English rugby is littered with fly-halves who have been billed as the next big thing but, for whatever reason, fail to fulfil their potential at Test match level.
Many people still despise Rob Andrew for keeping Bath’s gifted playmaker Stuart Barnes out of the Red Rose team, while more recently, Shane Geraghty, Ryan Lamb and Danny Cipriani have been denied international recognition by far less talented people.
Freddie Burns is the latest to fall into this category. In my humble opinion, Burns enjoyed a stellar campaign at Leicester last season, showing huge dignity when the George Ford swap deal unfolded and playing as well as anyone in what was a tough campaign.
When it came to England’s summer tour, though, Freddie’s name was nowhere. Instead, untested novice fly-halves Alex Lozowksi and Piers Francis got the nod, leaving Burns to conclude that, at least while Eddie Jones is in charge, his Test days are over. Speaking to Burns after he had expertly marshalled a young Bath side to victory at London Irish last weekend, he told me candidly: “I feel like I’ve been in really good form for 18 months to two years now, but if I was going to play for England again they would have picked me in the summer given how I’d played for Leicester last season.
“I’d like to be there, I’d always have aspirations to play for England and firmly believe I could do a job, but if I put my realistic hat on, with the guys who were selected in the summer and are in the squad now, I’m well out of the picture.”
Burns, who won the last of his five caps against New Zealand in 2014 and is a more mature figure than back then, added: “I’ve not spoken to anyone involved with England since Mike Catt told me I wouldn’t be in the World Cup squad two years ago.
“That’s not me getting my violin out, I’ve just got to an age now where I have a lot of hopes and aspirations but realise sport is defined by a coach’s opinion of you. I’d love to play for England again, but it’s unlikely to happen under Eddie.
“I’ll never give up and I’ll keep plugging away, but it’s important you don’t let England drive your day-to-day stuff at your club. What gets me up in the morning is winning silverware at Bath, and if we’re at the top competing, you never know.”
Burns is probably right to conclude he is a million miles away at the moment, for not only has he endured a stop-start campaign at Bath due to injury and suspension, Rhys Priestland’s form has meant the Welshman could not be dropped.
That situation will change, though, and I’m willing to wager Burns will now come through strong, prove why Bath fans should forgive his sins of playing for Gloucester and Leicester, and show Eddie Jones and England exactly what they are missing. Burns said: “I’m fortunate in that I already have quite a special bond with the supporters here because, as much as I went away and played for Gloucester and Leicester, I’m one of them in many ways and I do feel like a Bath supporter at heart.
“I probably haven’t made the impact I wanted because of my head knock at the start of the season and getting the red card against Worcester, but I’ve got plenty of rugby in front of me now and, hopefully, I can have a good run of games.
“Rhys Priestland’s been in good form and been called up by Wales, so it’s my chance now and it’s good for us that we have two top quality No.10s. It’s great that we can interchange and that’s only going to benefit Bath over the season.”
While home league defeats against Newcastle and Gloucester hint at a soft centre, Burns is convinced Bath can compete for the Premiership title.
“We’re in a great place,” he added. “We’ve had some outstanding wins against Leicester, Saracens, Wasps and Scarlets so we’re capable of doing something really special, it’s a case of just being consistent and keeping standards high.
“The squad is a lot stronger this year, the boys are a year more experienced and, who knows, if I can get Bath to the top of the Premiership and we’re doing well in the later stages of the Champions Cup, I might yet get a call from Eddie!”
Personally, I would take huge pleasure in seeing Freddie back in a white jersey. His kicking’s now top notch, the Hail Mary passes are a thing of the past and, at 27, he’s approaching his peak. We dismiss blokes like him far too early in England.