas, I think now it’s not about just kind of taking a chance, it’s about you want to take your chance and stay in the frame, you don’t want to be kind of sitting on the fringes, which I felt like I probably was. I want to be right in the thick of it and hopefully stay there.”
“I think there’s a little bit maturity as well. I think (as) I’m getting older, I’m no longer the young rookie kind of thing. I’m now a little bit older, and I think as you get older, these decisions become a bit more clearer and easier.”
Despite only being 22-years-old, Freeman’s time in previous England camps has instilled valuable experience across a litany of positions. A Swiss army knife across the Saints back-line, Freeman possesses the versatility to excel as an explosive wing, game-reading full-back or a playmaking centre. Freeman has the potential to fill the wing-come-centre void left by Joe Marchant’s move to Stade Francais, should he become a mainstay in the England fold.
Freeman could well be joined by his Northampton back-three teammates on the international stage, as the trio of Ollie Sleightholme, George Furbank and Freeman have been routinely running riot on the opposition. Freeman would be delighted to have his Saints colleagues join him in the England camp, and highlighted how the common goal of the international scene has been a motivating factor behind the Saints’ rise to the top of the Premiership.
“I’ve kind of grown up with ‘Slights’, (Ollie Sleightholme) so being alongside him, and he’s a similar age. ‘Furbs’ (George Furbank) is a little bit older, even though doesn’t play like his older. It’s class. We’re all on the same wavelength, you’re getting connected as much as possible and seeing results off the back of it.”
“I think we’ve said in previous seasons with our team being so young, we’re young, we’re kind of not experienced kind of things. But I think now we’ve really taken it, i’d say the coaches have probably stepped back and let us lead a lot more as players, which is really good. And obviously that will help push England situations.”
Freeman’s Northampton teammate Alex Mitchell has recently been cementing his claim for the England nine jersey, after a turbulent run up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Initially left out of the squad following Steve Borthwick’s Summer cuts, Mitchell returned to the fray following an untimely injury to Jack van Poortvleit, and went on to become England’s go to scrum half for the competition.
Mitchell’s status has only risen amongst the halfback pecking order, following the international retirement of Ben Youngs after England returned from Paris with bronze medals. Freeman explained how like Mitchell’s unexpected rise to England prominence, it only takes one opportunity for Borthwick to give you his backing.
“I think there’s just that one game or that one training session for it to click or whatever you’re doing really so. As long as I’m there or there abouts in the mix. When that time comes, it’s all about making the most of it.”
Turning his attention back to the Saint’s emphatic victory, Freeman highlighted how the hot start out of the gate was part of their plan of action. The win over Bayonne was a far cry from the previous weekend’s efforts against Exeter Chiefs, as Northampton battled back from a 26-0 deficit for the win at Sandy Park. The Saints hit cruise control early on against Aviron, with Freeman discussing the different starts to the matches, and how the Saints kept their focus despite taking a 42-0 lead into the half-time break.
“There’s definitely training sessions where we talked about starting fast and that’s what we want to do on the weekend, so let’s kind of implement it in training. That’s where it always begins. But it’s a massive focus for us the whole season, to be honest. How fast can we start? How urgent can we be? Obviously, last week, Exeter probably wasn’t the best. And luckily, we amended that and put it right this week.”
“I think (Fraser) Dingwall spoke really well about what our next kind of goal is going to be. I think we know they’re (Bayonne) going to be ripped into in the changing room and they’re going to come out firing. So it’s all about how do we stay focused, not trying to force anything, stick to our game and that’ll benefit us.”
“Munster away (next week), Thomand Park is a good spot. last year we didn’t get the result, but if we can, we can start fast out there, it’ll be good.”
As Northampton gear up for their trip across to Ireland they remain as one of the few unbeaten sides left in the Champions Cup this season. Freeman highlighted how their Premiership and European successes have come from a simple message, yet the goal is to follow this up with lifting the trophies at the end of the season.
“I think the messages are pretty simple. Maybe previously, they’ve been a bit complex with how we want to go at the season, but everything’s pretty simple and the outcome we want to get. Obviously, we want to see some silverware at the end of the season, that’s the main goal. But I think we’re all pretty driven within ourselves to get better as an individual and as a team. So the message is very clear.”
“When you’re winning, it’s obviously that much bit nicer. So I’m really enjoying it. We’re, we’re putting our game on the pitch, it’s what we said every week, and we’re benefitting from it.”