Freddie Burns knows all too well what it feels like to be feted as the golden boy of English rugby. For a good while, he was every romantic’s choice as a swashbuckling, fearless fly-half at Gloucester.
Now that next bright young thing mantle has shifted to Henry Slade, of Exeter, as Burns’s fortunes rose and then fairly dramatically fell.
Last season, he found himself excommunicated at Gloucester, his hometown club, after signing for Leicester, although he did rather improbably start two England matches against New Zealand in the summer tour.
Even once he arrived at Welford Road, the 24-year-old largely found himself on the bench behind Owen Williams until the Welshman suffered a knee injury at the start of February.
Since then Leicester have embarked on a five-game winning run in the league with Burns at the controls.
Against Exeter on Saturday, Burns kicked seven from seven for an individual haul of 20 points as Leicester won 25-18. His kicking from hand was similarly excellent bar an unfortunate punt that went out on the full allowing Exeter the field position from which they snatched a bonus point.
That aberration apart, Burns was a model of calm consistency. Risky options were shunned, corners kicked to and control exerted in a performance that was the antithesis of his Gloucester days.
“As I was growing up, I was applauded for my flamboyancy and not quite my game management,” Burns said.
“To be out there today managing the game and taking my points was very pleasing. I still want to bring a bit more of that edge that I have got, but for me the pleasing thing is that my foundations are strong at the minute.
“I always believed that I had that game in the locker, it was just being able to showcase it. The boys up front did a good job for me today in terms of giving me an opportunity to play the corners. I was happy to steer the team around the park and kick my goals when I needed to.”
Slade, meanwhile, had a mixed bag. He struggled with his place kicking in the swirling gusts at Welford Road, failing to convert Thomas Waldrom’s try in front of the posts in one instance while attempting a penalty from a full 60 metres, the audacity of which drew a smattering of applause.
That was the bad part of his game. The good parts, however, were very good. His passing was crisp throughout and his line break led to a try by Will Chudley, his half-back partner.
The key period in the game came around the half-hour mark when Leicester, 6-3 ahead, resisted 27 phases of Exeter pressure.
Three penalties then took Leicester clear and even after Waldrom burrowed over against his ex-employers, Geoff Parling’s try against his future employers ensured Exeter would only earn a losing bonus point when they forced a scrum penalty at the death. The victory propelled Leicester into the top four. Saracens are next up and Burns cannot wait.
“As a team we want these big challenges to bring the best out of us going into the run in,” Burns said.
“It is going to be tough but we have gone five wins on the bounce now playing pretty ugly rugby, but winning and that’s all that matters. We can go down there full of confidence and give it a crack.”