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When Northampton full-back Tommy Freeman received a phone call from England’s new attack coach Martin Gleeson last week, he took it as a nice ego boost.
Gleeson told Freeman that he was on their radar, gave him some pointers to work on and concluded the conversation by saying “you never know what’s round the corner”.
For Freeman, who has made just 19 appearances for Northampton, that was received as a tantalising carrot of future possibilities. Coming into the season off the back of a what he calls a “clean-up” operation on both knees which wiped out his off-season, the 20-year-old was hoping to build up his fitness and form after being named Northampton’s breakthrough player last season.
Then, on Monday afternoon, just before a team meeting, Freeman missed a call. When he rang back, he was told that he would be included in England’s 34-man squad for the autumn internationals, much to his considerable shock. “[Gleeson] said you never know what's round the corner, but I didn't think it would be this soon round the corner,” Freeman said. “I quickly called my Mum and I don't think she could believe it. She was taken aback, there was a moment of silence, then I said: 'Are you happy?' I think she ran straight into the sitting room where Dad was, then I had to shoot off straightaway.”
England head coach Eddie Jones says that he has been watching Freeman since he first made his debut for Saints in the 2019-20 season, taking a shine to both his physique as well as his reading of the game. Jones also likes players who have had to do things the hard way and, despite his serene progress through Saints academy to the first team, Freeman is well acquainted with adversity and suffering.
Aged 16, he was released by Leicester Tigers' academy. The skills were never an issue; he felt he read the game much better than his peers. Physically, however, he was well behind his contemporaries and he was let go for being too small. “It was just the size and speed that let me down,” Freeman said. “I remember I could always see a gap and go through it but I couldn’t carry on running. They would say I was running through treacle.”
It was at this point that a teacher at Culford School in Bury St Edmunds advised him to go to Moulton College in Northamptonshire, which has its own dedicated sports academy. Charlie Sadler, the teacher in question, had followed the same path through to Northampton and England age-grade honours before he was forced to retire through injury. It proved to be inspired advice as Freeman got on to the books of the Saints academy.
“In my first year I probably hadn't developed much physically, then in my second year I shot right up, my speed went through the roof, I played really well in games and that was it, I got picked up in the academy,” Freeman said.
The battle was far from over. When he had shot up in height, his frame needed filling out. This meant an intense diet which led Freeman to emphathise with the geese being bred for foie gras. “It was eating when you're not hungry,” Freeman said.
“I remember going home, enjoying the food that dad would cook, and it was a case of eating because I had to eat, not because it was dinner time. Mum was saying the other day, I remember when you used to come home and eat, your head was closer to the table, it was just about getting it in.”
Protein shakes were a constant companion but the worst torment was the heaps of potatoes he had to consume with nearly every meal. “Jesus, I could not eat them without chorizo at one point because it was the same dull, floury taste in your mouth,” Freeman added.
The weight gain programme succeeded, with Freeman putting on two-and-a-half stone, so Jones described him on Monday as a “big, strong, strapping lad”. However, it did come at a cost. By going from 83kg to 99kg in two years, Freeman's knees struggled to cope under his new-found mass. So, this summer, he flew to Sweden for an operation under Hakan Alfredson, who has previously worked with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“I was talking to (Tom) Woody and Stephen Myler they said, 'I had it done when I was 28 or 27',” Freeman said. “I was 20, that is very young, but it was definitely needed. It was a bit of loading and how much weight I'd put on. I came in quite light and lanky, needed to put a bit of weight on to match the physicality, and I did in quite a short space of time. In two years I went from 83kg to 99kg, the load and pressure on the knees didn't help, but it was worth doing. I'm feeling good now post-operation.”